Roy Hodgson was rewarded for Fulham’s unbeaten run in October with the Premier League’s Manager of the Month award. Whilst the gong was thoroughly well deserved recognition for the wily Hodgson’s achievements at the Cottage, some of us were worried that the curse it brings with it might bring a bad run of form at one of the most important times in the season. Perhaps Fulham’s gallant and unfortunate defeat in Rome on Thursday will have take the potential sting out of that reward.
The players have been stressing that it shouldn’t take long to get over the disappointment in the Stadio Olimpico. That’s important, because as Hodgson continually stresses, despite the obvious attractions of our European adventure, the league remains our bread and butter. That win over Liverpool last weekend carried us to within touching distance of the top half with a game in hand, but the surprise we gave Rafa Benitez will count for little if Fulham don’t deliver a strong performance at what is now known as the DW Stadium.
You have to go back to September 1992 for Fulham’s last league win at Wigan, a 3-1 success in Division Two. The Lactics have adapted very well to the Premier League, combining some silky football with a more uncomprimising approach when it is necessary. That football flourishes at all in what still remains a rugby league city is a real achievement and part of it has to be down to the philantrophy of Dave Whelan, whose deep pockets lifted Athletic up to the big time in much the same way as Mohamed Al-Fayed’s millions hastened Fulham’s ascent. The contest has come a long way since Terry Angus and Graeme Jones locked horns in their memorable battles during the mid-to-late 1990s. Some try and knock Wigan’s support as their average attendance is often among the lowest of the top flight clubs, but they forget that Wigan have only been playing league football since the late 1970s and that an 18,000 increase in their average gate between 1995 and 2008 represents real progress.
After losing Steve Bruce to Sunderland, some people felt Whelan’s appointment of former Wigan legend Roberto Martinez was a bit of gamble. Those of us who had watched Martinez’s Swansea outpass and outplay Fulham for a considerable portion of their two FA Cup ties last season – the Swans were unlucky not to progress as Bobby Zamora inspired a late Fulham comeback in the replay – recognise that the Spaniard, who brought a bit of exotic glamour to the Lactics side that pipped us to the Division Three title in 1997, has a bright future in management.
Martinez has had to contend with selling some of his best players, too, a familar tale for clubs who are continuing to try and establish themselves in the Premier League. Antonio Valencia might not have made a real impact at Manchester United this season, but the flying winger has been an outstanding contributor to Wigan’s last few campaigns. Lee Cattermole joined Bruce at the Stadium of Light in the summer and his bite in central midfield has been difficult to replace, while it must be remembered that the outstanding Wilson Palacios and England striker Emile Heskey left in January.
There’s still plenty of quality in Martinez’s squad, though. Chris Kirkland perhaps would have been an England regular if it wasn’t for his continuing injury woe. The former Chelsea defender Mario Melchiot is a consistent performer at the back and Austrian Paul Scharner, who can play either in defence or midfield, had apparently interested Hodgson in the close season. Jason Koumas, linked with a move to Fulham for many summers when he was at Tranmere, has been a scourge of the Cottagers since he joined Wigan, and one of Martinez’s most eye-catching signings at Swansea, Jordi Gomez, can prompt attacks from midfield. That’s before we even get to the dangerous Hugo Rodallega, who scored one of the goals of the season on the opening day at Aston Villa, and Jason Scotland, the man who twice beat Mark Schwarzer in those FA Cup games last year.
That means they’ll be plenty to occupy Hodgson’s mind ahead of tomorrow afternoon’s clash. Given our lack of recent success at either the DW Stadium or Springfield Park, a point starts to look like a reasonable return. Especially when you consider that the Whites will have to again do without Andy Johnson and skipper Danny Murphy. The chances of Damien Duff being risked when he has yet to fully recover from his Achilles inury appear to be scant, although Dickson Etuhu might continue in central midfield after lasting more than an hour against Roma.
Fulham have at least been scoring more goals in recent weeks as our lack of potency in front of goal had been the main reason for a sluggish start. Bobby Zamora was perhaps surprisingly left on the bench on Thursday, but surely that decision was made with this game in mind. Zamora’s physicality and willing running mean opposition centre halves are often in for a testing afternoon, though who will partner him remains to be seen. Diomansy Kamara has been the man in possession in the absence of Andy Johnson, but his participation will depend on the seriousness of the knee injury that again forced him off at half-time in midweek.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Greening, Gera, Dempsey; Zamora, Kamara. Subs: Stockdale, Smalling, Kelly, Baird, Riise, Seol, Nevland.