Summer’s a strange time for a football fan. You should be relaxing, chucking a bit more meat on the barbeque and enjoying lazy weekends without pondering what the starting line-up might look like, but it never really works like that. There’s always a niggling doubt at the back of your mind: the redtops have been linking your star player with a move away, the manager’s reputation has gone through the roof over the last nine months and apparently he might be tempted by a big job. Then, there’s the pre-season fixtures to digest (should we get worked up about a pre-season friendly against Brentford?) and that’s all just in case you’ve forgotten it’s a World Cup year.
I thoroughly enjoyed my flick through one of the World Cup previews tucked inside the Sunday papers yesterday. One reckoned Mark Schwarzer, an Arsenal target according to the tabloids, could be the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. It’s not a bad shout – and confirms what Fulham and Middlesbrough fans have known for years. Another had John Pantsil as probably the most improved full-back in the English game. One pull-out included an interview with Dickson Etuhu and a write-up on South Africa’s chances at their own tournament (Bafana Bafana have been making quiet progress since Carlos Alberto Parreira returned to coach them) mentioned Kagisho Dikagcoi as one of the coach’s favourites. Most of the English observers were still pretty snobbish about the Americans, but that’s nothing new, is it?
I’m sure it’ll change by the time the squads are announced and we get down to business but I’m still struggling to get excited about the World Cup. Perhaps it was because Fulham’s season was one the like of which might never be seen again. All those people who told you that Europe would ruin our half were spectacularly wrong, weren’t they? Reaching the final surpassed everybody’s expectations, as Danny Murphy fully acknowledged in a Europa League review programme that I caught the tail end of on ESPN the other day, but just as impressive was the fact that Roy Hodgson was never really concerned about our survival prospects.
The fact that mid-table security was achieved in spite of another wretched season on the road was remarkable. Fulham might have saved our best away performances for Europe but there has to be a way to make us a bit more competitive away from the Cottage in the league. Hodgson still sets us sides up not to get beaten, which means we’re high on organisation but low on creativity. Plenty of the regular travellers bemoan our cautious attitude but to be a bit more adventurous away would require a different type of player pulling the strings.
And that takes us back to the hack’s favourite summer past-time: rumour-mongering. Making an educated guess on who Roy will sign is pretty difficult when you don’t have much of an idea about the budget he’s been sent to the supermarket with. The areas to strengthen are interesting. A back-up goalkeeper might be a sound investment (what with Pascal Zuberbuhler not likely to deputise for Schwarzer forever and David Stockdale still some way from overtaking the Australian), but you’d reckon Hodgson’s focus will be elsewhere. Perhaps on a new centre back to replace the departing Chris Smalling.
As much as I admire Murphy, time’s fast catching up with the Fulham skipper. On his day, he remains the best passer of a ball Fulham have, but there were signs towards the end of last season that Danny was beginning to struggle to cope with the physical demands of two games a week. Wayne Brown seems set to team up with Paul Trollope at Bristol Rovers on a permanent basis and it still remains a little fanciful to think that Jonathan Greening would be able to slot into Murphy’s shoes effortlessly. A younger playmaker who could be groomed to eventually takeover from the captain in central midfield would be ideal and, given how short we were of bodies in the engine room last season, bringing in a bit of experience as cover might not be a bad idea.
A striker must be on the wishlist too – even if I’m slowly getting over the disappointment of Nikola Zigic moving to Birmingham. Much will depend on how Roy seeks to play next season. The Zamora/Gera axis worked well in the second half of the season, but Fulham’s opponents will have seen enough of that by now to formulate a plan to nullify those threats. With Kamara and Nevland on their way out and Andy Johnson’s long-term fitness still best surmised by a question mark, a couple of goalgetters would be useful additions – although strikers don’t come cheap.
Even if the manager’s phone doesn’t stop ringing and the media try to pass over a nonsense story as news, you still get the sense that this is the calm before the storm. Anyone who’s anyone will be scouting for a new addition in South Africa and that first weekend of the season still seems years away. It’ll flash by quicker than you think.