It’s almost time for all the talking to stop. You’ve had the pre-season previews, the worries about whether Fulham might even start the campaign without a permanent manager and then the frisson of excitement as you consider what Mark Hughes might bring to Craven Cottage, and now the start of it all is just around the corner once again. A new manager, a new season – and given the frenzied rumours of the last few days – there may be some interesting new signings to welcome to the squad.
The new faces won’t arrive in time to make the squad for tomorrow’s testing trip to Bolton, though. Hughes might wish to repeat last season’s opening day – a nervy victory at Portsmouth – given how rare away wins have been for the Whites in recent years, but he’ll hope to improve on that single success in nineteen attempts this time around. Wanderers, currently under the trusty stewardship of one-time striker Owen Coyle – a man who briefly mesmorised last season’s league when he inspired Burnley to a breathtaking start to their campaign, certainly won’t be a tricky opposition. Coyle has tried to harness the physicality of Bolton’s play, unfairly deemed a legacy of Sam Allardyce’s tenure at the Rebook Stadium, with some more attractive passing football and has certainly gone down better than Gary Megson with the home crowd.
They can never be described as a soft touch and are especially difficult to beat at home. Coyle’s got a strong spine to his side from the long-serving and yet still underrated Juusi Jaaskelainen in goal and Gary Cahill, perhaps unfortunate not to get a call from Capello given the supposed major surgery he was supposed to be performing on his England side after the World Cup disappointment, in central defence. Coyle’s strengthened his back four with the signing of young Real Madrid left back Marco Alonso as well.
The impressive Fabrice Muamba, who has just signed a new contract two year deal, will pull the strings in midfield and Coyle has cleverly strengthened here as well. Robbie Blake, who starred under his new manager at Burnley, has signed a one-year contract while Martin Petrov, the immensely talented Bulgarian who probably didn’t get a fair crack of the whip once Manchester City started spending all their millions, was a real capture on a Bosman. Kevin Davies will do the hard yards up front and he’ll be partnered again by Ivan Klasnic, who has joined Bolton on a permanent basis after a successful loan spell last term.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of tomorrow’s fixture will be how Fulham will line up. You wouldn’t expect too many changes from the Hodgson formula in terms of shape, especially as Hughes has yet to sign a player himself in his short time in charge, but the new manager probably won’t be as painstakingly cautious away from home. He’s nailed his colours firmly to mast and said that Fulham’s key players won’t be leaving, which would make a radical charge from Fulham’s recent transfer history, and it would be interesting to note just how Mark Schwarzer’s apparent plea for a move to Arsenal will have gone down.
The big decision will centre around who should support new England international Bobby Zamora up front. The man who was on the opposite side at Wembley on Wednesday has probably staked the most impressive claim. Zoltan Gera, who enjoyed probably as good a season as Zamora last year, fired a clear message to Hughes with an eleven-minute hat-trick in the club’s final pre-season friendly against Werder Bremen last weekend and followed that up by making Hungary’s goal in midweek, which was a nice way to end ten months in the international wilderness. You get the feeling that going with Gera would leave Clint Dempsey on the substitutes bench, but it would be almost unfathomable to break up a partnership that worked so well for most of last season.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Stockdale, Kelly, Baird, Greening, Riise, Dempsey, Elm.