Perhaps it’s the fact that I wasn’t there or that the a weekend on the Côte d’Azurs till sounds supremely exotic to me. Maybe it’s the memories of how a French revolution transformed Fulham from a plodding mid-table team to one that stormed to the Premiership promised land in ten months during my teenage years. I can’t blame it on alcohol, as I can’t drink at the moment, but watching the way Fulham completely dismantled Claude Puel’s Nice, who begin their Ligue 1 campaign next weekend, last night filled me with the sort of excitement Charlie found in the chocalate factory.
It’s only pre-season and there’s an important rider to attach here. However good Fulham – and particularly Mladen Petric – have looked these summer, there are no points awarded until August 18th. The excitement of early season can soon dissipate should results leave you looking anxiously over your shoulder or a key player – like Brian McBride in 2007 – be lost to injury. But there’s definitely something building on the banks of the Thames that we’ve not seen since the Damiano, Propos and Tigana era.
Here’s what a candid Martin Jol told the July edition of Fultime about changing the pattern of play in his first year at Craven Cottage:
When I came in I knew that despite being a stylish club, at the same time we were perhaps a bit too conservative. We played in an old fashioned English way, but we had had success with that. But that wasn’t a system that I was used to. I wanted the team to become more adventurous in its approach. It was something that took a bit of time to implement too, because every time we suffered a bad resuylt or looked a bit indifferent you could sense a doubt or concern. In all honesty, the players found it tough and that was the biggest challenge – to convince them to play in a different way. I understand that, and it is something that takes time. But as I always say, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’.
People are notoriously resistant to change. As Russ Goldman has outlined here before, Jol’s tweaks to what seemed a successful side appeared initially like unecessary meddling with a winning formula. Except the innate conservatism of Roy Hodgson’s side worked whilst teams underestimated Fulham but an ageing side seemed far more predictable three years down the line. A new broom has swept away some old favourites, but Mark Hughes was similarly ruthless in sidelining both John Pantsil and Zoltan Gera.
The change of system offers an air of the unexpected. Bryan Ruiz seems a shy, sensitive type but he’s a ridiculously gifted footballer. Remember those effortless dinks over the goalkeeper against Everton and Bolton that produced gapsps of wonderment? He’s barely been fit during his year at the club and with a full pre-season behind him as well as operating in the classical number ten position behind Petric he looks like he’s ready to leave an indellible mark on English football. His free-kick against Wycombe the other week was magnificent and effortless at the same time.
Petric seems a canny replacement for Pogrebnyak, who we didn’t pay a transfer fee for either. He’s been there and done it right across Europe in a variety of positions but we knew he could find the goal spectacularly before he pulled on a Fulham shirt. He’s proved it with five in five. I thought his opener at Adams’ Park was special, until the overhead kick – eeirly reminscient of Zoltan Gera’s effort which finished off Manchester United a few years back – in Nice. Petric is more than a scorer of spectacular goals – he’s a playmaker too. Take a look at the sublime through ball that released Alex Kacaniklic for the second on the stroke of half time or the impudent backheel which Mahamadou Diarra lashed home after the break.
Diarra’s decision to make his stay at the Cottage permanent probably hastened the departures of both Murphy and Dickson Etuhu. The Malian has some CV and, even as he was returning to full match sharpness, he offered tantalising glimpses of his class towards the tail end of last season. Classy on the ball and strong in the tackle you could see why Real Madrid thought he might be able to take over from Claude Makele. If Diarra stays fit and can be paired alongside Mousa Dembele, then that’s a midfield partnership with the potential to leave the pundits purring.
But perhaps the most exciting element of Jol’s vision for Fulham is the emergence of the youngsters. Kerim Frei dazzled at Kingstonian when he wasn’t really much beyond second gear and he’s clearly been working on his strength and conditioning during the close season. Whilst everyone was raving about Frei’s impact last season, the Motspur Park talent developers were taking note of Alex Kacaniklic’s progress. The Swede has shown just why Malcolm Elias was so keen to bring him down south from Melwood and both his crossing and confident finish in France underscored his further progression since that impressive introduction to the first team after his loan spell at Watford last season.
Then there’s Mesca, the one Chelsea let go far too soon. The 19 year-old from Guinea-Bisseau scored two and made three more as he stepped up to reserve team level last season but he’s got all the attributes to follow Frei and Kacaniklic into the first team on a regular basis. Pace, trickery and confidence are there as is a cool head in front of goal. The joy that his goal, just two minutes after replacing Damien Duff in France, brought was contagious. It’s taken hold of this correspondent – and let’s hope the rest of the Fulham faithful are feeling as optimistic after three months of the real thing.