There’s a way to see Fulham’s August activity as a continuation of the old frustrating norms. The pessimists will proclaim that the Whites are once again a selling club, having seen two of the ‘star’ players Martin Jol would have liked to keep depart for White Hart Lane in the dying days of the transfer window. In truth, there was little Jol – or anyone else – could have done once Spurs decided to shell out big money for Mousa Dembele, who was professional until the end, and undoubtedly values his time at Craven Cottage. Sadly, you can’t say the same about Clint Dempsey, but Jol’s handling of that drawn out saga was nigh on faultless and secured three times as much as Tottenham paid for Steed Malbranque six years ago.
If you’re sentimental, there’s bound to be some upset about the way the side that carried the Whites all the way to Hamburg (twice) a few years ago has drifted apart. Dickson Etuhu made an ill-advised foray into the goings on at Craven Cottage in the wake of Dembele’s exit and it is certainly true that the likes of Zoltan Gera and Danny Murphy are still good enough to perform in the Premier League – witness the Hungarian’s superb strike against Liverpool on the opening day of the season. But football has become so money driven over the past two decades and the balance has tilted away from the clubs towards individuals and agents, that there won’t be another Johnny Haynes. Managerial merry-go-rounds mean that the new coach more often than not has a different set of ideas to their predecessor and wants to bring in players they trust to make the preferred system successful.
Not even the most ardent of Fulham fans would have dared to dream that the Whites would spend twelve years in the top flight after the flowing football inspired by Jean Tigana, Christian Damiano and Roger Propos swept the Cottagers to the Championship summit. It is astonishing that only three times during that the period has our position amongst English football’s elite being seriously threatened – and each time a swift managerial change has delivered safety. It looked a big ask to deliver self-sufficiency down by the Thames when the club’s remarkable revival was largely funded by Mohamed Al-Fayed’s millions, but under the careful stewardship of Alistair Mackintosh, Fulham have managed it.
After Dembele’s departure, the majority of Fulham fans were desperate for a high-profile replacement, but towards the end of a transfer window prices are inflated, and value is terribly difficult to find. For a club that is trying to live now within its means, shrewd investment isn’t just something that is desirable, it is essential. Splashing the cash might finance fleeting success but it could lead to the kind of long-term nightmare that supporters of Leeds United and Portsmouth have had to experience. Before the Al-Fayed takeover, Micky Adams once told a journalist he was shopping ‘for bargains in Woolworths rather than Harrods’ and, given that the Brompton Road store is no longer in the Fulham chairman’s hands, this remains an appropriate metaphor.
Taking the advent of Financial Fair Play and Jol’s fast-tracking of some seriously impressive talent – like Alex Kacaniklic, Kerim Frei, Matthew Briggs and Tom Donegan – into consideration, Fulham’s acquisition of Dimitar Berbatov is a serious statement of intent. Four years ago, we had the man Jimmy Bullard, who has just signed for the Franchise (by the way, if ever a player and a ‘club’ deserve each other it’s those two), christened ‘Bobatov’ up front:
Bobby’s a great player; I call him ‘Bobatov’. He’s a proper footballer. He has a silky touch and he can pull it out of the air – that’s what he’s all about. He’s a big, strong, physical lad as well.
Bullard was right and Roy Hodgson coaxed the best of a forward who had all the attributes to succeed but struggled for confidence in front of goal. Zamora didn’t fit Jol’s model of a more mobile lone striker who could stretch a defence with movement rather than brute strength and power and he moved on. Few expected that six months later we’d replace the man cheekily nicknamed after the brooding Bulgarian with the man himself, who seems more of an artist than a footballer. Berbatov’s capture is a serious statement of intent and after four frustrating years at Old Trafford, he’s happy to be reunited with the man who brought him to English football in the first place:
Fulham have always struggled for goals during their time in the top flight. The men who’ve regularly found the net have quickly moved on – the two best examples being Louis Saha and Dempsey – but Jol’s new-look side has plenty of attacking flair. Damien Duff’s started the season like a man with a point to prove after the Republic of Ireland’s early exit from Euro 2012 and with Bryan Ruiz looking far sharper after a full pre-season behind him there’s plenty of guile to unlock even the best defences. Mladen Petric has begun the season brilliantly and he might prove even more dangerous from the deeper or wider position he prefers.
Berbatov certainly whets the appetite: the mere statistics are enough to make you salivate in anticipation. He scored 26 goals in 51 appearances for CSKA Sofia before managing 76 strikes in 181 games for Bayer Leverkusen and hitting 44 goals in 102 appearances at White Hart Lane. Even as an increasingly bit-part player at Manchester United, Berbatov found the net with regularity. He played 149 games under Sir Alex Ferguson – 41 of them from the bench – and scored 57 goals, including an impudent back heel at the Putney End last winter. I still have to pinch myself to make sure the prospect of Berbatov wearing the white shirt isn’t one of my very vivid dreams.