Fulham’s first London derby of the season feels like it marks the start of the new era. Martin Jol pledged to overhaul an ageing squad after taking over from Mark Hughes at the start of the last campaign and he’s been true to his word. Even the big Dutchman would admit that he would rather have held onto Mousa Dembele and Clint Dempsey, who both shone during Fulham’s transition season, but both stepped through the exit door at Motspur Park in the final hours of the transfer window. They say the manner of his departure is the mark of man, but the way the duo took their leave of Craven Cottage, where they were both held in high regard, was markedly different.
There are few ‘businesses’ as cut-throat as football. Fans foolishly worship their idols and kid themselves into thinking that the players pulling on the shirt have something approaching a similar affection for their club. Some do, of course, but they are the rare exceptions. In the modern game, whose soul was long since sold to the faceless corporate vultures, agents are the kings and players merely commodities to be traded. The balance sheet of Fulham’s transfer activity has to be analysed in its entirety, but this correspondent has a sneaking feeling that the Whites, having held out for big money for Dembele and played hardball over Dempsey’s exit, might have come out on top.
The biggest acquisition, of course, is that of Dimitar Berbatov, whose arrival is covered in an earlier piece. Lacking match sharpness after being a bench warmer at best for Manchester United in recent times, it is perhaps asking a lot for the Bulgarian to be as a brilliant as he was at Tottenham under Martin Jol in the immediate future. Jol is confident that the mercurial striker will be able to play some part at the Boleyn Ground today and Kieran Richardson, a shrewd purchase for just £2m from Sunderland, should certainly feature. Jol has disclosed that he sees the versatile England international as more of a winger than a left back, although there is the intriguing possibility that could fill what presently seems like a gaping void in central midfield since the departures of Etuhu, Murphy and Dembele. The lively Iranian winger Ashkan Dejagah, who featured as a substitute for Wolfsburg in both legs of our Europa League quarter final, will also add pace and an understanding with Sascha Riether as well as offering serious competition for the likes of Damien Duff, Kerim Frei, Alex Kacaniklic and Simon Davies.
The immediate focus is replicating the enterprising effort at Old Trafford rather than the wretched display that saw Fulham predictably capitulate at the feet of Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup in midweek. Against a West Ham side, who Sam Allardyce has shrewdly strengthened by signing Matt Jarvis on a permanent deal and adding Andy Carroll and the returning Yossi Benayoun on loan, that will be much easier said than done. The Whites have an appalling record at Upton Park, having won just twice in twelve years. The only league success was on Fulham’s first Premier League visit in November 2001 when Sylvain Legwinski and Steed Malbranque, who incidentally should make his second debut for Lyon against Valenciennes this afternoon, and they have only managed to add an FA Cup replay success, memorable for a wonderful strike from Brian McBride, to that win since.
Allardyce will demand a response from his charges following their defeat to Swansea City last weekend and there were promising signs in the midweek win over Crewe. The spine of the Hammers’ side suggests they should easily avoid a relegation dogfight. Irons fans are yet to be convinced by Juusi Jaaskelainen, but his top flight longevity should get the experienced goalkeeper through a tricky initial spell at a new club. James Collins should start at centre back and Guy Demel, the Hamburg full-back turned inside out by Davies as the Welshman spartked that epic comeback against Hamburg, will probably be bombing down the right flank from the first whistle. West Ham’s midfield bristles with quality from the dependable Kevin Nolan to the outstanding Mark Noble and they are bolstered by the physique of Mohammed Diame.
Winning the midfield battle looks like a tall order for Fulham. It will require to Mahamadou Diarra to back to his imposing best he displayed at Old Trafford, but I’d consider partnering an additional ball-winner alongside him to match up with the hosts’ trio. My preference would be for Chris Baird, never shy of putting a foot in but with an exceptional range of passing, but if Steve Sidwell does start he’ll need to curb his tackling as he was lucky to avoid a second yellow card at Sheffield Wednesday. Keeping cool will be crucial in this fixture: there have been five red cards in the last six meetings between the sides, all shown to players who wore the black and white (Andrew Johnson, Kagisho Dikagacoi, Leon Andresen when they were representing Fulham and Paul Konchesky and Bobby Zamora during their West Ham days).
Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland, so dependable at the back in recent seasons, were given a searching examination by Manchester United’s movement last weekend. They’ll face a tough test again in a couple of hours time with new boy Andy Carroll also certain to start. He may be joined in a three-pronged front line by Carlton Cole, who has scored six goals in his last six appearances against Fulham, and they’ll seek to feed off the service by Jarvis, who sent over more top flight crosses last season than any other player. Jol will hope that Fulham’s creativity, provided by the likes of Petric and Bryan Ruiz (should they be passed fit to play), will offer a similar threat in the West Ham penalty area. It shouldn’t be boring.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Diarra; Duff, Petric, Ruiz; Berbatov. Subs: Stockdale, Kelly, Briggs, Sidwell, Kacaniklic, Rodallega, Trotta.