If one game epitomised the desperate nature of Fulham’s winter slump, it came at Loftus Road on December 15. Leaving that ground, Fulham’s home in name only for a couple of seasons before their return home almost a decade ago, after watching a performance hardly worthy of the name was a desolate experience. Spineless, supine, sacrificial: several synonyms could sum it up. Fulham were wretched and meekly surrendered in a second half that unfortunately isn’t forgettable.
The sight of Adel Taraabt, who famously sought a quick getaway from Craven Cottage after being substituted at half time in last season’s 6-0 drubbing, dribbling through the remnants of a lackadaisical Fulham defence to score QPR’s second, winning a loose ball from Brede Hangeland just past the half way line, will send a shiver down my spine for years to come. For me, it wasn’t so much that QPR had secured their first league win of the season and glimpsed survival after the poorest start in Premier League history, but that Fulham were so devoid of fight, passion and spirit. It seemed fitting that Mladen Petric’s deflected strike came too late – it was almost an apologetic afterthought.
Rivalry for me didn’t come into it, although it certainly will have bothered others. I grew up with a raging dislike of Brentford, who were a division above Fulham when I first started visiting Craven Cottage regularly and had aspirations of climbing higher, while Chelsea feel like more natural geographical rivals these days. Passions will rise in anticipation of Monday’s return fixture for many, however. 1983 still lingers long in the memory, an abject 3-1 defeat securing the Second Division title for Rangers, and the deathly phrase ‘Fulham Park Rangers’ should serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come in the years since Fulham conjured up images of the halcyon days of the 60s, the 1975 Cup final and the latter stages of Bobby Moore and George Best’s careers.
More recently, of course, the fortunes of the two clubs have been inextricably linked. From Mark Hughes’ own ‘ambition’ to that of Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson, there’s been a fair bit of traffic travelling down the Askew Road towards Shepherds Bush. Hughes’ departure from the Cottage looks more and more like a moment of hubris that might prove one of his biggest managerial miscalculations – his time at Loftus Road saw an expensively assembled squad plumb depths that few pundits could have predicted in the summer – while his two striking recruits have endured uncomfortable injury-plagued spells at their new club. Andy Johnson’s lack of fitness was the reason why Fulham were unwilling to extend his contract, while Lorcan’s already adequately covered the subject of Zamora’s return.
Monday’s meeting assumes massive significance for QPR as Harry Redknapp runs out of games to prove he can still claim his Houdini mantle. It goes without saying that Rangers badly need a win, even though they’ve climbed off the foot of the table thanks to Arsenal’s pummeling of Reading on Saturday, but the importance of the fixture for Fulham shouldn’t be understated. Jol’s side have quietly crept towards the top half of the table – and as both Swansea and West Brom stumble ahead of them – there’s a slim chance that Fulham could climb even higher. The Whites have acquired the handy habit of finishing seasons strongly in recent years – and Monday’s game offers the rare opportunity to clinch consecutive London derby wins following the defeat of Tottenham before the international break.
Victory tomorrow night would prove cathartic for a number of the Fulham faithful. It shouldn’t be taken for granted, however. QPR do have the ability to score goals – Redknapp’s capture of Loic Remy and Zamora’s return to fitness have offered the strugglers a striking threat that they had previously lacked. If Fulham can console themselves that the mercurial talent of Taraabt might start on the bench, they’ll face a physical and explosive partnership in the shape of the French forward and a man whose ability to infuriate central defenders we know all about.
In their media comments in the build up to this game, it seems as though both Jol and the players have got the message. They seemed lacklustre and leaden-footed at Loftus Road. It wasn’t good enough. There’s a score to settle this time – and a few psychological scars to repair.