On the eve of the new season, I find myself excited and nervously optimistic. It’s the sort of feeling that comes from stepping into the relative unknown.
Following 12 months that can at best be described as forgettable, and at worst unforgettable, the new season presents us all with a new horizon on which to rediscover our love of football.
Whether you are a staunch Magath-ophile, a battle hardened Mackintosh-ist or a holistic dreamer for the lost days of Hangeland and Hughes, there is just no telling where Fulham will be in 46 matches time.
After a summer of radical but necessary upheaval, we find ourselves with a new squad and a new start. German opinion divider Felix Magath has spent the last three months assembling a new, younger Fulham playing squad. Our manager has had his new charges running up and down Austrian hills and along Scottish beaches in the quest for fitness ahead of the new season, something we sorely lacked last season.
This week saw another former player criticise Magath’s strict regime. Poster boy for the footballers getting too much too soon campaign Matthew Briggs came out and slammed his former boss for having the team do extra fitness training the day after defeats. It’s hard to blame Briggs for his acrimony, being made to do any fitness work after spending so much time not playing football must have been a shock to his system.
Yet, can any of us sit here and question Magath’s methods without actually seeing the resulting product? Hardly. With the Championship schedule long and unrelenting, a young and physically fit squad filled with players who are up for the fight and who are ready to listen to their manager’s commands puts us in as good a position as we could have asked for.
Of the many players that have gone, are there any that have left you with a genuine sadness at their departure? Sidwell and Stockdale had passion and Kasami had potential, but not a single departure has left me reeling. There must surely be more exits to come, Bryan Ruiz, Kostas Mitroglou, Fernando Amorebieta, Hugo Rodallega and Marcello Trotta all appear in the shop window and could be set to join Maarten Stekelenburg in the departure lounge at Motspur Park.
Should they go, that would leave Fulham with an even thinner connection to last season’s ruinous squad, which can only be a good thing. Assembling and then moulding a new team cannot be an easy task.
We should not expect a team of players who probably couldn’t have picked each other out of a line-up four months ago to play with the proclivity of childhood friends right out of the gate. However, if these are players who want to be here and have given their all in pre-season, that is a mighty fine place to start.
Truth be told, the step into the unknown is not just our foray back into the Football League, but extends to the majority of the new signings as well. Of the nine new arrivals, only Ross McCormack is a proven commodity at Championship level. The rest all come with intrigue, promise or strong CVs. Taggart, Hutchinson, Eisfeld and Stafylidis all appear to have bright futures, while Bodurov, Voser, Hoogland and Chihi have played at the highest level overseas. How each of these takes to Championship football only time will tell, but positive signs have littered the summer.
[Since drafting this article, journeyman Mark Fotheringham has become our tenth summer arrival, signing a one-year deal after having spent pre-season on trial with the Whites. Fotheringham’s arrival is likely to provide some stern opposition for our youngsters in training as well as a squad member and veteran presence for cup and lesser fixtures.]
There is then the question of how our precociously talented crop of academy graduates takes to senior football. It appears Jesse Joronen, Marcus Bettinelli, Cameron Burgess, Jack Grimmer, Sean Kavanagh, Mesca, Lasse Vigen Christensen, Pat Roberts, George Williams, Ryan Williams, Chris David, Moussa Dembele and Cauley Woodrow have all been added to the first team group with more than a few others waiting in the wings not far behind.
The first two names on that list; Joronen and Bettinelli, are both goalkeepers, and appear to be battling it out for the Number One jersey following David Stockdale’s departure to Brighton. Joronen has starred in pre-season and Bettinelli received rave reviews on loan at Accrington Stanley in League Two last season, but how either cope with the expectation of starting at this level remains to be seen. Personally, I think both look up to the task, regardless of which of them walks out at Portman Road tomorrow night. As fans though we must remember these are two young goalkeepers and it is no use crying over spilt milk if a mistake or two is made early on.
At his press conference today, Magath came out and stated our transfer business is not yet complete. Scott Parker’s knees are unlikely to hold out for 46 games so this comes as welcome news with hopefully another central midfielder yet to be added to the squad. A player or two with experience of English football would not go amiss either.
Who will actually play tomorrow is anyone’s guess. With his squad now assembled, the weekly game of team selection Felix bingo might become a bit less random week in week out, however while new players and young players assimilate, squad rotation will probably still play a significant role.
What is certain though is that there is a new wave of optimism amongst the fans. Promotion is not guaranteed and the harsh reality of the Football League has yet to hit home, but for now, we have a fresh start. Football is back, and you couldn’t wish for any more than that.