Suggesting that Bobby Zamora might have sparked differing opinions amongst the Fulham fanbase is like suggesting the Iraq War was controversial. You might actually accused of understating it. Zamora’s announcement this afternoon of his retirement from professional football after his aching body finally gave in to the injuries that have plagued his latter career brought to mind the many columns I wrote defending his contribution to the side Roy Hodgson was trying to build in the first season after the Great Escape – when the goals weren’t flowing and some supporters were frustrated at our new striker’s lack of potency.
In hindsight, of course, that remarkable European run ended all debate about Zamora’s effectiveness in a Fulham shirt and must secure him a pretty high place in club folklore. The memories from that magical season, from an early summer’s afternoon in Vetra, all the way through to those crucial goals in Basel, the still jaw-dropping strike against Shahktar Donetsk at a time when the holders had us right under the cosh, the way he brutalised Fabio Cannavaro to spark the unbelievable comeback against Juventus and the artfulness of his turn and cool finish in the first minute in Wolfsburg, come flooding back in droves when you consider the incongruity of what Hodgson’s band of merry men achieved that year.
Such was Zamora’s impact that he went from a man who’s finishing ability was widely ridiculed to on the cusp of the England squad for a major tournament. Only the forward’s honesty prevented him from setting aside another injury to be part of Fabio Capello’s squad for the World Cup in South Africa – and sadly another opportunity was never really forthcoming. We can only what a fully-fit Zamora could have done against Atletico Madrid in Hamburg, too, as the patched forward was nursed through sixty painful minutes in what became an unexpectedly tight and tense final. Zamora’s partnership with Andy Johnson showed signs of real promise but due to the ex-Everton forward’s misfortune with injuries we only saw flickers of what they could have mustered together – such as when the pair cut QPR to ribbons on a sunny afternoon at the Cottage in 2011.
Bobby’s goals will live long in the memory – I still vividly recall the joy of one of his last, a powerful last-minute winner against ten-man Arsenal to steal a precious win – but they really only tell part of the story. Part of Zamora’s immense value was the absolute monstering he would give some of the country’s best centre halves on a weekly basis. He relished the physical battle with a marker, getting close to him and turning him inside out, holding the ball, shielding possession and buying precious seconds of respite for our defence, and on his day few had any answers. His powerful performances were integral to Fulham’s outstanding home record for the duration of Hodgson’s tenure – and he completely dominated the Manchester United and Liverpool defences in several memorable Craven Cottage victories.
Strikers might be judged ultimately on the goals they scored, but you only had to listen to Zamora’s team-mates testimony about how important his all-round play was to see there was more to it than putting away chances. Zamora’s strength, hold up play and his ability to locate nearby team-mates with a clever pass or a switch of play was one of the major reasons why Fulham’s season didn’t go off the rails when Johnson was ‘literally banjoed’ by an Amkar Perm defender – and played a massive part of the emergence of Zoltan Gera as a very modern ‘number ten’ in the revamped 4-4-1-1 system. The pair struck an almost telepathic understanding that was perfectly suited to the continental game as Fulham surprised everyone by reaching Hamburg twice in 2010.
For all of Zamora’s spirit on the pitch, you got the sense he was a sensitive soul. You didn’t need to be a physiologist to interpret the sub-text to his frequent riposte to his Hammersmith End critics during his goalscoring celebrations in the early days and he always seemed to play better when he had a point to prove or a score to settle with an opponent. You can quibble with the manner of his eventual departure after a fall-out with Martin Jol, but there was little doubt that Zamora left it all out on the field – especially after that horror tackle from Karl Henry which horrifically broke his leg and robbed him of some of that crucial acceleration and strength.
Both Zamora and John Pantsil, who arrived in a combined deal from West Ham that was derided by the tabloids for the money Fulham splashed on two ‘misfits,’ became cult heroes at the Cottage. Their personalities had much to do with it, even if the eccentric Ghanaian’s seemed far more sunnier than Bobby’s. But Zamora’s contribution to Fulham’s most successful side is immense and for the multitude of memories – never likely to be replicated by one of our sides again – he deserves all our gratitude. As one of a rare breed, a modern footballer with a social conscience (he has a social housing enterprise with his former West Ham team-mates and has taken a leading role in the development of Sadiq Khan’s plans to tackle the London housing crisis), he also deserves recognition well beyond the profession he leaves behind. Thanks for everything, Bobby.