Mousa Dembele returns to Craven Cottage this afternoon as an integral part of a Tottenham Hotspur team that, despite a few recent setbacks, have established themselves as one of the best sides in the country. Reflecting on the Belgian’s remarkable consistency, it is easy to wonder what might have been were Fulham able to hold onto the prodigious talent in the summer of 2012 – and how the Whites’ fortunes might have been different. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the decline under Martin Jol can be dated back to the moment when Dembele decided to make his way to White Hart Lane.
I remember vividly my very first glimpse of a pacey forward who had been on Fulham’s radar for about 18 months. The deal to bring twinkle-toed Dembele was finally completed when Mark Hughes had taken control at the Cottage, but the initial scouting assessments on the man who was making waves at AZ under Louis van Gaal were ordered by Roy Hodgson. Dembele helped to change the course of a topsy-turvy contest against Manchester United on a baking August afternoon at the Cottage, coming on as a substitute and immediately embarking on a jinking run that bamboozled Nemenja Vidic, before scoring his first goal against Micky Adams’ Port Vale in the League Cup and creating both goals with splendid runs and passes at Blackpool the following weekend.
It was clear that Fulham had a real prospect on their hands. His inaugural season was badly disrupted by injury, after he was roughed up by Stoke in the dying minutes of a League Cup tie at the Britannia Stadium, but he return to score a mesmeric individual goal against Spurs in the FA Cup, running half the length of the field with the ball at the feet after already terrifying Michael Dawson into conceding a penalty. Perhaps Jol’s only moment of tactical genius whilst in south west six came in coverting Dembele, whose shooting was always a little erratic, into a deep-lying central midfielder, where he could best showcase his strength, pace, ability to beat a man and pick a pass. He seemed a natural from the first time he appeared there, in a Christmas derby at Stamford Bridge, when he dominated Chelsea’s packed midfield without skipping a beat.
For a while, the Diarra-Dembele-Dempsey axis appeared unstoppable, especially when the Belgian finished a flawless move of countless passes to inflict more misery on already battered Wolves side late in the season, and such style seemed as it though might fire Fulham to new heights. Looking back, it is remarkable that Fulham managed to hold onto someone of Dembele’s breathtaking individual talent for quite so long. The vultures were circling by the summer of 2011 and, tantalisingly, the Wiljrik-born dynamo turned in some of his best performances in his final weeks at the club. He was outstanding in the opening day demolition of Norwich City – and Sir Alex Ferguson laughed when I implored him to ‘keep your hands off Mousa’ when he arrived on another scouting expedition before that game. Ferguson was certainly worried when Dembele’s raids from deep in the second half threatened to spoil Robin van Persie’s Old Trafford debut a week later and it was a devastating blow when Daniel Levy arrived with a bid that matched the midfielder’s release clause towards the end of the transfer window.
There was never any doubt that Dembele would go onto greater things at White Hart Lane, even if some of his attacking attributes have been curbed by becoming more of a functional part of Tottenham’s midfield. His grace in possession, balletic movement, reading of the game and underrated strength mark him out still as one of the most unheralded midfielders in the top division. A mark of the class of the man came when he returned to the Cottage for the first time for a fixture that Spurs strolled through, with Clint Dempsey taking some serious opprobrium after the way in which he engineered his own exit. In contrast to the Texan, Dembele received a warm reception and, in an understated gesture of his own appreciation, turned to applaud the Hammersmith End first as he taken off during the second half.
It remains to be seen whether Dembele, who had some harsh words of criticism for both himself and his team-mates after their Europa League loss to Ghent on Thursday night, will start on his return to Fulham this afternoon or if Mauricio Pochettino will shuffle his pack as Spurs continue to compete on three fronts. What isn’t in doubt is the nature of the reception he will receive when he finally makes an appearance. Thanks for those all too fleeting memories, Mousa.