Four years ago, my Valentine’s Day was proving so non-eventful that I had Sky Sports News on the background as I made the dinner. I remember vividly rushing into my front room as the anchor broke off from something else to introduce ‘breaking news from Craven Cottage’ and being completely baffled. I burned my previously lovingly-tended to potatoes as Felix Magath was announced as the new Fulham manager – and that was the first in a long line of things I could blame the eccentric German for.
On paper, it seemed a sound appointment. Magath had a record of real achievement in Germany and had also developed a reputation as something of a relegation-averting specialist. Two members of the Wolfsburg side with whom he won a third Bundesliga title in 2009 – Sascha Riether and Ashkan Dejagah – were part of the Fulham squad and it was clear after the Sheffield United debacle that Rene Meulensteen wasn’t the man to lift Fulham clear of the Premier League drop zone. The problem, of course, was that Magath’s methods and approach to management was completely alien to the squad he inherited – and the man himself wasn’t about to go out of his way to get his new players onside.
The madness that took place at Motspur Park during the German’s brief tenure at the helm of London’s oldest football club has already been well documented elsewhere, especially the suggestion that Brede Hangeland should place cheese soaked in alcohol on his injured thigh and call his mother. Perhaps more damaging to Fulham’s long-term prospects was the fact that, following that incident, the long-serving Hangeland was allowed to leave Craven Cottage – being told that contract negotiations had ended in an email – just at the time that the Whites would need a dominant centre back in the Championship. An indication of just how madcap Magath’s methods went down also came in the abrupt departure of Stephen Lewis, who left to join Brighton and Hove Albion.
Magath also quickly froze out a number of players who could have been pivotal to the club’s future. Bryan Ruiz, Maarten Stekelenburg, Fernando Amorebieta and Kostas Mitroglou trained on their own – in complete isolation from the rest of the squad – and their fellow players were warned that speaking to them was not allowed. Then there was the time that Magath fined two first-year scholars £20,000 for turning up late for training. This prompted Scott Parker to try and reason with the manager. When Magath insisted that the fines were staying in place, the-then Fulham captain paid them himself.
The manager’s approach to training was also highly irregular. He occasionally reacted to defeats by staging 90-minute matches unannounced the following morning or instigating three heavy fitness sessions – all comprised of continuous running – a day. Jean Tigana’s double training sessions took some getting used to, but players bought into the Frenchman’s ideas when they saw the positive impact on their own performances and results. If anything, Magath’s Fulham team went backwards.
Magath was certainly innovative in terms of his team selection. Lewis Holtby, who reportedly when to senior club officials and asked to be sent back to Tottenham the day after Magath’s arrival after clashing with the coach as a young player in Germany, was Fulham’s creative hub under Meulensteen but he was left out and then dragged off midway through the first half at Stoke City, with the Whites behind in a game they had to win to keep their hopes of beating the drop alive. Magath had previously devoted half of a pre-match press conference lambasting Holtby for not showing enough energy or desire. It wasn’t exactly the best way of motivating one of your key players.
Of course, much worse treatment was meted out to young Dan Burn, who had been magnificent at Old Trafford under Meulensteen. The left footed, 6ft6in centre back was shifted to right back at the Britannia Stadium by Magath and promptly roasted by Oussama Assaidi. He begged the Stoke winger to stop tormenting him during the game as Fulham were hammered 4-1 and their relegation was confirmed. In the dressing room afterwards, Magath hammered Burn for his ineptitude and then promptly ostracised the young defender from the first-team picture under the very end of his reign.
That was just the start of #FelixBingo. From the beginning of Fulham’s time in the Championship, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason behind the German’s team selections. At Ipswich on the opening day, Magath’s starting eleven included eight debutants with Cameron Burgess, another tall, promising, youth centre back played as a holding midfielder. He had ditched senior professionals like goalkeeper David Stockdale and experienced midfielder Steve Sidwell – who later won promotion with Brighton – preferring to bring in the likes of Adil Chihi, Mark Fotheringham and Thomas Eisfeld, none of whom were remotely good enough for the level of football they were asked to play. Magath fastracked a number of the club’s talented youngsters but several never recovered from their brief taste of first-team action.
Of course, dissent wasn’t tolerated during the Magath regime. There was a suspicion that the German coach, viewed as a deeply unpleasant man by many people who had decades of experience in English and European football, promoted the youngsters because they would more easily bend to his will than senior players. That attitude extended far beyond the training pitch. Members of the media who questioned Magath’s decision making were frequently subjected to the grinning German grilling his inquisitor about their own footballing record whilst recalling his own achievements. Memorably, one reporter who wanted to understand why Magath’s training methods were not proving successful was repeatedly asked whether he knew ‘Raul or Rakitic’ until he had to concede, ‘not personally’.
It was a bizarre experience being at Nottingham Forest for Magath’s last match. Poor old Shaun Hutchinson, now proving that he belongs at this level with Millwall, was in and out of the side – often playing alongside another central defensive partner. He was sent off before half time and, when Fulham staged a comeback from 2-0 down to lead 3-2, several fans worried that should the Whites’ hold on, it might earn Magath a stay of execution. A late collapse at the hands of Britt Assombalonga condemned Fulham to another defeat and the foot of the table, before the German was finally dispensed with the following day.
Magath’s reign was madness writ large. I understand that many Fulham fans might still view Kit Symons’ managerial capabilities with some skepticism, but the former Fulham defender did superbly to pull the club out of the mess he found them in once Magath had moved on.