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It’s The Hope That Kills You

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After Rene’s first game, our new man in charge pronounced the importance of succeeding in ‘winning the fans back’ after a valiant effort against Tottenham in which we were unlucky to lose. We played with pace, width, tenacity, intensity, and with the ‘new manager bounce’ cliche thoroughly disproved by statistics, it was reasonable to hope we might actually be able to turn around our dreadful performances and season. We followed that up with a win at Villa, pushed Everton and City hard before nabbing our third away win of the season up at Norwich.

However, in the four league games we’ve played in the last four weeks, our season has descended back in to farce. A crushing defeat at home to Sunderland – appointing Poyet doesn’t seem so foolish now, eh – and second half collapses in the three subsequent games, including the unforgivable miscarry last Saturday, have left us bottom of the table. Our football has lost spark, and our squad mentality is weak. Defensively, we have no shape or organisation or thought, and going forward we’ve recovered the incoherent messiness that put us here in the first place. Pulis, much to his credit, has demonstrated the virtues of defensive solidity at the bottom (as Roy did a few seasons ago). He is wildly overachieving with a Palace side bereft of quality by constructing a way of playing that has yielded clean sheets in half of his league games. Conversely, we’ve kept one in twelve, conceding 29 in the process. When we do go forward, we can’t convert our chances, and when our performances inevitably dip in the second half there is a similarly inevitable collapse that follows us around like an unwanted shadow.

So, all the work Rene put in to ‘winning the fans back’ has been undone. We’ve removed our wingers (Holtby and Dempsey on the flanks Saturday? Resigning Dempsey, by the way, has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster), and play a terrible 4-3-3/4-4-1-1 hybrid. It just isn’t working, despite the monotonous rhetoric being put out from the Fulham PR staff (“OUR SEASON STARTS HERE”, “EVERY GAME IS A CUP FINAL”, “STAY POSITIVE”). I want it to work for Rene, I really do, and maybe the introduction of Wilkin’ ideas was where it predictably became ponderous, but the longer this goes on the longer our  management staff look wholly incompetent. Jol’s stamp on the squad has been thoroughly dismantled with our late January business, so let’s see how it works. But I fear for Fulham – and so does anyone else who watches us play.

LRCN

“Welcome Back Clint Dempsey!” – Defender Lets Slip Imminent Transfer

As has been speculated in the media the past few days, it seems as if Clint Dempsey is returning to Fulham. While out celebrating Christmas/the move, German defender Sascha Riether posted the following picture on Instagram:

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captioning it “Welcome back Clint Dempsey” – even adding a filter for good measure.

So it looks like we’ll have the American on our books once again. Responsible for one of the greatest goalscoring feats in recent Fulham history with 23 hit in the 2011/12 season, the loss of Dempsey and Dembele in widely regarded as the beginning of the end of Jol’s reign at Fulham.

What role will he fill though? He’ll only be here until March, when the MLS season will start up again, and playing him would upset the balance of a team which is playing the best that they have done for quite a while, whether it’d be on the left side or behind the striker (he is much more effective on the left, so hopefully there). However, one thing he will definitely add is that predatory touch, an instinct to get in to goalscoring positions – and that spark to create them from nothing too. That’s a touch we’ve been missing, really, since he left, and so I see no harm in the move.

Dempsey has some making up to do too. He left in bitter circumstances, petulance and ego ahoy, before pushing through a deadline day move to Spurs. It’s been pretty much downhill from there, and I wonder if he is another player on a long list to show that the grass isn’t always greener away from Fulham, especially when Tottenham is involved. I wonder if that will play on his mind, and he will be more determined than usual to compensate for his infamous exit.

Either way, if this is to be confirmed, then welcome back Clint Dempsey indeed!

LRCN

Things Are Bad At Fulham, But The Only Way Is Up

So, almost inevitably and as predicted by the man himself, Martin Jol has been sacked as Fulham manager less than 24 hours after Saturday’s defeat against West Ham. It followed a run of six successive losses (in all competitions), the climax to an abysmal run of form which included eighteen defeats in twenty four and a points return of around 35 from the last 38 games (estimated from the data a couple of weeks ago). Jol had always been a little sullied, but the aura of resignation that emanated from him in every press conference of the last few weeks seemed to turn this into a self-fulfilling prophecy anyway. Rarely are managers so defeated before their game has even finished.

To be honest, we’ve been playing so badly that it all seemed inevitable. Like a particle within the Schwarzschild radius, we were being sucked in to a black hole by the end of Jol’s, a rut from which there was no escape; even with the addition of renowned coach Rene Muelensteen things failed to improve.

And there’s just so much wrong with Fulham at the moment. There’s nothing to celebrate in the senior team at all. I won’t elaborate because it’s been done exhaustively before by anyone who has a word to say about Fulham, but everything from the lack of cohesion going forward to the abysmal defensive shape and organisation, about as much pattern in our play as the store layout of Holland & Barrett (you shouldn’t have to spend 20 minutes looking for wheatgerm), a complete failure to integrate the best youth team in England in to our first team squad outside of Europa League qualifiers, team lineups which chop-and-change arbitrarily, dropping players for no apparent reason, exiling others for no apparent reason, a team playing too individually, an unbalanced squad… There is a lot of Jol’s tenure in the last 13 months that is utterly baffling, and we are left with a team with no resolve, completely mismanaged.

And I say the last 13 months, because for a time Jol’s Fulham was quite gorgeous to watch. We put 5+ goals past teams 4 times within between October ’11-August ’12, and he gave us a wonderful double over QPR with some nice wins over the bigger teams too (we won at Anfield! What dreams are made of!). Our run of form after signing Pogrebnyak and Diarra was truly sparkling. It was why I was willing to give him time after an indifferent second season, to work out what our established norm was, and I don’t think I was being deluded or an apologist in doing that. It’s just a shame that we settled on ridiculous rather than sublime, and actually I would have gotten rid of him after the Cardiff game. Realistically, we should be grateful that we are on 10 points already, and not below Palace. We’ve had three wins in ever so fortunate circumstances, and the only game I can think of that we deserved to win over 90 minutes was West Brom at home – a game in which they scored from a last minute set piece, and can you think of a goal that sums up our current predicament more right now?

How about things outside of Jol’s control? Is he entirely to blame? Probably not. As I say, in the first season, we looked set for something special. Dembele and Diarra were blossoming as a partnership, and probably remains the most complete central midfield Fulham has ever had, most certainly one of the best in the League at the time. Dempsey, playing left midfield, broke all sorts of scoring records. Frei had broken through, and Kacaniklic was on his way up through the Fulham ranks too. But then Dempsey, desperate for Champions League football, moved to… Spurs… and then the US… while Dembele had an offer he couldn’t refuse from Tottenham also. Diarra’s loyalties were misplaced, and got injured with yet another career-defining knee injury which it looks unlikely he’ll ever recover from. The £22m from the Double D sale was not invested fully back in to the squad as it should have been, and with a team as old as ours we needed to go through a Milan-esque revamp of the squad. That didn’t happen. (And what was the point of appointing Muelentseen to work with Jol, then sacking Jol 17 days later? Why not just do it then and there?)

But our players are not so bad that we can’t manage a shot on target away at West Ham who were level on points going in to the game, or get outshot 20-6 in almost every game this season. You do not have to be of a certain standard of player to give commitment, and demonstrate an understanding of each other and themselves on the pitch. Those are universal qualities that are expected in every football team, from Barcelona to the Unibet divisions, and those qualities were wholly absent for far too long.

So, what now? I can’t work out if Muelensteen is our new permanent manager, it’s all a little vague and we are hearing different things depending on who you speak to. I am apprehensive because of his abysmal management of Brondby, but hopefully 6 years at United have learnt a little bit on how to deal with players. There’s no doubt he’s a good coach, but I would be much more comfortable with someone above him – a Director of Football even, who can produce a cohesive plan and comprehensive identity throughout the club. Perhaps Huw Jennings should get a little more influence too. If we DO go down, then we are in a good position to adapt well to the Championship, with a great Academy and plenty of high-earners contracts running down this summer.

However, we are at a pit now where we are playing so badly that we cannot play any worse, surely. And then by definition, things can only get better. I have not enjoyed Fulham for a long time now, and I am desperate that we have something to excite us on the pitch, a bit of verve, fight, some reason to get out of our seat.

Finally, while I feel it was needed, it gives me no pleasure at all to see Jol get sacked. On a personal level, I don’t have a problem with him. He always spoke honestly I feel (maybe a little too honest at times, as I alluded to at the beginning), and he seems like an affable kind of guy who left with dignity, wishing the club well. And so I will have to say, some of the way us fans have acted towards him have been nothing short of disgraceful. Things got far too personal. Like how some fans would literally stop calling him by name, and prefer to use “FDM” (Fat Dutch Mess, but considering the belly of some of them I’d be careful about throwing stones in glass houses). “Dutch c***” was another popular one. At West Ham on Saturday, one fella behind me spent the last 20 minutes calling Ruiz and other Fulham supporters “spineless gayboys”, and sitting near Dan was someone who chanted “Muslims out!” at Taarabt. And I mean, really? Really? We want to call ourselves a dignified family club, when we act like this? This is what we have become? Like parodies of playground characters? It was not a negligible minority either – or the ‘younger generation’, as some’d like you to believe. This isn’t some kind of precious rant demonstrating how delicate I am, but our football club is sacred, and while things on the pitch have been next to awful, it is the behaviour among the supporters that really turned me off. I feel like we lost a bit of the soul that made Fulham. Rich hit the name on the head in his article when he spoke about people who want ‘our Fulham back’. This is our Fulham. Through thick and thin. So by all means, pass judgement on Jol’s managerial ability, or the players competence on the pitch. But at the end of the day, football is not worth sacrificing dignity and integrity, is it?

Onwards and upwards.

LRCN

What does Meulensteen mean for Fulham?

Meulensteen worked alongside Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United

With Martin Jol’s Fulham performing desperately poorly and a trend of rolling over with no tactical cohesion emerging ever more profoundly over recent weeks, many had expected a new man taking charge at Motspur Park by the time we had returned from the international break. Even I, as someone who had supported Jol for the majority of the last 12 months, had decided we needed change urgently, as the fundamental problems and disconnect between coaching, management and performances manifested embarrassingly in our recent high profile games (no doubt why the media has finally picked up on just how poor we are, but they have really sunk their teeth in to Jol over the last week or two – deservedly).

And yet, Fulham made an announcement that appeared to strengthen Jol’s place as manager with the addition of ex-Manchester United coach Rene Meulensteen. Unless the new man decides to stage a coup, it appears that he is there to support Jol and help solve all the issues we are having. Firstly, credit to the club for the appointment. Meulensteen is no idiot, in fact he is a coach of immense calibre and has been celebrated by many top players at United (for example, Van Persie called him the best coach he has ever worked with). A lot of the progress Ronaldo made from petulant winger to the greatest goalscoring threat currently playing football can be credited to Meulensteen, and with the amount of ability we have at youth level I am excited at the prospect of Meulensteen working with them to help nurture and develop their talent. Moreover, as we have seen too much in the near past, there appears to be a distinct lack of constructive coaching – there is no pattern to our play either defensively or offensively, no well drilled shapes or worked moves, just 11 individuals out there on the pitch. You would hope that this area will now be addressed.

I think there’s also a great plus that we will have a strong personality in the changing room. Meulensteen has not been quiet about his ambitions to become a manager of his own, and maybe this is too simple to make the connection but arguably our collapse started with Ray Lewington’s influence dissipated a couple of months in to last season. Surely someone else having a word in Jol’s ear can only be a good thing.

It’s not all good however, While Meulensteen has been praised for his coaching ability, there have been some quite concerning words about his management over in Denmark. Rich over at CCN has a nice little excerpt for you to read, so while I am glad Meulensteen is here as a coach I’d prefer it stayed that way, even if Jol were to leave when his contract expires this summer.

So, on the whole, the addition of Meulensteen means good for Fulham I predict. But what will it mean for Jol? Well, I’m not sure how far Meulensteen’s influence will stretch. Jol must trust him to take care of the coaching if he is going to employ him as a head coach, but tactically will he have any authority? He will have an opinion no doubt – and an informed one worth listening to at that – but I imagine it is up to Jol’s discretion. Similarly, could he take responsibility for promoting youth players (an issue that is apparently some source of disharmony at the club)? Or how about transfer targets, with Jol citing a desire to play 4-3-3 before spending all summer trying to get Darren Bent one such baffling example. Or fitness (Taarabt?! How can someone who runs all day every day be so chunky?)?

I think that to get a coach of this calibre, Jol must have played a part as he has done with all of our more high profile players signed under his tenure, and I think we will see some improvement in the way we play. However, I do feel that some more broader issues will remain until we pass over the head of management completely. Either way, a big welcome to Meulensteen, who has injected some optimism in to Fulham Football Club at a time where there’s very little to celebrate.

LRCN

Stek In, Stock Out

So, if David Stockdale’s tweet is anything to go by he won’t be starting against Palace tonight.

It’s tough on the Englishman, who hasn’t done too much wrong any time he’s gotten a run in the team but always finds himself dropped for whoever our allotted number one is at the time. He never takes it well either, and is always quick to share his disappointment on social networks, often before the team news has been confirmed (such as tonight). I feel that it’s harsh, and maybe Stockdale would have developed enough so that Stekelenberg wasn’t needed if he managed game time ahead of Schwarzer, but when you compare him to either keeper we had at the present he always fell short.

The worst thing for Stockdale is how his move to Hull fell through in the Summer. It was a great pity for him, as he would have found himself playing regular first team football in the Premier League, but Hull refused to stump up £3m (a fair price I think) and went out to get the cheaper option of McGregor, who I consider a liability. But what’s done is done and it seems as if Stockdale will never get a chance to stamp his authority here at Fulham.

Moving on to the new guy, Stekelenberg came with a fair bit of fanfare but, after injuring each shoulder one after the other, found himself out for two months. Not the best way to settle in to a new side, especially making some magnificent stops in our 1-0 win over Sunderland. I think that we have missed him, and maybe thin margins like the difference between Stekelenberg and Stockdale are the reason we are not doing so well – but of course our problems are a lot more fundamental than that. Still, I am looking forward to seeing him play and hopefully recapture his form that made him goalkeeper of 2012, and with a place at the World Cup up for grabs he will be looking to take the opportunity, as well as his saves, with both hands.

LRCN