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Up next: Tottenham Hotspur (h)

Optimism abounds again at Craven Cottage after a battling point – that might have been more – at Stamford Bridge in midweek. A much more assured defensive display than in the deflating defeat by Sunderland or up at Stoke underpinned an excellent Fulham effort and, without Brede Hangeland as the captain completes his three-match suspension, the Whites will need to be similarly disciplined against the Spurs forward line this afternoon. The derby draw actually saw Martin Jol’s side slip to their lowest league position of the season and the point against the not-so-noisy neighbours will count for little if Fulham fail to discover the impressive home form that has been the foundation of their recent success.

It won’t be easy. Tottenham have won the last five league fixtures between the sides – and you have to go back to November 2008 when Heurelho Gomes helpfully threw in a shot from Simon Davies for the last time Fulham took all three points on a day when Harry Redknapp also suffered his first defeat as Spurs’ manager. After a stuttering start under Andre Vilas-Boas there are signs that Tottenham are beginning to play as the Portuguese would prefer. An excellent win over Liverpool in midweek followed Sunday’s victory against West Ham and the six points lifted Spurs to fifth – just a win away from a Champions’ League spot.

Going forward, Vilas-Boas’ boys look frightening. Jermain Defoe is predatory personified and his pace and finishing will worry both Aaron Hughes and Philipe Senderos, neither of whom are the quickest, while out wide Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, who combined to tear Fulham apart in the first half of this fixture last season, will pose more problems for a Fulham defence that had been uncharacteristically leaky prior to the midweek trip to Fulham Broadway. There’s plenty of quality in midfield too, with Tom Huddlestone hoping to make his 100th top flight start for Tottenham, and, of course, two former Fulham favourites preparing to return to Craven Cottage for the first time.

The contrast in receptions will prove instructive. Mousa Dembele, frank about his perception of Fulham as a useful Premier League stepping stone when he arrived in August 2010, might even hear his name sung by some Fulham fans, who watched his progression into a dynamic, dribbling central midfielder during the second half of last season, and appreciated the way he continued to perform for the club as the rumours were flying around. There won’t be such a good feeling about Clint Dempsey’s return, despite his five-and-a-half years at the Cottage with all the memorable moments he was part of, after the manner of his exit. The American was foolish enough to admit to feeling underappreciated at Fulham on Thursday – he’ll certainly feel that way after this afternoon.

Dembele and Dempsey’s return might make for good copy, but Fulham can’t afford to be distracted by the hype. Dimitar Berbatov and Martin Jol have reunions of their own to look forward to and special reasons to try and end Fulham’s barren run against Spurs. Tottenham aren’t unbeatable and there’s a growing belief that the side Jol’s building posseses an attacking arsenal to trouble the very best defences, which is not a description you’d ascribe to Tottenham’s at the moment. The absence of Benoit Assou-Ekkoto means Michael Dawson, who endured a wretched afternoon when Fulham cantered to an FA Cup win a year ago, and William Gallas, who will remember enjoying a heated discussion with the Stevenage Road stand after being sent off at the Cottage in our win over Chelsea, will have to cope with Berbatov if the outstanding Jan Vertonghen continues to deputise at full-back.

Jol has a few selection dilemmas to ponder over before he hands in the teamsheet at 2pm. Should the fit-again Kieran Richardson replace Hugo Rodallega, who struggled to make an impression on the left wing on Wednesday, and offer some defensive protection if John Arne Riise continues to raid forward? Is Kerim Frei ready to be included from the start or could Ashkan Dejagah come back in? Giorgis Karagounis was outstanding in the hole behind Berbatov at Chelsea, but Fulham will need a more offensively-minded man for the Bulgarian to link with. Without the injured Bryan Ruiz, should the roll fall to Mladen Petric, who started the season in such a rich vein of form? Perhaps the most important question as we watch another Fulham side develop during a fascinating campaign is whether the Whites can realistically puncture a porous Spurs’ defence whilst remaining assured at the back. It should be a captivating contest.

MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Senderos; Diarra, Sidwell; Duff, Richardson, Petric; Berbatov. Subs: Etheridge, Kelly, Baird, Karagounis, Dejagah, Frei, Rodallega.

From ‘Bobatov’ to Berbatov

Dimitar Berbatov and Martin Jol in their Tottenham days - can they rekindle the old magic at Fulham?

There’s a way to see Fulham’s August activity as a continuation of the old frustrating norms. The pessimists will proclaim that the Whites are once again a selling club, having seen two of the ‘star’ players Martin Jol would have liked to keep depart for White Hart Lane in the dying days of the transfer window. In truth, there was little Jol – or anyone else – could have done once Spurs decided to shell out big money for Mousa Dembele, who was professional until the end, and undoubtedly values his time at Craven Cottage. Sadly, you can’t say the same about Clint Dempsey, but Jol’s handling of that drawn out saga was nigh on faultless and secured three times as much as Tottenham paid for Steed Malbranque six years ago.

If you’re sentimental, there’s bound to be some upset about the way the side that carried the Whites all the way to Hamburg (twice) a few years ago has drifted apart. Dickson Etuhu made an ill-advised foray into the goings on at Craven Cottage in the wake of Dembele’s exit and it is certainly true that the likes of Zoltan Gera and Danny Murphy are still good enough to perform in the Premier League – witness the Hungarian’s superb strike against Liverpool on the opening day of the season. But football has become so money driven over the past two decades and the balance has tilted away from the clubs towards individuals and agents, that there won’t be another Johnny Haynes. Managerial merry-go-rounds mean that the new coach more often than not has a different set of ideas to their predecessor and wants to bring in players they trust to make the preferred system successful.

Not even the most ardent of Fulham fans would have dared to dream that the Whites would spend twelve years in the top flight after the flowing football inspired by Jean Tigana, Christian Damiano and Roger Propos swept the Cottagers to the Championship summit. It is astonishing that only three times during that the period has our position amongst English football’s elite being seriously threatened – and each time a swift managerial change has delivered safety. It looked a big ask to deliver self-sufficiency down by the Thames when the club’s remarkable revival was largely funded by Mohamed Al-Fayed’s millions, but under the careful stewardship of Alistair Mackintosh, Fulham have managed it.

After Dembele’s departure, the majority of Fulham fans were desperate for a high-profile replacement, but towards the end of a transfer window prices are inflated, and value is terribly difficult to find. For a club that is trying to live now within its means, shrewd investment isn’t just something that is desirable, it is essential. Splashing the cash might finance fleeting success but it could lead to the kind of long-term nightmare that supporters of Leeds United and Portsmouth have had to experience. Before the Al-Fayed takeover, Micky Adams once told a journalist he was shopping ‘for bargains in Woolworths rather than Harrods’ and, given that the Brompton Road store is no longer in the Fulham chairman’s hands, this remains an appropriate metaphor.

Taking the advent of Financial Fair Play and Jol’s fast-tracking of some seriously impressive talent – like Alex Kacaniklic, Kerim Frei, Matthew Briggs and Tom Donegan – into consideration, Fulham’s acquisition of Dimitar Berbatov is a serious statement of intent. Four years ago, we had the man Jimmy Bullard, who has just signed for the Franchise (by the way, if ever a player and a ‘club’ deserve each other it’s those two), christened ‘Bobatov’ up front:

Bobby’s a great player; I call him ‘Bobatov’. He’s a proper footballer.  He has a silky touch and he can pull it out of the air – that’s what he’s all about. He’s a big, strong, physical lad as well.

Bullard was right and Roy Hodgson coaxed the best of a forward who had all the attributes to succeed but struggled for confidence in front of goal. Zamora didn’t fit Jol’s model of a more mobile lone striker who could stretch a defence with movement rather than brute strength and power and he moved on. Few expected that six months later we’d replace the man cheekily nicknamed after the brooding Bulgarian with the man himself, who seems more of an artist than a footballer. Berbatov’s capture is a serious statement of intent and after four frustrating years at Old Trafford, he’s happy to be reunited with the man who brought him to English football in the first place:

Fulham have always struggled for goals during their time in the top flight. The men who’ve regularly found the net have quickly moved on – the two best examples being Louis Saha and Dempsey – but Jol’s new-look side has plenty of attacking flair. Damien Duff’s started the season like a man with a point to prove after the Republic of Ireland’s early exit from Euro 2012 and with Bryan Ruiz looking far sharper after a full pre-season behind him there’s plenty of guile to unlock even the best defences. Mladen Petric has begun the season brilliantly and he might prove even more dangerous from the deeper or wider position he prefers.

Berbatov certainly whets the appetite: the mere statistics are enough to make you salivate in anticipation. He scored 26 goals in 51 appearances for CSKA Sofia before managing 76 strikes in 181 games for Bayer Leverkusen and hitting 44 goals in 102 appearances at White Hart Lane. Even as an increasingly bit-part player at Manchester United, Berbatov found the net with regularity. He played 149 games under Sir Alex Ferguson – 41 of them from the bench – and scored 57 goals, including an impudent back heel at the Putney End last winter. I still have to pinch myself to make sure the prospect of Berbatov wearing the white shirt isn’t one of my very vivid dreams.

Jol plays hardball over Dempsey

Martin Jol's keen to cling on to Clint Dempsey

After the feverish midweek tabloid tittle-tattle, it appears as though there’s plenty of steel to Fulham’s stance over Clint Dempsey’s future.

The redtops and the broadsheets appear united in reporting that Martin Jol is determined to hold onto the American midfielder. The Sunday Times’ Jonathan Northcroft has filed a piece for the paper’s football shorts scotching any suggestions of a swap deal involving Andy Carroll and claiming that ‘Jol wants to retain the American and unite him with Carroll in a new look Fulham attack alongside recent signing Hugo Rodallega’.

The picture is complicated by two things. Dempsey has a year left on his current contract and his intimated that he would like his next contract to be a long-term deal, stretching to four years. The ambitious Texan has never hidden his desire to test himself at the highest level possible, but a move to Liverpool would not realise his ambition to play in the Champions’ League. Furthermore, Fulham value Dempsey, who would be an attractive signing for John W. Henry’s Fenway Sports Group, at around £10m following his 23 goals last season, a fee that would be at least £2m above what Liverpool are currently prepared to pay. There have been no official approaches for the 29 year-old, who flew to Germany for Fulham’s pre-season tour on Friday.

Carroll’s intentions are also unknown. There is not likely to be a place for him in Rodgers’ remodelled Liverpool side, with a more European 4-3-3 system similar to one that brought such success during Swansea’s first season in the top flight designed to bring the best of Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini, although the England striker is still on an extended holiday after Euro 2012 and won’t be back with Liverpool until he joins their American tour on Monday week. Getting rid of a 23 year-old international striker, rumoured to be on £80,000 until 2016, will be easier said than done as Carroll is reportedly unlikely to be interested in a loan move.

The Hammy’s

As the 2011/2012 season has drawn to a close for our beloved Fulham Football Club, here are the inaugural Hammyend End of Season Awards, known simply as The “Hammy’s”.

Signing of the season

There are several nominees for signing of the season; both Pavel Pogrebnyak and Mahammadou Diarra have excelled at times since their January (and February) arrivals. Pogrebnyak seamlessly replacing former England striker Bobby Zamora, and Diarra, who’s vast experience and quality has begun to really shine in central midfield alongside Danny Murphy and Moussa Dembele. For me though, the signing of the season is John Arne Riise, who joined from AS Roma last summer. Despite not scoring, the Norwegian has cemented the left back role as his own, whilst his marauding touchline runs have freed Clint Dempsey to have the run of the park without excessive concern for his flank.

Goal of the season

The first nominee is Pavel Pogrebnyak’s delightful rounding of Paddy Kenny against QPR from Moussa Dembele’s showboat backheeled through ball. Bryan Ruiz only scored two goals in his first season for Fulham, but they were both absolute peaches. The chip against Everton was good enough to have come out of Rory McIlroy’s golf bag, while the “scoop” goal against Bolton was technically sublime. Not being able to pick between the two Ruiz goals, my goal of the season is Clint Dempsey’s team goal, which crowned the 5-0 thrashing of Wolves. Capping a mesmeric twenty something pass move that any team would have been proud of, Clint smashed in a neat 16 yard finish following a one two with Mahammadou Diarra.

Bryan celebrates his goal against Everton

Match of the season

Was it winning in Liverpool for the first time ever? How about the 1-0 win away at Mark Hughes’ QPR? The 2-1 last minute win over Arsenal? No, the game of the season was undoubtedly the 6-0 demolition of Queens Park Rangers back in September. Welcome to the Premier League.

The Abdeslam Ouaddou Award for the Most Unpronounceable Name

Despite facing teams from the Faroe Islands, Ukraine, Croatia and Poland in our Europa League run, a few of the new faces at Craven Cottage have proved tricky for Diddy Hamilton and a fair few others to pronounce. From Pajtim (Pie-Tim) Kasami and Marcel Gecov (Getz-of) to Alex Kacaniklic (Catch-a-nik-lich) and Pavel Pogrebnyak (Pog-reb-knee-ak), it appears Martin Jol is intent on making commentators lives difficult. Pogrebnyak wins, purely for his ability to be mispronounced in the national spotlight.

The HammyEnd.com Award for best Fulham Fan Media

The past season has seen an upsurge in the number of intelligent, interesting and dedicated Fulham fan-based media. The increasing popularity of twitter has undoubtedly fueled this growth and enabled those that pre-existed to gain a wider reach. There is no specific winner here, but I’d like personally thank Dan Crawford, devoted editor of HammyEnd for encouraging contributions from an ever burgeoning range of writers. Other sites, like the excellent Craven Cottage Newsround and Fulham’s Finest have continued their stellar work. While finally, (and I may be biased here) Russ Goldman’s wonderful CottageTalk, a weekly online radio show / podcast, brings Fulham discussion to a wider audience, along with interviews with the likes of Aaron Hughes and Journalists such as the Press Association’s Simon Peach. If, like me, you have an insatiable desire for all things Fulham, now is very much a golden age.

The @Hammyend Award for Our Favourite Fulham Tweeter

The last season has seen an explosion in the popularity of Twitter as social media of choice for Fulham Football Club. We’ve had the immensely popular #fridayfulhamchallenge courtesy of the club itself including the naming of the @fulhamchickens. By my latest count, there are twelve first teamers currently active on twitter along with several wives. My nominees for Tweeter of the year are @sarahbrookes1, the ever informative and Rafa Nadal obsessed Fulham press officer, @Clint_Dempsey – #thatswhatsup, the irrepressible @WhiteNoise1879 and @joannataylormum, the popular other half to our beloved captain, Danny Murphy. Her constant willingness to interact positively with us fans, makes Joanna Murphy, my Fulham Tweeter of the Season.

Best Opposing Fans at Craven Cottage

Manchester United and Liverpool always bring loud, original and surprisingly polite away fans to Craven Cottage and this season was no different. Wigan deserve vast amounts of credit for staying loud all game, in particular the 15 minutes they sung “I’m a believer”, but for me, the loudest fans I have heard in some time, were those from Wisla Krakow. It felt as though every Polish person in London had descended on Fulham. I actually arrived at the game twenty minutes late and came through the Putney End turnstiles at the precise moment Andy Johnson opened the scoring, but such was the fervency of the Krakow support, I couldn’t tell who’d scored.

Best Opposing Player

This is a tough one to answer, and you’d think the drubbings at the hands of Manchester United and Swansea would give me the result. Antonio Valencia and Wayne Rooney among others picked us apart when the reigning champions came to town, while the midfield three of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Joe Allen and Leon Brittan played us off the park when we lost the Welsh outfit. However, it was Sergio Aguero, in the 2-2 draw with Manchester City who stood out for me. New to the English game, Aguero played sumblimely, just as he did that fateful evening in Hamburg two years ago.

The Gervasio Nunez Award For Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Refereeing decisions have come under the spotlight this past season, and we’ve suffered our fair share of misdemeanors. Nothing stands out for me, like the outrageous cheating displayed by Argentinean street urchin Gervasio Nunez, when, in Krakow, he got Moussa Dembele sent off for gently pushing his shoulder by diving around as if an anti aircraft gun had zeroed in on his nose. What’s more, in the reverse fixture he continued his antics. One particularly robust Dickson Etuhu challenge later and everyone was better off.

Kerim Frei tormenting Chelsea

Rookie of the Year

What a year for young talent at Craven Cottage. The investment in the Motspur Park academy is beginning to bear its fruits, and in Martin Jol, we finally have a manager who’s willing to give the youngsters a prolonged chance. All under 21, Neil Etheridge, Marcello Trotta, Pajtim Kasami, Matthew Briggs, Tom Donegan, Lauri Dalle Valle and Alex Kacaniklic have all seen first team action this season, with all but Briggs making their debuts. Rookie of the year honours have to go to Kerim Frei. The pintsized Swiss winger is as exciting a prospect as there is in the entire Premier League. From his debut against NSI Runavik, to his three Man of the Match appearances against Chelsea, Kerim has been a beacon of positive football whilst running at defenders along the left wing. He’s won two penalties, at Swansea and Chelsea, scored against Odense and enduced Johan Djourou into getting himself sent off. It may be a busy summer ahead for Kerim, who is tipped to make the 18-man Switzerland Olympic Squad.

Achievement of the Season

Congratulations to the Fulham Under-18s, who last Saturday became the Premier Academy League Champions. The final, played at Craven Cottage, saw the youngsters deservedly beat Blackburn Rovers 2-0. Manager Kit Symons has done a tremendous job, as has academy director Huw Jennings and all the backroom staff. We have now got to the final two years in a row, and can now call ourselves champions. A truly outstanding achievement that everyone involved with the club can be proud of.

Most Improved Player

Stephen Kelly, where have you been all my life? Originally fourth choice right back at the start of the season, injury to Zdenek Grygera, Chris Barid’s absence and Aaron Hughes’ preference for centre half eventually allowed Kelly the opportunity to grow into a very solid performer. Still not an attacking force, Kelly has matured into a remarkably consistent performer defensively, whilst improving offensively. He made himself first choice at right back and has been offered a new contract, albeit with the possibility of a new right back arriving and the return to fitness of Grygera.

Quote of the season

Something might be said for the translation when you hear your new centre forward proclaiming he can be “powerful and agile, like a beast”. However, this is exactly what our Ivan Drago lookalike, Pavel Porgebnyak, said to Russian Sports News Agency SovSport whilst awaiting his UK visa in Paris. A series of swashbuckling performances, including five goals from his first five shots on target, led us to soon forget about the sulky striker sent to Loftus Road on Transfer Deadline Day.

Who needs Zamora? When we've got The Pog.

Chant of the season

There was a defining moment of our season. January 31st saw Bobby Zamora, he of moody temper tantrums throughout the autumn, leave Fulham for pastures new, and Russian International, Pavel Pogrebnyak, join the Whites from VFB Stuttgart. Perfect then that on The Pog’s third appearance, he scored the winner in a 1-0 win over relegation candidates QPR at Loftus Road. Quite right that chant of the season is “Who needs Zamora, When We’ve Got The Pog”.

Ironman Award

Norway Captain, defensive rock, Viking, ironman…all apt and factual descriptions of Brede Hangeland. Not only did our behemoth of a centre back play every minute of every league game, he played in every other game bar one for the entire 54 match season. What’s more, his performances rarely wavered, despite several changes to his centre back partner.

Player of the season

There are really only two genuine candidates for player of the season, Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey. Especially since his move to central midfield on Boxing Day, Dembele has been especially superb. Albeit without goals (only two for the season), Moussa has been the creative spark behind our upturn in form over the second half of the season. His wonderful assist for Pavel Pogrebnyak’s goal at QPR is perhaps the standout moment, but his constant dribbling, successful passing and completed tackles have led Dembele to being well on his way to becoming an elite Premier League midfielder.

Clint Dempsey - Player of The Season

Player of the season though, should be awarded for play over the whole season. While Dembele was good throughout the first half, there is one man who has been truly outstanding across the entire term. Clint Dempsey this year passed Brian McBride to become Fulham’s all time leading Premier League goalscorer, and in doing so, passed 50 goals for Fulham and later 50 goals in the Premier League, all for FFC. Ending the year with 23 goals, 17 in the league, Clint finished in a remarkable fourth place in the Football Writers Player of the Year, and to be honest, was unlucky not to finish third ahead of Paul Scholes. It’s not just his goals that have cemented this award, but his play in general. Fearless and spirited, Clint can rarely be accused of lethargy, which for a man who’s barely had a summer off since his move to Craven Cottage five and a half years ago, is somewhat remarkable. He’s our longest serving player, and regardless of his employment tenure next season, Clint Dempsey is the rightful Fulham Player of the Season.

COYWs

Fulham pair aren’t for sale, says Jol

Martin Jol has insisted that neither Moussa Dembele nor Clint Dempsey are available for transfer and that Fulham have not received an offer for either player.

The two midfielders have had excellent seasons at Craven Cottage, with Dempsey leading the club’s scoring charts with a 23-goal return and Dembele having been superb since he reverted to a deeper midfield role, and media speculation has linked them with a move away from Craven Cottage as they both have only a year to run on their current contracts. Jol, however, reiterated that the club has no interest in selling their best players and he wants to strengthen Fulham’s squad during the close-season.

There are no clubs who have come in for bids. Even if they put a bid in they are not for sale. Of course you worry because I want to keep my best players. If we can do that and add two or three, we could have a very good squad. I feel they still will be here.

Cynics will recall that Jol also told journalists that Bobby Zamora wasn’t for sale either.