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Fulham 1 Everton 3 on Sunday 23 October 2011

Football can be the cruellest of games. In no other sport can the margin between the achieving of what would be a cheering victory, or of suffering a deeply disappointing defeat be so cigarette-paper thin. Thus was it in this closely contested game, which Fulham could have won if only………………

To the uncommitted soccer aficionado this would have been a super game to watch, full of incident, played at considerable pace between two teams who aspire towards the passing & pressing game, and where the result was in doubt up to almost the expiry of normal time. Despite their early lead Everton were never able to establish dominance. Twenty minutes into the second half and with Fulham still one-nil down, Martin Jol initiated a brave tactical ploy. Danny Murphy was withdrawn and Bryan Ruiz brought on. Quiet extraordinarily the Fulham set-up went to a 4-2-4 (with Bryan on the left of Steve Sidwell in midfield), which morphed in and out of a 4-1-5 as Bryan took on a ‘roam and get forward’ role.

Although in no way reminiscent of Brazil of the early 1970’s, who are usually associated with such a deployment, Fulham adapted well to this rare, attacking mode and even appeared to be gaining the upper hand. First, within a few minutes of the introduction of this new system, Bryan scored with a delicately calculated chip into the top right hand corner of the goal, executed from just outside the left-hand side of the penalty area. With the scores level Fulham appeared to be the more likely to prevail. Bryan had a second good effort from inside the penalty area saved. Then with a minute to go of normal time Bobby Zamora in possession close in front of goal, clear and with the keeper dummied, managed (goodness knows how,) to miss. So Fulham could and possibly should have won, though of course in the event our team didn’t, with Everton scoring twice in extra time.

An unbiased appreciator of the game would also have enjoyed the opportunity to see both Everton and Fulham each respectively field a young talented footballer, both at the beginning of their Premier league careers. Everton had on from the start Royston Drenthe, a young Dutch player who has been with Real Madrid. It was he who scored Everton’s first goal in third minute of the game, (a powerful 20 yard strike,) as well as playing a part in both their late goals. A stocky powerfully built player with a characteristic crouching stride and impressive short burst acceleration, he was for me Everton’s most effective player. Possibly in the making what the Italians term a ‘fantista,’ (a player who by the application of a rare and special individual skill or ability can turn a game).

Fulham fielded Bryan for a good part of the second half. (I use the name he has stated he would prefer to be know by, as ‘Ruiz’ is associated with his father who abandoned him.) From this game we now know just a bit more about his talents. Although a left footed player, he is not predominately left sided in his play. This was marked by his fluid mobility off the ball, and by his quick and precise short passing which included a couple of neatly executed give-and-goes. He clearly has an eye for goal, readily getting forward into goal scoring positions, and most importantly his goal was evidence of very good technique. Although the extent and full potential of his talent is yet to be established, what we saw in this game is encouraging.

With the result of this game it is now clear that Fulham have made a poor start to the season. Unless there is an early improvement in fortune with the accumulation of significant additional points between now and Christmas, the club could well face the unhappy prospect of a prolonged struggle against relegation. It is however an allusion that safety can now be achieved by a conservative approach. Martin Jol should continue to give opportunities to the young and promising players in his squad for Premiership games. (Mathew Briggs is now an outstanding prospect. The unstinting work-rate and all out commitment of Pajtim Kasani is truly impressive. Players like these and Bryan need the experience of regularly playing with top opposition if they are to develop and fulfil their full potential for the club.) Martin Jol should be supported in his endeavours to introduce greater flexibility and a more attacking approach to play, as well as encouraged to bring-on and integrate new talented players.


McBride: The model pro

Whilst the red tops have been scurrying around Europe chasing Cristiano Ronaldo and the sports desks have been tracking down the latest transfer rumour, it has gone almost unannounced in these shores that a model professional has revived his international career.

Fulham fans will need no reintroduction to Brian McBride – the veteran American centre-forward, who led the line with distinction for the four years before deciding to return to his roots for one last hurrah in Major League Soccer. The wider footballing community, though, may need to be educated as to why football fans on both starts of the Atlantic hold him in such high regard.

The story begins in Arlington Heights, a typical Chicago suburb, where McBride was born. He was a talented sportsman as a youngster and made his mark in high school soccer, leading Buffalo Grove High School to the Illinois State Championship in only his junior year. In four prolific years at high school, he scored 80 goals, with 33 coming as a senior. McBride’s achievements did not go unnoticed – he was named as an All American by Parade Magazine. Typically, he didn’t forget his routes either. When he signed his first contract as a professional with Nike, a clause was inserted to ensure that the boys’ varsity soccer team receive new uniforms every two years.

He starred at St. Louis University, graduating in 1993, and setting all sorts of records along the way. He started 89 matches, breaking the records for goals scored (72), assists (40) and total points (184). McBride was named the Most Valuable Player of the Great MidWest Conference for three successive years and made the All-Conference first team.

His club career began with a brief stint at the Milwaukee Ramage. In 18 appearances, McBride found the net a remarkable 17 times and had a hand in 18 more assists. He also struck up quite a relationship with Tony Sanneh, whom he later partnership in the MLS and for the American national side. The pair linked up to stunning effect for a crucial goal in the USA’s remarkable win over Portugal in their opening game of the 2002 World Cup. “We joked about it in the locker room, it is a play we have done a thousand times,” McBride afterwards. “I took a step in at the far post and lost my marker. He delivered a beautiful cross and I knocked it home.”

McBride’s first professional opportunity came in Germany with Wolfsburg, then a Second Division team, who had a history of nurturing aspiring American talent. But McBride found first-team chances difficult and scoring goals even harder. He did, however, write his name into Wolfsburg folklore by scoring a goal as Wolfsburg shocked the mighty Bayern Munich in the quarter finals of the German Cup.

When released by Wolfsburg, McBride returned to America just in time for the launch of Major League Soccer and he was the league’s first draft pick. He moved to Chicago Fire, where he would spend eight happy years, eventually sharing the club record for goals scored, on 62 with Jeff Cunningham in his 161 league matches. It came as no surprise that he was named in the MLS All-Time Best XI in 1995.

McBride’s big break came when he had an opportunity to experience English football by going on loan to Preston North End in 2000. Under the stewardship of promising manager David Moyes, McBride made an impression as a hardworking striker who was strong in the air, an important characteristic in the physical English leagues. The physicality was brought home to McBride when he suffered a blood clot, which had to be surgically removed from his arm, after a collision during his first appearance for Preston.

Preston’s attempts to sign McBride on a permanent basis floundered over the valuation of the player. The MLS, who hold the registrations of ever player who is contracted to their franchises, valued McBride at more than twice the $1.8m Preston offered and so he returned to the MLS, having scored a single goal in nine league appearances for Preston.

Moyes brought McBride back to Britain when his Everton side were sliding towards the relegation trap door in 2002-03. His impact was even more sizeable this time as he scored four goals in eight Premier League games, including a debut strike against Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Everton survived but McBride was once again on his way back to America, after the MLS rejected Everton’s attempts to extend his loan spell.

Moyes would have been kicking himself when Fulham secured McBride’s signature in 2004 for around £500,000 – considerably less than Preston had offered some four years earlier. The deal suited both parties, with Fulham searching for a cut-price replacement for star striker Louis Saha (who had left for Manchester United in an acrimonious transfer) and the MLS seeking to cash-in on McBride’s undoubted ability. Fulham fans were sceptical about their new signing but he quickly won them over with a debut goal against Spurs, scoring five goals in 18 appearances as the Whites recorded their highest-ever league finish of ninth.

McBride quickly established himself as a regular in the Fulham side – sometimes playing as a deep-lying lone striker. His work rate and committment were never question and he became something of a cult hero, weighing in with crucial goals over the next couple of seasons. He scored a vital spectacular overhead kick in a relegation battle against Portsmouth towards the end of the 2004-05 season and finished with ten league goals the following season.

He was named the club’s player of the year after his twelve goals helped them escape the drop and signed a new contract to extend his stay at club until June 2008. New Fulham manager Lawrie Sanchez named him as his captain in the summer of 2008, but he spent much of that season on the sidelines after suffering a dislocated kneecap when he scored the opening goal against Middlesbrough in August. He did well to return from such a serious injury and played a crucial part in Fulham’s successful battle against relegation, returning to the first-team fold as a substitute in their come from behind win against Aston Villa.

His predatory instinct in front of goal made McBride’s return just as important as that of the much-vaunted midfielder Jimmy Bullard. McBride’s goals in the run-in were crucial. His first, against his old club Everton, secured a vital victory in March that kept Fulham in touch with those above them. A close range strike against Reading set Fulham on their way to their first away victory in two years and a downward header against Birmingham on his final outing at Craven Cottage meant Fulham had to beat Portsmouth, the FA Cup finalists, at Fratton Park to stay up. Their victory sparked joyous scenes and the serending of the club captain by the travelling fans at the final whistle.

McBride decided to return to America in the summer (he has recently signed for the Chicago Fire), but the story doesn’t end there. After a light-hearted conversation with his former international colleague Jonathan Spector at the end of a match between Fulham and West Ham, McBride raised the prospect of returning to the national scene at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He had retired from international football as a decorated veteran, with a record of 30 goals in 95 appearances, which spannned three World Cups and remains the only American to have scored in two seperate World Cup competitions. He was selected as one of three over-23 players for the US Olympic squad and played for nearly 70 minutes of America’s 1-0 win over Japan on Thursday.

A couple more things you should know about McBride. He is a devout Roman Catholic, something displayed in his trademark goal celebration, but he is also the  inagural spokesperson for the Central Ohio Diabetes Association. He donated $100 to the association for every goal and assist he tallied for the American national side. His courage, humility and professionalism are an example to anyone who’s struggled with any form of disability or disease. More than that, he’s a model professional. Thanks for the memories, Brian.

UPDATE 1: A nice video tribute to SuperMac, profiling his lesser-known early years.

Update 2: A second tribute to McBride, produced just after his international retirement in 2006

Update 3: Fulham’s official video tribute to the great man.