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Why today’s not ‘a good time to play Arsenal’

It started shortly after Arsenal surrended that two-goal lead in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday night. Another Arsenal crisis, more woeful Wenger wailing and some of publicity-hungry members of the punditocracy pounded arguably Arsenal’s greatest every manager. Everybody knows that it’s been a while since the Gunners were aiming their fire at England’s elite – never mind the cream of the continent – but the belief suddenly coarsing through a few Fulham veins, as illustrated by the text messages I’ve received from some of my fellow travellers to north London this afternoon, makes me very nervous.

When good teams go through slumps, they usually pummel some poor opponents into submission. Fulham have played that role against some of the poorer sides in the Premier League, but they’ll need to be playing at a level we’ve not seen away from home since the tail end of last season to break their Arsenal hodoo. The Whites have never won at Arsenal in any competition – some 26 fixtures – and, although, the statistics look a little better since the red half of north London said an emotional goodbye to Highbury, it provides only the slightest crumb of comfort.

Furthermore, Martin Jol’s not beaten Arsene Wenger on his own patch. The Dutchman, who will be forever seen as a former Spurs manager in Arsenal eyes, probably never enjoyed anything Bobby Zamora did quite as much as the injury-time strike that tipped a tempesturous tie Fulham’s way last January. Fulham have only picked up four points in more than a century of visiting Arsenal: one of those was an outrageous heist overseen by Chris Coleman which owed an enormous debt to the goalkeeping of Edwin van der Sar and another was a far more expansive display when Roy Hodgson’s showed a little more elan that was usually offered away from home.

Last season’s point was the closest Fulham had come to heading back home with an overdue victory. It owed much to Jol’s persistence with Bryan Ruiz, whose encouraging hour and a bit showed there was plenty more to look forward to despite a spluttering start to his stint by the Thames, as well as an awkward Arsenal defence. They were prized upon by a Danny Murphy pass (the former Fulham skipper will be replaced by Dimitar Berbatov this afternoon as the object of the Emirates’ ire, I supect) and John Arne Riise’s cross was turned into his own net by Thomas Vermaelen. Only eight minutes remained when the Belgian burst forward from the back to make amends – heading home with aplomb.

The restlessness in the red half of Highbury and Islington is understandable after seven years without a trophy. You’d have got extraordinary odds on Fulham reaching a European final before Arsenal on the night the Gunners were shot down by two late Barcelona strikes in Paris in 2006. But after the insipid display at Old Trafford and the sloppy squandering of a strong position against Schalke in midweek, even a mild philosopher like Wenger will demand a response from his charges. What better way to banish the talk of their worst start under the Frenchman than with a stylish showing against their fellow Londoners who start the afternoon on the same number of points.

The tuteledge of Steve Bould was widely credited with shoring up a creaking defence earlier in the season, but in the aftermath of Old Trafford, it seems to have been forgotten that Arsenal have the best defensive record in the divsion. Only eight goals conceded suggests that when Wenger is able to select his strongest back five, the back door might be bolted firmly shut. The evidence of the past fortnight suggests that it probably shouldn’t include Andre Santos for any number of reasons.

Even without the suspended Jack Wilshere this afternoon, the Gunners have quality in forward areas that others could only marvel at. Lukas Poldoski’s problems acclimatising to the English game could be a thing of the past come five o’clock, such is the German’s talent. It would also be a brave man who bet against Oliver Giroud scoring Arsenal’s first league headed goal, such has been Fulham’s fraility in the air so far this season. Wenger could still call on Walcott’s searing pace and the answer to Arsenal’s lack of penetration in central areas might be to try the England international through the middle, which has often appeared his most natural position.

Chris Baird might be right to suggest the pressure’s all on Arsenal. But the hand of history only points to this fixture finishing in either in a creditable stalemate or enducing numbing disappointment. The hosts will be keen to assert their supremacy once again. Fulham had better be prepared to resist an early flurry at the Emirates this afternoon.

Cottage Talk previews Fulham v Everton

Tonight’s Cottage Talk previews Fulham’s Premier League fixture against Everton at Craven Cottage tomorrow and looks back at a crazy afternoon in Reading last week.

Cottage Talk’s host Russ Goldman was actually in London last weekend and talks about his tour of the Cottage on Friday as well as reflecting on the madness of the following day’s 3-3 draw with Reading. As a tribute to Russ after his trip to London, I’ve put a picture of him on the pitch at Craven Cottage above this post. Russ, who hosts Cottage Talk from America every week, was joined on tonight’s show by two of the HammyEnd team Chris Gilbertson and Lorcan O’Connor – and the whole podcast is well worth a listen.

If you’ve missed your Fulham fix this week – or need something to listen to before, on your way to, or after the game – then please do have a listen here.

Grygera’s getting back to full fitness

Czech defender hoping to prove his fitness by end of August

Perhaps the most pleasing part of my afternoon in the Craven Cottage sunshine yesterday was meeting Zden?k Grygera.

The Czech defender has shown tremendous courage and professionalism in recovering so swiftly from his horrible anterior cruciate knee injury sustained during the defeat by Tottenham last November that so cruelly cut short an impressive start to his Fulham career. Gygera, who has undergone two operations on his injured knee, has made brief substitute appearances during the club’s pre-season campaign and, at half-time during the first team’s final friendly against Charlton, he told me that he was hoping to build on that with 45 minutes at Walton Casuals this afternoon.

At 32, a serious injury – as well as the setbacks he has suffered since after two visits to see Dr. Richard Steadman – might have persuased some players to hang up their boots. Not Gygera, who willing chatted and signed autographs yesterday, and is eager to return to the first team picture after his promising introduction into Martin Jol’s side last season. A matter of days after concluding a deal to arrive from Juventus late in the transfer window, Grygera made an assured debut at home to FC Twente in the Europa League and then was a commanding presence having been switched to the centre of defence for the League Cup clash at Stamford Bridge.

It is no coincidence that Fulham kept four clean sheets in his seven appearances before that anguished scream on the stroke of half time in front of the Riverside Stand and I certainly hope the experienced defender is pushing for a place in the first team squad sooner rather than later. His longevity in the game – and a stellar international record that includes representing the Czech Republic at three major tournament – as well as Gygera’s cool confidence on the ball make him a really valuable asset.

Classy on the continent

Perhaps it’s the fact that I wasn’t there or that the a weekend on the Côte d’Azurs till sounds supremely exotic to me. Maybe it’s the memories of how a French revolution transformed Fulham from a plodding mid-table team to one that stormed to the Premiership promised land in ten months during my teenage years. I can’t blame it on alcohol, as I can’t drink at the moment, but watching the way Fulham completely dismantled Claude Puel’s Nice, who begin their Ligue 1 campaign next weekend, last night filled me with the sort of excitement Charlie found in the chocalate factory.

It’s only pre-season and there’s an important rider to attach here. However good Fulham – and particularly Mladen Petric – have looked these summer, there are no points awarded until August 18th. The excitement of early season can soon dissipate should results leave you looking anxiously over your shoulder or a key player – like Brian McBride in 2007 – be lost to injury. But there’s definitely something building on the banks of the Thames that we’ve not seen since the Damiano, Propos and Tigana era.

Here’s what a candid Martin Jol told the July edition of Fultime about changing the pattern of play in his first year at Craven Cottage:

When I came in I knew that despite being a stylish club, at the same time we were perhaps a bit too conservative. We played in an old fashioned English way, but we had had success with that. But that wasn’t a system that I was used to. I wanted the team to become more adventurous in its approach. It was something that took a bit of time to implement too, because every time we suffered a bad resuylt or looked a bit indifferent you could sense a doubt or concern. In all honesty, the players found it tough and that was the biggest challenge – to convince them to play in a different way. I understand that, and it is something that takes time. But as I always say, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’.

People are notoriously resistant to change. As Russ Goldman has outlined here before, Jol’s tweaks to what seemed a successful side appeared initially like unecessary meddling with a winning formula. Except the innate conservatism of Roy Hodgson’s side worked whilst teams underestimated Fulham but an ageing side seemed far more predictable three years down the line. A new broom has swept away some old favourites, but Mark Hughes was similarly ruthless in sidelining both John Pantsil and Zoltan Gera.

 

Bryan Ruiz looks ready to revel in the Premier League spotlight

The change of system offers an air of the unexpected. Bryan Ruiz seems a shy, sensitive type but he’s a ridiculously gifted footballer. Remember those effortless dinks over the goalkeeper against Everton and Bolton that produced gapsps of wonderment? He’s barely been fit during his year at the club and with a full pre-season behind him as well as operating in the classical number ten position behind Petric he looks like he’s ready to leave an indellible mark on English football. His free-kick against Wycombe the other week was magnificent and effortless at the same time.

Petric's potency and playmaking ability have perked up Fulham's forward line

Petric seems a canny replacement for Pogrebnyak, who we didn’t pay a transfer fee for either. He’s been there and done it right across Europe in a variety of positions but we knew he could find the goal spectacularly before he pulled on a Fulham shirt. He’s proved it with five in five. I thought his opener at Adams’ Park was special, until the overhead kick – eeirly reminscient of Zoltan Gera’s effort which finished off Manchester United a few years back – in Nice. Petric is more than a scorer of spectacular goals – he’s a playmaker too. Take a look at the sublime through ball that released Alex Kacaniklic for the second on the stroke of half time or the impudent backheel which Mahamadou Diarra lashed home after the break.

Diarra’s decision to make his stay at the Cottage permanent probably hastened the departures of both Murphy and Dickson Etuhu. The Malian has some CV and, even as he was returning to full match sharpness, he offered tantalising glimpses of his class towards the tail end of last season. Classy on the ball and strong in the tackle you could see why Real Madrid thought he might be able to take over from Claude Makele. If Diarra stays fit and can be paired alongside Mousa Dembele, then that’s a midfield partnership with the potential to leave the pundits purring.

But perhaps the most exciting element of Jol’s vision for Fulham is the emergence of the youngsters. Kerim Frei dazzled at Kingstonian when he wasn’t really much beyond second gear and he’s clearly been working on his strength and conditioning during the close season. Whilst everyone was raving about Frei’s impact last season, the Motspur Park talent developers were taking note of Alex Kacaniklic’s progress. The Swede has shown just why Malcolm Elias was so keen to bring him down south from Melwood and both his crossing and confident finish in France underscored his further progression since that impressive introduction to the first team after his loan spell at Watford last season.

Then there’s Mesca, the one Chelsea let go far too soon. The 19 year-old from Guinea-Bisseau scored two and made three more as he stepped up to reserve team level last season but he’s got all the attributes to follow Frei and Kacaniklic into the first team on a regular basis. Pace, trickery and confidence are there as is a cool head in front of goal. The joy that his goal, just two minutes after replacing Damien Duff in France, brought was contagious. It’s taken hold of this correspondent – and let’s hope the rest of the Fulham faithful are feeling as optimistic after three months of the real thing.

Danny Murphy: Goodbye and good luck

Unexpected goodbyes are the hardest ones. When you have to say farewell fairly swiftly, it can be difficult to find the words that truly express how much you’ll miss the departing individual. The news this morning that Danny Murphy was heading north to complete a medical at Blackburn Rovers ahead of an prospective free transfer didn’t surprise me – as there had been some doubt as to whether Fulham’s captain would remain at the club beyond his current contract for much of last season – but the finality of it left this correspondent feeling a little numb.

For all that you try and take the emotion of football, we have an emotional attachment to the teams to we follow. We all have our favourite players, who unfortunately in this era of big money contracts might not be as committed to their clubs as their predecessors were when there was a maximum wage. More than anybody over the past five years, Murphy epitomised Fulham’s rapid revitalisation. When he was signed at almost the midnight hour of the August transfer window during Laurie Sanchez’s desperate attempt to overhaul a stale squad, people questioned what Fulham might want with a 30 year-old whose best times seemed behind him.

Those nagging doubts persisted for much of a season that seemed destined to spell the end of Fulham’s brief return to the top flight, especially during the first four months of Murphy’s time at Craven Cottage when Sanchez’s direct football bypassed the talents of both his new signing and those of another summer acquisition, Steven Davis, in central midfield. Plenty of Fulham fans suggested that those eye-catching displays for Liverpool and England were a thing of the past – Murphy’s ‘legs were gone’ and that was a luxury a side waging a war against the drop couldn’t afford. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Celebrating the equaliser at Eastlands

It might have taken a change of manager – and philosophy – for Murphy’s quality to shine but you can’t begin to discuss the extraordinary turn of events that carried Fulham from checking out the Championship ground guide to stunning salvation without highlighting his contribution. For a start, Murphy’s experience and calmness must have counted just as much behind the scenes as it did on the pitch. Then there were the displays that typified a man who’s always refused to concede defeat. He ran the midfield during Fulham’s first away win in thirty three games at Reading – an almost improbable result that had us daring to dream – and that pulled the strings during that staggering second half turnaround at Manchester City. Murphy might have missed possibly the most high-pressure penalty of his career, but had the presence of mind to follow-up and place the rebound beyond Joe Hart with the minimum of a fuss. A point was a terrific result, but a simply magnificent pass freed Diomansy Kamara in injury-time, and the Great Escape was on.

Of course, Murphy’s central role in the drama was still to come. We all remember that glancing header that secured safety on a glorious afternoon at Portsmouth. But what made that afternoon all the more poignant was that the man who wasn’t supposed to be in the opposition penalty area at an attacking set piece – and was just about to substituted – very nearly didn’t make it to Fratton Park at all. Murphy’s young daughter had been rushed to hospital with dehydration the day before the game and, being the devoted family man that he is, Murphy waited with his wife and little girl rather than making the journey to the south coast with his team-mates. Fortunately, his daughter was well enough to recover the following day but, not being a father myself, I can only imagine the emotions that must have preceded what was an already tense weekend.

The Fratton Park header that sealed the Great Escape

Once Brian McBride had decided to return with his family to America, Roy Hodgson installed Murphy as the likeable forward’s replacement as captain. It proved a masterstroke. During his time at Fulham, Murphy has been a shining ambassador for the football club in the community and with the supporters – and when he hasn’t been available, his wife has been more than willing to converse with the fans on Twitter. More than that, the captain has been a mentor to younger players and a quiet, but unmistakable, leader on the field. His partnership with Dickson Etuhu, much criticised when Hodgson grew tired of Jimmy Bullard’s antics, blossomed into one of stability and reassurance, providing the platform for Fulham’s highest-ever finish in the top flight.

That meant Europe – and we all know what happened next. Murphy made 41 appearances during a marathon season, that began in Lithuania in July when he tucked away a penalty with his customary efficiency and ended with such cruel heartbreak in Hamburg. Murphy missed a fair chunk of the campaign through injury – as well as the momentous win over Juventus through suspension – but made up for it with that majestic pass to free Simon Davies for the vital equaliser in the second leg of the semi-final against Hamburg.

Danny loves scoring against United

I simply can’t list all of the magic moments during his five years at the Cottage – he’s become such an indelible part of the football club that he seems far longer – because this article would ramble on for too longer. But we’ll remember with great affection the way he artfully gave Thomas Kusczak the eyes and sparked a splendid win over Manchester United with an effortless strike from long range a matter of days after the Whites reached the Europa League knockout round in Basle. His two spot-kicks in the FA Cup demolition of Spurs were Murphy’s only goals of the following campaign but there were oh, so satisfying. His deflected strike that pegged back a seemingly unassailable Manchester City last September will live long in the memory too.

There’s a sadness in that you felt Murphy had more to offer. He’s an intelligent thinker about the game, destined to become a coach and probably a manager in time, too. But without the captain there in central midfield, Fulham look a far poorer side. Martin Jol’s got a clear brief to reduce the average age of the side and Murphy wants to be a regular starter at this stage in his career. You can’t quibble with either position but does seem strange that a player of Murphy’s quality should need to drop down a level to secure the status he wants.

Celebrating the equaliser against Man City

Football can’t be reduced to mere statistics but Murphy’s Fulham record deserves a mention. Since August 2007, he has made 220 appearances for the club and scored 29 goals. It doesn’t sound like much, but they’ll be very few players who are as consistent as Murphy at the highest level and amass such a record over a relatively short space of time. The speculation has already started about who might fill his shoes. It should cease. Danny Murphy’s irreplaceable: both on and off the field. All that remains is thank him for a multitude of memories and move on – as sad it as it will be.