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Progressing from ‘pretty’ to ‘purposeful’

Writing about Fulham as regularly as this correspondent does, you sometimes find yourself in some strange situations. One such moment was being trapped in a central London lift with the senior football correspondent from a leading British broadsheet just as Martin Jol’s appointment as Mark Hughes successor broke. As the only two occupants of a lift which was supposed to be transporting us from a charity lunch towards the Tube, we’d already been chatting about Craven Cottage and the like, when his smartphone buzzed with the news. I’ll remember his words – and the big grin that accompanied them – for a while:

That’s a great appointment. Jol will promote some of Fulham’s young talent, transform the style of play to a more continental approach and make you an attractive side to watch at the Cottage. Plus professionally, I love him – he’s always good for a quote.

All three points seem spot on so far, especially the last one. You can see why Jol’s so popular with the scribes when he offers lines like these, an assessment of Fulham’s ultimately academic attacking play at the Madjeski Stadium last week:

In Holland, we’ve got a phrase with blonde girls. They look good from afar – but are far from good. We looked good, but without a purpose.

Whether Jol prefers brunettes isn’t really our concern – although Fulham’s finest performers at Reading were Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov – but you can’t argue with his analogy. All the pretty patterns that the pair created in fashioning a winning position – twice – amounted to nothing after the sort of shoddy defending associated with struggling sides allowed the hosts’ to pinch a point. It’s all very well being eye-catching up front, but if it leaves holes that seasoned Premier League performers like John Arne Riise, Brede Hangeland, Aaron Hughes and Mark Schwarzer can’t close, then Fulham can kiss goodbye to kicking on from the steady mid-table position they’ve occupied with regularity recently.

There has been outdoubted progress under Jol. His willingness to blood young talent has seen first Kerim Frei and then Alex Kacaniklic explode onto the Premier League scene and his capture of Dimitar Berbatov and Mahamadou Diarra for next to nothing when compared to the big money that’s splashing around in the modern game should still be applauded. The prospect of a Diarra-Ruiz-Berbatov axis is simply mouthwatering. Fulham are far less predictable than in past seasons, because as Rich over at Craven Cottage Newsround has pointed out this week, our system is suddenly a lot more symmetrical.

With a more fluid, European system in place, stopping Jol’s side isn’t as simple as sticking two men on Danny Murphy any more. Ruiz will probably spend most of the season floating from a central position behind Berbatov, with Diarra drifting forward dangerously from deep. The Mali midfielder’s ball-carrying is under-rated and with Damien Duff’s devastating early season form now being seriously challenged by an exciting new arrival in Ashkan Dejagah, Jol is spoiled for choice in offensive areas. That’s before he considers whether Berbatov might need a partner – poor old Mladen Petric must be feeling a little hard done by, having to make do with a place on the bench after his scintillating start to life in English football.

The most pressing concern, though, will be how alarmingly open Fulham appear at times. Without a classical midfield destroyer in the mould of a Dickson Etuhu – and Jol came curiously close to lamenting his departure briefly yesterday – the Whites have been unable to close out games. Late lapses have cost Fulham five points in the last month and the concession of silly free-kicks in dangerous positions has been just as disturbing as some of the downright desperate defending that followed. Even in open play, the central midfielders have often been caught too high up the pitch, leaving a lack of protection for the back four behind them, something that’s even more dangerous when Jol has given John Arne Riise a license to roam along the left the flank.

Giving up silly goals might just be the consequence of a couple of tactical tweaks designed to offer some of Fulham’s seriously impressive attacking talent some more roam in which to operate. If so, it’s a simple fix. With Mahamadou Diarra now fully fit and Chris Baird proving more than a mere stopgap alongside him, the pair could provide some sterner steel in front of a defence that will have to do a bit more work than in the Hodgson era. And asking your key lieutenants to attack the ball as if the action was taking place in the opposing penalty area, might see a few of those nervy set-play situations pass without triggering more heart-stopping moments in the Fulham penalty area.

Jol’s team in still one in transition. His first season at Fulham went far better than Andre-Vilas Boas’ introduction to English football down the road, and the given the ease which with the Whites are now finding the net, you could construct a case to suggest that they might not miss Mousa Dembele or Clint Dempsey as much as we thought back in August. Equally, Fulham are looking far more potent on their travels – and picking up points as opposed to slumping to dire away defeats. But’s Jol’s a winner – you sense that draws don’t give the Dutchman as much contentedness as Hodgson, which may owe something to the latter’s Italian influences. You can be sure that he’ll want pretty to be followed by successful when we come to write our assessment of his time at Craven Cottage.

Frei feels Cardiff can sustain promotion push

Kerim Frei has settled in well on loan at Cardiff City and, after a brief debut as a substitute on Saturday, believes the Bluebirds should be able to maintain a genuine promotion push this season and have all the hallmarks of a side that could stay in the top flight if they manage to go up from the Championship.

The teenage Turkish midfielder, who joined the Welsh side on a month’s loan from Fulham on Friday, made his first appearance for Cardiff as a late substitute in their 4-0 win over Burnley and is already comfortable at the club. The 18 year-old, whose untimely injury whilst on international duty with the Turkish under-21 side has seen him slip down Martin Jol’s pecking order despite an impressive introduction to the Premier League last term, is looking forward to regaining his match sharpness under Malky Mackay.

Straight away I can see what a good side Cardiff are. You only have to look at some of the players here. It’s a very professional club and everyone has been really helpful and will go out of their way to do something for you. I already feel very settled.

On the pitch, Cardiff want to play football and that is great. That is what is important in the Premier League. We want to score goals and you could see that against Burnley. Cardiff are top of the league now and they definitely have the quality to go up and when they do, in my opinion, they will stay there.

Frei is relishing the opportunity to continue his development on loan having made 25 appearances during his first season in the Fulham first team picture last year.

I came here to play football and I’m hoping that’s what will happen. I had about 10 minutes against Burnley and I had a couple of nice moments. I hope maybe the Cardiff supporters saw a little bit of what I am about. I really want to enjoy my time with Cardiff and I think I am going to do that.


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 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.


The next step for Frei

I know we have already had a good look at our exciting youngster but I thought that I would add my thoughts after today’s game. Every time I have seen Frei this year I have only gotten more excited. He is quick, has wonderful footwork and seems completely unafraid to run at defenders no matter who they are (just ask John Terry and Ivanovic). He is the sort of player we just aren’t used to seeing coming out of the Fulham ranks and is one who we sure as flip don’t want to lose!

I think that Jol has used him very wisely this year, bringing him in for big games to boost his confidence while not having him in the team every week to perhaps keep the eyes of other clubs off him. At the same time, I don’t really think that he would be fully ready to play every week for just a couple of reasons:

1. AGE: OK, I know that some people might say that it is talent and not age that’s gets you into teams but we need to remember just how young the boy is. Also, experience is a very important thing in the Premier League and we saw that he can be naive at times (remember Odense?). It’s nothing for him to be ashamed about because generally his decision making is very good but I think he still has a bit to learn but when training with players like Dembele, Dempsey and Murphy every week this will come.

2) MAYBE TOO FEARLESS? I absolutely love seeing defenders not knowing what to do whenever Frei decides to have a run at them. They either stand off him or they dive in and foul him. It was his clever footwork today that gained the free kick for our winner and his part in the goal should be praised. Although I think he might run the risk of being slightly too adventurous at times. He is very exciting to watch but I just hope that this continues and he doesn’t start giving the ball away in scary places on the pitch.

3) STRENGTH: Again this was shown in today’s game. He came on for the last 10-15mins or so and again I got excited when he got the ball. But there was a time that he did a lovely piece of skill in the box but then was very easily pushed off the ball. Any stronger and he might have beat the player again and had a shot. I think that this summer will be important for him in terms of the gym. If he puts on a bit of weight (in muscle obviously!) then it will be a lot harder for people to knock him off the ball. Look at Messi- very small, class footwork but extremely strong! You perhaps won’t think of physical strength when talking about Messi because it is generally his nimble footwork that lets him glide past players with ease but I remember seeing a slow mode replay of someone trying to tackle him in the Champions League final last year but the defender just bounced off him. If Frei just beefs up a bit then I think his performances will just get even better!

A key thing for Frei is that he stays at Fulham next season. We are a club were young players are being given the chance – Frei, Trotta and Kacaniklic. Leaving would be a mistake, nothing else. I really love watching him play and want him at Fulham for many years to come. In my opinion he is one of the most exciting players to the introduced to the Premier League this year, and that’s not something you normally hear about Fulham. Also, with the rest of our exciting youngsters, the future looks bright for Fulham and I wouldn’t want to support anyone else. COYW!

Trotta’s treble helps reserves hammer Newcastle

Fulham’s reserves hit five for the second successive week as a sensational second half display saw them thrash Newcastle’s second string 5-0 at Motspur Park yesterday afternoon.

A bright start from Ray Lewington’s side, which was a mixture of young academy graduates and a couple of first-team regulars, saw Marcello Trotta have an early goal disallowed for a foul on a Newcastle defender. At the other end, Brandon Miele brought a fine save from Csaba Somogyi and Alex Smith soon had to scramble the ball off the line from a corner.

After lovely interplay between Pajitim Kasami and Kerim Frei fashioned a chance for the younger Swiss international, which Frei fired agonisingly wide, Fulham took the lead in fairly comical circumstances. Newcastle goalkeeper Jak Alnwick’s hit Smith and flew into the net – and the home side immediately drew confidence from their lead. Smith almost doubled his tally just before the break after Bjorn Helge Riise had done brilliantly to hold off his marker and retain position but the Fulham skipper’s chip drifted just wide.

Lewington sent his charges out with instructions to kill the game off early in the second period and they heeded his words. It took only eight minutes for Trotta to second Fulham’s advantage as the Italian played a one-two at pace with Smith and fired into the bottom corner. The teenager, who has been on loan at both Wycombe and Watford this season, then added a second after Frei had tricked his way past two defenders and cut the ball back past a stranded Alnwick from the byline.

Frei then struck the post after being played in by Trotta, but the Whites didn’t need to wait long for a fourth goal. It arrived courtesy off the sliding Kasami who threw himself in to finish an inviting Riise cross with eight minutes to play. Another terrific centre from the Norwegian allowed Trotta to complete his hat-trick with a fine close-range header.

FULHAM RESERVES (4-2-3-1): Somogyi; Grimmer, A. Smith, Burn, Briggs; Gecov, Davies; B.H. Riise, Kasami, Frei; Trotta.

NEWCASTLE RESERVES:  Alnwick; Nzuzi, Kitchen, Storey, Hoganson (Logan 55), Maddison, Sayer, Richardson, Miele, Moyo (J. Smith 71), Taylor. Subs (not used): Jonathan Mitchell

REFEREE: Derek Eaton