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Always thought you could pick a better team than Martin Jol? Forever telling your mates that you can spot talent a mile off? Then why don’t you put those famed managerial wits to test against your fellow Fulham fans in the Fantasy Football League?

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There’s only two Moussa Dembeles

The younger Moussa Dembele in action for PSG's youth side

I got an excited phone call over the weekend from my friend Claire, who sits in the Riverside, which went something like this:

Claire: Hello, Dan, I’ve got fantastic news that’s going to have you doing a lap round the office in delight …
Dan: Really? I’d like to hear this.
Claire: Moussa Dembele’s signed a new three-year contract. It’s on the internet in France.
Dan: Wow. That’s fantastic.
Claire: I know. So pleased we’re managed to hold onto him.
Dan: Have the club announced it yet?
Claire: I don’t know. I’ve just seen it on some Paris-based football website.

This is the point at which I started to get a little wary. Of course, it turned out that our Belgian playmaker hadn’t penned a new deal, but that we’d signed his namesake a highly-rated sixteen year-old striker from Paris Saint-Germain. Once the initial disappointment that Dembele senior hadn’t committed his long-term future to the club, I began to get excited about the forward eight years his junior. One of the stars of the French under-16 side, he has scored three goals in sixteen appearances and the fact that he has chosen to continue his development at Motspur Park is a major coup for Fulham and another indication that the revamp of our transfer strategy, investing in the next generation as well as our current Academy, is working.

Collins John

John Collins

Of course, it’s not like Fulham don’t have form for this. The last time we signed a largely unheralded foreign striker we wheeled out someone who was almost his namesake to celebrate the deal on the pitch when we were in exile at Loftus Road. That evening John Collins (pictured on the right here shortly after teaming up with his mentor Jean Tigana), a superb footballer and an even more impressive individual who strikes me as being wasted in a television studio given the promising start to his managerial career, introduced Collins John (shown left, scoring that wonderful goal at the Riverside Stadium). It might have been a bit of a laugh, but it stuck in the mind – as does the Dutch striker’s criminal waste of some special talent. Let’s hope the Parisian Dembele has a far better attitude than the youngster who seemed to have the world at his feet after coming from war-torn Liberia and enjoying a fairy-tale start to life in the top flight. The lesson of not taking the glory of professional football should come with a Collins John case study.

Claus Jensen

There were the Danish international team-mates Claus (pictured celebrating a Fulham goal, right) and Niclas Jensen, who played for Chris Coleman’s side at the same time having been team-mates at Lyngby in the mid-90s but were unrelated. Both have been unfairly maligned. Claus, a ball playing midfielder of real quality, couldn’t revive his career and was beset by injury problems. When he was on the field, Fulham looked a far better side and his vision created rare sights of goal for a side that was struggling to score with any regularity. Similarly, Niclas wasn’t absolutely hopeless full-back that he has been remembered as.

Niclas Jensen

Jensen’s performance during England’s 4-1 humbling in 2005 illustrated why Coleman felt he was such a steal on a free transfer. There’s absolutely no way that you’d win 62 caps for your country and represent Denmark at two major tournaments if you’re useless. He struggled to regain form and fitness after being replaced by Wayne Bridge and acting on an ‘play or I’ll drop you’ ultimatum from national coach Morten Olsen, he quickly moved ‘home’ to FC Copenhagen. After a couple more seasons in Denmark, Jensen (pictured left during his Fulham career) retired and embarked on a career as a football agent. He now represents some of the brightest young Scandinavian talent from his Danish base.

Sean Davis celebrates scoring a late equaliser against Sheffield Wednesday that clinched the Championship for Jean Tigana's side

There was a time during the Coleman/Sanchez period where we seemed to have a fetish for anybody called Davi(e)s. Sean will always have a special place in Fulham’s history as the only player to have played at all four levels of the professional pyramid for the club – as well as those goals against Blackburn and Sheffield Wednesday – even if his career did seem to hurtle off the rails once he left the Cottage. Steve Davis never really got the chance to show the skills that Sanchez had cultivated as Northern Ireland boss (what with the ball being regularly launched well over the midfield in a desperate attempt to reach the ‘positions of maximum opportunity’) but went on to be a terrific asset to a now hastily-disassembled Rangers’ side. As a result of the Ibrox turmoil, the former Aston Villa midfielder will be lining up for newly-promoted Southampton against us.

Finally, Simon Davies occupies a special place in Fulham folklore. The undoubted star of the 2007/08 season scored five league goals and was the one constant in a struggling side beset by injuries, the Welshman’s versatility saw him played from the left of midfield in an early indication that Roy Hodgson liked inverted wingers. He scored the vital equaliser against Aston Villa before Jimmy Bullard’s last-gasp winner and created both the goals in that win at Reading that restored some belief. The first with a low cross that found Brian McBride and Erik Nevland’s injury-time clincher came after a one-two with Davies sent the winger scampering through the centre before the Norwegian kept his composure to convert an inviting pass.

As a taxi driver - who didn't know I was a Fulham fan - said to me six months ago, 'If Messi had scored that goal, everyone would still be talking it now'.

His terrific equaliser against Hamburg, a feat full of technical class and physical bravery after an exceptional spot by Danny Murphy, doesn’t need retelling. That was his first European goal and he doubled his tally in the final with a nerveless volley just when Fulham needed a break. Frustrated by malleolar problems in recent seasons, Davies could remain a key part of Fulham’s jigsaw. Martin Jol used him as a central midfielder on his brief return to first-team action at Swansea last December and he has all the qualities to be a Murphy-like replacement if the manager wants a bit more pace to break the lines out wide. Whatever his Fulham career holds, Simon certainly won’t be forgotten.

People often ask, ‘what’s in a name?’ Plenty, of course. It can identify someone correctly, although not always at Craven Cottage. Let’s home the younger Dembele comes close to matching Moussa’s magical feet in a few years time. Here’s some footage of his fine display against Kashima Antlers from February to whet the appetite:

Royal Investment?

We’ve all seen it happen in the Premier League- rich (sometimes royal, sometimes not even noble) men come along and see the chance to buy a football club that can be used to bring a certain respect to himself that cars and houses cannot bring. After all, Football is the world’s most popular sport. Utter the words “Manchester United” in any country, and they will almost certainly be recognized by any person you speak to. The World Cup Final in 2010 had an estimated viewing audience of 715.1 Million people or 1 out of every 10 people in the world. Saying that you own the team that, let’s imagine, won the Premier League will acquire you a certain respect that cars can’t provide.

Does he really care for his club?

Now, excuse me for being a tad cynical in my opening statements, but the financial reports of our Blue neighbours and more recently the blue half of Manchester will almost certainly come back to haunt both clubs when the money sloshing round in football eventually comes crashing down (whenever that may be- 10 years, 50 years, or 100 years). You may wonder exactly what I’m talking about, why I’m discussing the idea of rich owners. Yes, you think, we have Al-Fayed. He’s rich, but he’s sensible-an example of the kind of owner every club dreams for. But then, Cottagers Confidential, posted something today that might just change that balance.

“Qatari Royal family set to grab stake in Fulham?”

This piece of news popped onto my twitter feed tonight. Intrigued, I quickly clicked on the link. The article states that the Qatari Royal family are “Willing to buy out a 49% share in Fulham” that would see “Al Fayed still have control over the club”.

Now, going back to my opening statements of this article, I immediately rejected the notion in my head. On first sight, we would become just another rich man’s plaything. Endless money would be poured in, the managerial door would swing about faster than you can say “Bazinga”, a stadium move to a soulless bowl would soon follow and Fulham would lose the identity that made the club Fulham. The word “Fulhamish” would become just a past legend, a notion to something that used to be. Yes, we might win something, we might become successful, but Fulham would have entered into a Faustian Pact that would ensure we lose that something special that makes Fulham Fulham.

But then, I stopped. I thought. I pondered the subject for almost an hour, considering every possible avenue.

And my mind warmed to the idea. Not the idea of a Deal with Devil, not the idea of losing the very essence of Fulham but of welcoming these investors, as long as certain constrictions were made. The idea of controlled investment, sensible investment. Investment that may be done for more than a love of the club, but investment with owners that understood what this club means to so many people.

Fulham, and let’s be honest here, are stuck in a rut. Too good for the lower end of the table, but not good enough at the moment to be playing with the big boys at the top of the league. Somewhere along the line there has to be something that not only takes us to the top 6 or 7 but reinforces our position there. Sure, we may get lucky during one fantastic, history-making season, but without the investment we would surely drop out. It took a lot for us to not only get into the top 10 but to stay there- the first summer transfer window of Hodgson cost almost 25 million pounds. The core of that team remains, and the reason why we are in the position we are. Players have been added for 5 million here (Dembele), 9 million there (Ruiz) and they have firmly secured our position as a top 10 side. But to even get close to the big spenders and their respective positions money must be spent. Qatari Owners, with control of course, would enable this. Fulham could become a regular top six side, with a few ventures into Champions League football perhaps. That is something that is even too tempting for me. But as I scanned the article it seems to be something that would require the exact Faustian Pact that I had so been dreading. That was until I read on…

Cottagers Confidential states that Al-Fayed would still have the majority share- the majority say on the board. He would, in effect, still be the business mind behind the Club. The Qatari owners would therefore be nothing but the extra cash fund that is needed to push the club towards that goal. Al-Fayed, as we are all aware, is a fantastic owner- shrewd, prepared to spend when necessary but overall loyal to the club. Somebody who would not let the club fall into financial ruin. He would sanction the transfers to get us there (and keep us there) but he would be aware of the need to bring in young, re-sellable talent, not old stars. He has learnt first-hand about the proud history that the club retains with Craven Cottage, about the fierce fight that Fulham fans put up when faced with a move away from what is our spiritual and historical home. He would, I hope, resist a move away from the ground- after all, he has just sanctioned the spending of 30 million pounds on a world class stand.

A Display of Loyalty from Al-Fayed

It seems to be the perfect deal- rich investors but a sensible Chairman. The realisation of a project that was started in 1997, the realisation to make the club great again.

Let them invest I say. Let them allow the club to take that extra step up, that step that all Fulham fans would want. But let them invest wisely; let them invest for the future. Make sure that they do not sanction outrageous transfers, make sure they don’t ruin what Fulham has here at the moment. Make sure they don’t take away the very soul of Fulham Football Club.



I’m Will and you can follow me on Twitter (@willpaul25) for all things Fulham

NB: The Riverside Stand application will not be heard on the 15th June, the next possible date for a hearing is the 8th July. The Agenda for that will be published the week before and of course the Hammy End team will keep you updated with the latest news.

Long may Louis Saha continue thinking outside the box

Thinking Inside the Box by Louis Saha
Vision Sports Publishing (272 pages), £14.99

Louis Saha loves scoring against Fulham. He’s done many times for Manchester United, Everton and he might sign off at White Hart Lane with the winner in our last game of the season for Tottenham this afternoon. Of course, the elegant French forward used to love putting the ball in the net at Craven Cottage too. It was under the tutelage of Jean Tigana, Christian Damiano and Roger Propos that Saha finally fulfilled the potential most of France had heard about since he shone as an eye-catching youngster at Clarefontaine  – shooting Fulham to the promised land of the Premier League, with 32 goals in a fine season, and topping the top flight scoring charts in 2003-04 before leaving for Old Trafford under something of cloud when Manchester United came calling.

Saha’s ill-advised comments as he sought a move that undoubtedly benefited his career might still rankle with a section of Fulham’s supporters, but reading through his memoir, initially released in France last summer and critically lauded for its honest appraisal of race relations (which is in now vogue following the Front Nationale’s strong showing in this month’s Presidential elections), you can’t help but admire him. The striker admits that he had written around 150 pages before realising that he wanted to write a different autobiography from the type footballers usually publish. He decided to turn journalist, interviewing his compatriots, fellow players and managers, to give the fans an unseen insight into the life of a professional footballer. The result is a compelling read that strays far from the pitch and touches on the frustrations of both an injury-ravaged player and a man who has a lot to say.

Saha’s interviews elicit empathy for Patrice Evra, the Manchester United full-back provides the book’s foreword, who cuts a forlorn figure on a Italian platform as tries to get to Sicily to join his new club, and almost gives up before being offered support and shelter by a stranger from Senegal. There is a revealing one-on-interview with Sir Alex Ferguson, which follows a painful chapter as Saha reveals the agony behind his failure to be passed fit for the 2006 Champions’ League final, and a chapter written by his wife Aurélie, on how she came to London at nineteen, life as a football’s spouse and the women ‘wannabes’ who get so much press attention. Saha compares the spirit of 1998, when France won their own World Cup to the dismay of 2010, with his own frustrations about missing the 2006 final sandwiched in between.

Saha’s searing honesty is in sharp contest to the guarded memoirs released by his fellow players while they are still picking up their pay cheques. English professionals, like many of the squad that have been to the last few major tournaments, have ‘written’ autobiographies that stick rigidly to what happened on the pitch, decrying a few managers, and passing on the tamest of anecdotes from their team-mates, knowing that they still need to forge a career. Saha talks candidly about his life and profession, writing revealingly about the moment when he nearly lost it all, setting aside what has previously described as ‘the Professional Sportsman’s Personal Sacrifice contract’ and foolishly riding a motorbike prior to Fulham’s first Premier League home game against Sunderland in August 2001:

She was sleek and black with knobbly bits here and there. She was oh, so sophisticated. I loved her charm, her feline shape and sassy ass which made my jaw drop. Once I’d seen her in the magazines she was always on my mind. For months I waited, eager to devour her as a wolf waits for a sheep to stray from its flock. Did I own up to my obsession? Of course I said nothing to my family; especially not my father as he is so serious and wouldn’t have understood. I told my girlfriend and our conversation was electrified. I felt small but gave in to temptation. When I removed the packaging, I let out a little whimper. I was not licensed to drive my beautiful KTM Duke and had less experience with motorbikes than an eight-year-old. I remember how I rode her with a great big smile on my face; my dreads whipped by the wind as I went no more than 20 or 30 miles an hour. What a loser!

It was, Saha admits, ‘a lesson in temptation’. And he learnt quickly as his friends Manu and the former Arsenal and French international forward, Sylvain Wiltord, accompanied his now-wife to A&E to watch the NHS surgeons surgeons try and patch up Fulham’s star man, who had bagged a brace at Old Trafford, only days earlier. Somehow Saha managed to score the crucial second as Tigana’s side picked up their first Premier League points, but it was a little too close for comfort.

Now 33, Saha gives little indication that’s he ready for the pipe and slippers of retirement. His form since joining Tottenham on loan in January – he’s scored four crucial goals and created plenty more – arguably should have persuaded Laurent Blanc to take him to Poland and Ukraine, but it’ll certainly ensure that there will be plenty of suitors should David Moyes not decide to extend his contract at Everton beyond the summer. There are plenty of Fulham fans – myself included – who feel he’d be the perfect foil for the potent Pavel Pogrebnyak, especially if Saha – who sighs as he says ‘I’ve nearly been great’ – still has a point to prove.

Great, like legend, is a word overused in modern sport. Saha’s been most impressive as a man, unfailing polite and friendly, as well as articulate and confident in discussing France at the crossroads with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last week. In a book I’d recommend you all read, he shares his pride at his nine year-old son correcting his English. Even if the title’s a play on his predatory instincts inside the penalty area, long may ‘King’ Louis continue thinking outside the box. It’s very refreshing.

Why Roy Hodgson’s right for England

The England manager’s job is one of those jobs that everyone thinks they can do. What’s great about football is that it brings people together – and everyone has an opinion. The rise of the internet and an insatiable appetite for comment that has existed since tabloid football hacks lowered the standard of punditry to the gutter means that almost everyone who wants to do can now broadcast their view. The commentariat have been out in force over the past week decrying the decision to appoint Roy Hodgson, who needs no introduction to regular readers of these pages, as Fabio Capello’s successor – thereby derailing the Harry-for-England bandwagon. They are wrong, though, and here’s why.

Roy Hodgson’s international record made him the stand-out English candidate. Once the Football Association bowed to the jingoistic urges of the country and went public with their desire to name an Englishman as the next national team coach, there was a shortage of credible names in the frame. Newcomers to international management quickly get found out (something England fans don’t need reminding about after seeing how swiftly the likes of Keegan, McLaren and Capello himself got into difficulty). The eve of a major tournament, with organisational uncertainty having been wafting around the corridors of Soho Square for a while, is no time for a novice. Hodgson’s experience of making unfashionable nations better sides in double quick time means he fits the bill.

Take, for instance, his remarkable success with Switzerland. Hodgson took the national team to the 1994 World Cup, their first championship finals since since 1966, qualifying from a group that included Portugal and Italy, taking four points off Arrigo Sachi’s Azzuri (who went on to reach the final of the tournament, remember) in the process. He wasn’t finished there. Once they got to the States, the Swiss reached the last sixteen, where they were unfortunate to be eliminated by Spain on penalties. They eased to qualification for Euro ’96, with Hodgson leaving before the finals in England to take over permanently at Internazionale, and were ranked the third best side in the world. More than a decade later, he almost guided Finland to Euro 2008 and masterminded their rise to a record-high 33rd place in FIFA’s international rankings.

Unusually for an English coach, Hodgson cut his teeth on the continent and won’t be flummoxed by facing the different tactical approaches of foreign nations. He’s managed sixteen different sides in eight countries winning six league titles. He revels in the tactical minutiae of football, having been a regular member of UEFA’s Technical Support Group and wrote many of the coaching manuals that have helped some of Europe’s best young minds get to grips with how you set up a winning side. Hodgson’s thoughtful approach to management won’t endear him to bloke who things you should bash in the box, but it is more likely to bring reward that a mere motivator. Of course, his thoughts on formations and how to win tight games – cribbed directly from UEFA’s website – flew right over the heads of the Daily Mail’s readers.

Hodgson’s also a realist. Like the very best father figures, he’ll sit you down and explain patiently why it’s best not to get too carried away, which is something we should be doing about this time of year every time England reach a major tournament. For all the bluster about the golden generation, we’ve not reached a quarter final since 2006. It’s about time people realised that we’re no longer a leading light of the world game. The Football Association deserve credit for making a considered, long-term appointment that, should their internal structures be reformed correctly, could deliver a lasting legacy beyond the senior England side. Hodgson loves nothing more than coaxing a little extra out of talented players on the training field. With Burton finally close to completion, you can imagine him spending hours passing on tips to the country’s best youngsters. He’ll wholeheartedly endorse Trevor Brooking’s blueprint for youth development.

There’s been criticism of Hodgson’s brand of football but it’s remarkably simplistic. If England try to transfer the frenzied pace of the Premier League on the international stage or copy the Barcelona model, they’ll come home with their tails between their legs. I’m sick of poorly organised, defensively-suspect England sides being a perennial disappointment. Hodgson, whom the nation woke up to in a big way when he was a BBC pundit at the World Cup shortly after masterminding Fulham’s fine run to Hamburg, will drill defensive shape into even the most disbelieving prima donna and he’ll quickly dispense with those who don’t toe the line. Ask Jimmy Bullard.

What’s worried me has been the almost casual casting aside of his club record by supposedly serious journalists. Gabriele Marcotti, who was featuring on Talksport’s phone-ins for years, before suddenly being promoted as the cultured continental thinker who could tell the English how to do things better ventured this laughable assertion about Hodgson’s Fulham side when asked for a comment by the Beeb:

Personally, my reservations would be about his ability to judge players from a distance. At Fulham, with the exception of Brede Hangeland, they were mainly players he’d inherited. It was almost like they did well despite his signings.

It’s almost comical that the Times’ signature football columnist doesn’t know that Hodgson reshaped a doomed Fulham side after pulling off the most miraculous of escapes from relegation. The players he didn’t inherit included Mark Schwarzer, Stephen Kelly, Damien Duff, Zoltan Gera and Bobby Zamora, all of whom played pivotal roles in the European run that convinced the country of his birth to give this throwback to football’s good old days a second look. For Mr. Marcotti’s benefit and everyone else’s enjoyment, here’s a look at Hodgson’s best bits from Craven Cottage, with thanks to the brilliant Billy Murphy from Acquiesce Productions:

I’m afraid I can’t end without mentioning the disgraceful front page splash of the newspaper that shall not be named. For a company that had just been savaged by a legislative enquiry into serious wrong-doing, it was a staggeringly depressing error of judgement to run a front page mocking a good man’s speech impediment. In the 21st century, it smacked of the bore at the bar who goes for the cheap laugh and misses with predictable regularity. Not only that, but it’s this particular red top that always implores us to get behind the boys. They got off to a great start.

The press and the public might have wanted Harry, whose limitations have been laid bare for all to see in the last few months at White Hart Lane. If Hodgson’s given a chance, they might just be grateful that the FA were brave. What’s more, people have finally realised that you need a Craven Cottage connection to take England to success in international tournaments. For George Cohen and Bobby Robson, read Roy Hodgson. He’ll even have Ray Lewington at his side for good measure. At a stroke, my interest in England has been revived. These four years should be fun.