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The returning Zoltan Gera is likely to start on the bench for the Baggies

Can you remember back as far as before the international break and the transfer window? Prior to a woeful League Cup exit at Sheffield Wednesday, there was actually a bit of optimism abounding around Craven Cottage. Fulham had played some sublime football in the first week of the season, passing Norwich off the pitch with an elan and ease that raised expectations, only for Martin Jol’s side to repeat the trick at Old Trafford a week later and be unfortunate not to leave with a point. Then came that trip to Hillsborough, the departures of Mousa Dembele and Clint Dempsey, and in the wildly fluctuating mind of the ficklest Fulham fans, the Whites were suddenly nailed on for relegation.

Of course, the reality is somewhat more nuanced. Losing Dembele obviously leaves a whole in central midfield, but since Jol only fashioned him into a playmaker last Christmas, the Belgian’s stint alongside Mahmadou Diarra has been a short and successful experiment. Dempsey’s departure was far more inevitable once he didn’t feature during pre-season and there’s little point in dwelling on those who have left the club now. The immediate concern is that, with new signing Giorgos Karagounis short of match fitness and Diarra missing this afternoon, the Whites might be a bit short of bite in central midfield. Step forward Chris Baird, criminally underused by both Jol and Mark Hughes, who turned in a superb succession of appearances at the heart of the Fulham midfield in spring 2010, and probably has the best range of passing of a non-natural midfielder at Motspur Park. As Jimmy Bullard found out to his cost, Baird doesn’t hold back – and his meaner side might be needed against unbeaten West Brom this afternoon.

Anyone hoping to serenade the returning Zoltan Gera might have to direct their adulation towards the Riverside touchline for a while as Steve Clarke looks set to stick to the side that spoiled Everton’s ambitions of putting together a record run of league wins before the international period. That means that Gera might be joined on the bench by a couple of other internationals in Peter Odemwingie and Markus Rosenberg. Jol will need to construct a plan to contain the influential James Morrison, who has just signed a long-term contract at the Hawthorns, but the Baggies are far from a one-man side. Argentine Claudio Yacob has been talked up by some South American journalists as a worthy successor to Esteban Cambiasso in the famous number five shirt and, after he delivered the complete performance on his full debut against Liverpool, it is not difficult to see why.

Even if Fulham manage to subdue a Baggies midfield that must rival any of the top six in terms of industry and creativity – we’ve not even discussed Chris Brunt’s left foot yet – it’ll be tough to keep the likes of Shane Long and Romelu Lukaku quiet. Roy Hodgson considered signing Long whilst he was at Craven Cottage and promptly snapped up the Republic of Ireland forward last sumemr while he was building on a successful salvage operation in the Midlands. Long openly admits that he relishes the physical side of the game, while Lukaku, who reportedly turned down a loan move to Fulham after being persuaded to move to Birmingham by Clarke, will seek to exploit some of the fragility in Fulham’s defence that was on display when Andy Carroll dominated proceedings at West Ham a fortnight ago.

Fulham will certainly need to start well – all six of the league goals Jol’s side have conceded so far this season have been conceded in the first 45 minutes. The Baggies might not have won at the Cottage since October 1967 but are no longer a soft touch as demonstrated by Somon Tchoyi’s equaliser last season and a victory this afternoon might send them top of the table. Dimitar Berbatov, set to make his first start since his surprise arrival from Manchester United at the end of August, might have other plans though.

MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J. A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Sidwell; Kacaniklic, Duff, Petric; Berbatov. Subs: Stockdale, Kelly, Briggs, Karagounis, Kasami, Ruiz, Rodallega.

Welcome Home Woy

Tonight sees the return of Roy Hodgson to Craven Cottage for the first time as an opposition manager since leaving Fulham in 2010. It is my sincere belief that we should stand up and applaud Woy rather than castigate him as a villain despite the manner of his exit to Liverpool a year and a half ago.

Hodgson’s conduct as he departed our friendly confines was indeed somewhat unsavoury. Roy spent that summer appearing on the BBC’s World Cup coverage denying any interest in a purported move to Merseyside, notwithstanding widespread media speculation.

Following the conclusion of his tour to South Africa, the dice began to roll, and pieces began to fall into place. Chairman Mo rejected Liverpool’s overtures for our manager, leading Roy to eventually quit his job to force through a move. Something that, at the time, angered, frustrated and saddened the group of fans who had just witnessed the most successful season in the club’s long history. He’d bitten the hand that fed him.

In hindsight though, and with perhaps a pinch of perspective, can you really blame him for wanting to try his hand at Liverpool. In revenue terms, Liverpool remains to this day the 4th biggest club on the planet behind Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

There’s not many clubs that could attract over half a million people to midweek victory celebrations, as Liverpool did for the Champions League parade in 2004. Our Russian funded neighbours from up the road certainly could not. Let’s face it, its not like he left us because we lacked ambition only to wind up taking a lesser job in Shepherds Bush.

Roy gave us a parting gift. He bought Paul Konchesky from us for the princely sum of £3m plus two highly touted prospects in Lauri Dalle Valle and Alex Kakaniklic, the latter of whom has just joined Watford for the remainder of the season on loan. We seem to have the best of that deal with two prospects at the beginning of their careers with Konch now plying his trade a division down.

A further dodged bullet perhaps, as Roy brought Christian Poulsen to Anfield – a player who had rejected a move to Fulham from Juventus the previous summer, and was hounded out of Merseyside nearly as fast as his manager.

However, let us not look back at Roy’s time elsewhere but at what he did for our wonderful club. We were languishing near to foot of the Premiership when Roy was plucked from the relative obscurity of the Finland national team, and parachuted in to replace the ineffective spendthrift, Lawrie Sanchez. Roy led a top to bottom transformation of Fulham from losers to winners (as long as we weren’t playing away). Heck, for that special period of the Great Escape, we could even win away.

Amongst his astute signings over his two and a half seasons were Brede Hangeland, Erik Nevland, Bobby Zamora, John Pantsil, Mark Schwarzer, David Stockdale, Dickson Etuhu and Damian Duff. For now we’ll try and forget about the Giles Barnes, Jari Litmanen and Olivier Dacourt eras!

What’s more, Roy gave us a manager of whom we could rightly be proud. He was one of us. Quite frankly he still is. Roy is more likely to read a Nobel Laureate than his name in the tabloids or to walk his dog along a country lane than name a Monaco bank account after it. Roy epitomised the good about our club. He was articulate, knowledgeable and nice enough to be your own grandfather. It is not often you get a manager who is on UEFA’s technical committee, after all.

On the pitch, Roy led us to unparalleled success. We were disciplined, organised and creative. When he installed Hughes and Hangeland together we had the most improved defence in the league. His impromptu strike force of Gera, another tremendous signing, and Zamora took Europe by storm, between them sinking Basel, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Hamburg in the most astonishing six months I’ve ever witnessed in football.

LMA Manager of the Year, a 7th place finish in the Premier League and a European final. God bless that man. We all loved Cookie as he was Fulham through and through, Sanchez was a braggart and a fool who found himself in the right place at the right time when he kept us up, Hughes despite getting our Whites playing some good football always seemed too arrogant to feel like one of us; but Roy, he was part of our Fulham Family.

After the appalling treatment he got at Liverpool, Roy has found a home at West Brom, a club not too dissimilar from us in size and stature. He’s done well and I for one still count him as my personal choice to succeed Fabio Capello as England boss in the summer.

Hindsight can be a blessing and a curse. Whether or not Roy wishes he left, or not, I for one will be standing and clapping when Woy leads his West Brom team out onto the Cottage pitch tomorrow night and I hope you’ll join me in welcoming home a gentleman and a member of the Fulham Family. Hopefully he’ll even give us the three points to say sorry.

COYW

Gera: I chose to go

Zoltan Gera has denied that he was forced out of Fulham – saying that it was his choice to leave the London club and return to West Brom.

The Hungarian midfielder left Fulham on a free transfer at the end of June, rejecting a new contract offer tabled by Martin Jol. Gera says he had already given his word to Roy Hodgson, who had taken him from West Brom to Fulham in 2008, that he would return to the Hawthorns.

There was a chance of me staying at Fulham but I had already made a verbal agreement with West Bromwich Albion. After I spoke to Roy Hodgson, the Fulham manager changed. They wanted me to stay but I didn’t want to break my agreement (with West Brom).

I’m grateful to Fulham for the years I spent there. I’ve received only good things from them. I felt good and they wanted me to stay. It’s not true that they told me to go. It was my own decision. I considered it to be the best thing for me

I remain disappointed that Gera has left as he has shown throughout his Fulham career just what quality he can bring to the side. We certainly won’t forget those special goals he scored – not least the winner against Hamburg – and wish him all the best with the Baggies.

Gera poised to rejoin West Brom

Zoltan Gera has rejected a new contract with Fulham and is expected to sign for West Brom next week.

The Hungary captain had been expected to leave Craven Cottage this summer after struggling to feature for Fulham during Hughes’ ten months in charge. New manager Martin Jol attempted to retain Gera by offering him a contract extension on a lesser wage, but the midfielder opted to leave. Gera preferred to link up with Roy Hodgson, the man who brought him to Fulham on a free transfer in 2008, at the Hawthorns.

After a disappointing start to his first season with the club, Gera became a popular figure with the Fulham fans. He was chosen as the club’s Player of the Year for 2009-10, largely on the back of his outstanding exploits in the Europa League, which included the winning goal in a dramatic semi-final win over Hamburg. Gera made 122 appearances for the Whites – his last saw him sent off against Arsenal – and scored 17 goals.

He is due to have a medical with West Brom, with whom he spent four happy years before moving to London, next week having rejected offers from a number of European clubs.

Knee injury scuppers Gera’s West Brom move

Zoltan Gera’s planned return to West Brom has been thrown into doubt after a medical uncovered a medial knee ligament tear.

The Hungarian captain had been expected to be reunited with Baggies boss Roy Hodgson, who took him from the Hawthorns to Fulham in 2008, in a free transfer that had been finalised whilst Mark Hughes was still in charge at Craven Cottage. But the results of a medical – and a suggested minimum recovery time of two months – mean that the deal may now be off.

In a further twist, Martin Jol is reportedly keen to keep Gera, who starred during Fulham’s run to the Europa League final in 2010, at the club.