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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:

On this day last year …

Fulham began their season with a 3-0 win over NSI Runavik at Craven Cottage in the first qualifying round of the Europa League.

Of the three scorers in that first leg, only Damien Duff remains at the club. There was an early sign of Martin Jol’s intentions as the new manager when former Liverpool youngster Lauri Dalla Valle stepped off the bench to make his debut for the club.

I wonder whether the extra six weeks rest will help Fulham to come strongly out of the starting blocks against Norwich City at the Cottage on August 11.

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.

Roy seeks to summon the spirit of Shakhtar

There isn’t much Roy Hodgson hasn’t seen or done in football. Walking out in the Donbass Arena as England coach for his first competitive game tonight might be his proudest moment as a manager, but the recently-installed national boss won’t lack experience, preparation or a game plan as the Three Lions seek to win a European Championship opener for the first time in seven attempts. Stopping a French side unbeaten in 21 games will hold few fears for Hodgson, who relishes a challenge and often leads unfancied outfits to successes built on organisation and clever use of the football.

Much of the talk in a frantic few weeks since Hodgson took the reigns from Fabio Capello – perhaps picking the worst hospital ball since Stuart Pearce tried to find David Seaman with a weak backpass five seconds in Bologna in 1993 – has been based around what England can do at the finals. The limitations of English football, laid bare by the fact that Hodgson’s squad is the only one that doesn’t include a member playing outside of their domestic, and the manager’s candour mean that there is a rare realism about the nation’s chances heading into a major finals. England’s stock might have fallen since Capello’s early romp through World Cup qualifying was followed by the definition of anti-climax in South Africa, but the new coach’s verisimilitude shouldn’t be mistaken for running up the white flag.

Hodgson has form in taking teams further than people expect. He took Switzerland, who hadn’t qualified for an international championships since the sixties, to the last sixteen of the World Cup in 1994 and led them to the Euro ’96. He came agonisingly close to taking Finland to their first finals, lifting to them to a record-high of 33rd in FIFA’s international rankings back in 2007. His feats as a club manager were celebrated across the continent, having won eight league titles, long before his compatriots belated recognised his talents when Hodgson returned home to revitalise relegation-haunted Fulham – who he led to the most of unexpected of European finals – before guiding West Brom, who themselves were a lingering close to the drop, to their highest league finish for three decades.

Those who have only seen Hodgson’s England through the prism of two testing warm-up fixtures in Oslo and against a talented Belgian side at Wembley might mutter about negativity and parking the bus. The armchair critics, as well as the respected football journalists who should know better, would do well to remember that the victory over Norway was England’s first in two decades and the last English coach to win in Oslo was a certain Sir Alf Ramsay in 1966. The narrowness of the subsequent defeat of Belgium worried more than a few, but given Hodgson places such a premium on shape and defensive organisation he would have been derived as much satisfaction from the clean sheet as the encouraging link-up play between Ashley Young, who looks reborn in the number ten role, and Danny Welbeck that created such a well-taken winner.

Hodgson has attracted brickbats and frankly baffling allegations for some of his selections but given that the template he has built in almost four decades of management has included a demand for his wide players to work it shouldn’t come as a surprise any more. In the same way as Ramsay spent the build-up to 1966 evangelising to his detractors about the merits of playing without wingers, Hodgson could have led a enlightening tactical seminar on what he wants from his wide men should the assembled press have focused on what mattered rather than who isn’t in Krakow. The instructions he will have passed onto James Milner and Stewart Downing, wide midfielders picked for their work rate rather than their explosive impact in the final third, will have centred around the need to limit the amount of roaming Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri are allowed to do infield.

Back in February 2010, Hodgson took an unheralded English side to the Donetsk, then the home of the reigning UEFA Cup champions, and successfully stifled the Samba-style passing of the Ukrainian side, whose midfield followed a Brazilian beat. Having been outplayed in a bewildering first twenty five minutes of the first leg at Craven Cottage, Hodgson’s Fulham charges learnt their lesson and ceded both space and possession effectively in a disciplined defensive performance that laid down a marker in the competition. What’s more – they cancelled out Shakhtar’s valuable away goal with an early one of their own from Brede Hangeland. The training ground drills on shape, essentially gaming scenarios that would be repeated when the first whistle blew, were repeated until boredom faded and memory took over at Motspur Park. It’s something the 2012 England vintage have had to absorb since coming together a few weeks ago in Manchester but Hodgson and his number two, Ray Lewington, will have the memory of that special night they sunk Shakhtar to carry into the Donbass Arena this evening.

England’s fate won’t be decided by tonight’s tough examination by a French side who have finally put their own South African shenanigans behind them under Laurent Blanc but by three tight group games. Succeeding in tournament football is dependent on defences keeping it tight and forwards finishing their chances. Fulham fans used to claim that Hodgson set his sides up not to get beat: aiming for catenaccio away from home – influenced by his four years in Italy and a slightly more ambitious 1-0 at Craven Cottage. They weren’t far off and his England side certainly won’t be as open as their predecessors, but memories of the Bloemfontein drubbing by Germany should convince the sceptics that isn’t the worst thing in the world.

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.