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Hangeland’s return the key to survival for Fulham

Guest writing for Hammyend.com Archie Rhind-Tutt looks at the return of Brede Hangeland and the significance that the Norwegian could have on the remainder of Fulham’s season.

These days, a phone call between David Moyes and Roy Hodgson would be an interesting insight into coping with two of the most high profile, and subsequently, most scrutinized jobs in English football. Just over nine years ago, Moyes and Hodgson probably had a different comprehension of the word scrutiny.

Brede-Hangeland

Back then in November 2004, a phone call did take place between Moyes and Hodgson. Managers of Manchester United and England, they weren’t. Manager of Everton and coach of Viking Stavanger, they were.

With a six foot six inch Stavanger centre back completing a trial at Everton, Moyes asked Hodgson if Brede Hangeland was good enough to play in the Premier League. Indeed he was, according to Hodgson. Yet despite his endorsement, Hangeland did not move to Moyes’s Everton. Instead, the towering Norwegian went to FC Copenhagen in 2006 but he would eventually get that Premier League move.

With his former manager moving to Craven Cottage in late 2007, Brede Hangeland became Roy Hodgson’s first signing at Fulham in January 2008 – and what a signing. Without Hangeland, you could argue whether Hodgson would be in the position he currently holds, such was the integral role he played in the side that revitalised Hodgson’s standing in English football.

Like most relationships, it all started on a cold Tuesday night in Bolton with a most glorious clean sheet. That night was the genesis of a central defensive partnership that would form the bedrock of Fulham’s success under Hodgson. Because it was there, that Hangeland first played with Aaron Hughes.

Salt and pepper, gin and tonic, fish and chips, Batman and Robin, dust pan and brush –Hangeland and Hughes was a combination to rival any. Hangeland, in footballing parlance “the stopper”, was the man charged with sniffing out the danger, meeting it head on whilst it was Hughes’ job to cover the lanky Norwegian should any pesky forward nip past him.

So they had to overcome some hard times, namely the Whites near relegation to the Championship in 2008. But after that hurdle was negotiated in the most improbable manner, it was with Hangeland and Hughes at the back that Fulham enjoyed, firstly, their best ever league finish and then most memorably, that run to the Europa League Final. Hangeland was the one who took most of the credit, linked with a move away as a result, with Hughes the able yet underappreciated sidekick.

But then came the inevitable fall after attaining such heights. Whilst the partnership made it through the Mark Hughes reign, it was to be Martin Jol who’d split up the pair and it’s no coincidence that Hangeland’s performances deteriorated. Pace has never been a great strength of the lanky Norwegian, so as a result, Jol’s increasingly attacking or defensively irresponsible tactics, depending on your point of view, were not conducive.

Still, by this point, Hangeland had been made Fulham captain after Danny Murphy’s departure. His mere presence in the side was still important though. Fulham and Hangeland’s form was already waning before he was ruled out through injury in October last year.

His final game of 2013 came against Crystal Palace where he was outjumped by Adrian Mariappa for the opening goal. Clearly the sciatic nerve problem, as it was later revealed, was affecting him given that Mariappa is nearly a foot smaller than the Norwegian. Fulham went on to win that game but it would be Jol’s final victory as five consecutive defeats after sealed his fate.

His successor Rene Meulensteen hasn’t had a chance to use Hangeland in the Premier League yet but he might well be the key to survival this season. In the eight games with Brede Hangeland this season, Fulham conceded 10 goals in eight games. In the 13 without him, the Whites have conceded a staggering 36 – averaging out at nearly three per game.

It’s not just his statistical importance to Fulham though – symbolically, he is crucial. It’s a mark of the man that away from home, no Fulham player makes a greater point of running over to the visiting fans to applaud them before kickoff. After every game, he’s there too. He embodies the spirit that you want from a captain.

It’s poignant too that his Premier League return should come against Arsenal. It was against the Gunners that he was first presented to the Craven Cottage faithful back in January 2008. His first Premier League goal for Fulham was also against Arsene Wenger’s side and during his time at Craven Cottage, he has been linked with a move to the Emirates on a few occasions.

Six years to the day that he signed for Fulham, Brede Hangeland is likely to lead the Cottagers out at front runners Arsenal on Saturday. A result is unlikely but that game won’t decide if Fulham survive. If Rene Meulensteen was able to bring in a lithe central defensive partner for Hangeland, it would only help but that looks unlikely given the backlog of centre backs at the club. Dan Burn appears to be Hangeland’s protégé judging by the FA Cup replay against Norwich.

000 Norwich FACR 21.ashx

Burn worked well with the captain on the Norwegian’s return from injury as the Whites kept only a second clean sheet in Rene Meulensteen’s 13th game in charge. He may not be the most suitable partner for the rest of the season but in the long term, he looks the heir apparent to Hangeland’s position in the side.

Even though 20 goals have been shipped in the last 6 league games, the general performances have been improved under Meulensteen. You might argue that it wasn’t too difficult when they’d plumbed to such depths as those given away at West Ham in Martin Jol’s final game. Then again, the ten goals conceded against Hull and Sunderland alone testify against any improvement but overall, there has been a greater balance to Fulham under the former Manchester United coach.

Brede Hangeland’s return to the first team will only improve that and providing he stays fit until the end of the campaign his comeback is likely to provide the stability that Fulham need to stay in the Premier League once more.

Archie is a reporter for BT Sport’s European Football Show and he produces LBC 97.3’s Saturday Afternoon radio programme Scores with Ian Payne. You can follow Archie on twitter @archiert1

Keep the faith

Ironically, given Dimitar Berbatov’s choice of t-shirt on Boxing Day, calmness is in short supply among the Fulham faithful at the moment. Given the hysterical reaction to what was another ultimately disappointing display three days, you could have been forgiven for thinking Martin Jol’s side had been trounced by Southampton rather than actually picking up a point. I’ve long since given up posting on the various Fulham forums and messageboards and, due to a difficult pre-Christmas period of my own, haven’t been able to string sentences together here, either but, hours before what has again been billed as ‘must-win’ game by some sections of support, a sense of perspective is necessary.

There’s no denying that Fulham are on a dismal run. The Whites have won just one of their last eleven fixtures and haven’t kept a clean sheet since the short journey down the Fulham Road a month ago. The fluid, eye-catching football that set pulses racing in the early weeks of the football has been glimpsed briefly, but is fleeting rather than frequent. Jol’s adoption of a more attacking mind-set has left previously reliable defenders, like Brede Hangeland, alarmingly exposed – and injuries have ruptured the spine of what was a strong side. Without high quality understudies, any team will look weaker without Mahmadou Diarra, Damien Duff, Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov.

But the problems aren’t insurmountable and Fulham’s plight is far from terminal. The Whites might have picked up one fewer point than at this stage last season, but there is a six-point gap between their current position and the relegation zone. This isn’t a situation reminiscent of when Lawrie Sanchez was sacked just before Christmas five years ago – or, in my view, comparable to when Mark Hughes’ team lingered above the drop zone, a little more recently. Jol’s side have played some scintillating football this season – think back to that afternoon at Arsenal six weeks ago – and can rediscover their joie de vivre.

Furthermore, managerial changes aren’t the way to achieve success. The three changes in management in over the last two seasons have seen a dizzying turnover in players, coaches and philosophies as well as scuppering any realistic chance of using that remarkable run to Hamburg as a springboard. Patience might have left the footballing lexicon of late, but those who exercise it are often rewarded. English football would look a lot different today had Manchester United’s board parted ways with Sir Alex Ferguson early in his reign – and, if Martin Jol should be looking anxiously over his shoulder after eighteen months at the Cottage, then it would imply that Roman’s Russian roulette wheel brand of stewardship is contagious.

The title of the piece comes from the phrase with which Micky Adams, who started Fulham’s climb from the abyss, used to finish his programme notes. It is as apt now as it was in the weeks after a feisty full-back stepped into Ian Branfoot’s shoes with the oldest club in London position perilously close to the Football League’s trap door. A more recent parallel would be when a lone voice at the back of the Hammersmith End implored his fellow Fulham fans to ‘stand up if you believe’  as Hamburg look likely to end that magical European run. I don’t need to remind anybody of what followed.

Watching Fulham can be frustrating but we’re lucky enough to be watching two real artisans, in Ruiz and Berbatov, in one of the most idyllic settings in the country. Not too long ago, Premier League football didn’t look like it was returning to Craven Cottage. When the new league broke away in 1992, the men in white coats would have ferried you away if you suggested it ever would. Jol has brought a classy Costa Rican and a brilliant Bulgarian to Fulham as well accelerating the development of Kerim Frei and Alex Kacaniklic through first-team football. His work’s obviously unfinished – so let’s keep calm and keep the faith.

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:

Murphy: English football needs a coaching revolution

Forgive me if we keep talking about Danny Murphy here. He might have left Fulham but he’s always been an intelligent voice from inside the game, although followers of his new side didn’t appreciate his first foray into discussing life in elite football.

Danny Murphy and Roy Hodgson during Fulham's European run

Murphy has joined a number of leading figures in the English game and overseas in calling for a change in the way we coach our young players in this country and he’s absolutely right. We could start with training a few more coaches.

It starts from what you are taught as youngsters. You need to change the whole philosophy of coaching in this country because a lot of clubs are trying to get a team on the pitch to win games, rather than look pretty and produce technically-gifted players.

On the flipside, we are talking about the quality of the Premier League in terms of what it brings to the fans – that intensity, passion, pace, end-to-end stuff. You don’t get both. It’s a fine balance between pleasing the fans and playing the right way. That is always a manager’s dilemma. Fans don’t want to see you being patient and sitting off.

Murphy learned about the science of football under possibly the most innovative coach around and certainly the one with the best track record of nurturing young talent. At Crewe, Dario Gradi ripped up the ridiculously dated coaching manuals and introduced his own ideas, with splendid results.

We played lots of different systems and positions. I remember playing sweeper once as a 15-year-old in the reserves. It was a brilliant education.

Murphy’s confident about England’s future, although I can’t help wondering Roy Hodgson’s side might have made the semi-finals had he taken Murphy – if only to break him off the bench with twenty minutes to go for his experience and spot-kick success rate.

Roy’s too clever not to accept change. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a huge improvement.

Can Roy bid the Azzuri ‘arrivederci’ again?

It’s here at last. June, 24th. Eight years ago, England exited Euro 2004 with a whimper. Punished for their pathetic penalties by Portugal, another agonising end hurt. In truth, England didn’t look half as threatening once Wayne Rooney had limped off and the only saving grace was the grudging recognition of Owen Hargreaves’ technical excellence in defeat.

Quarter-finals are usually the point of no return for England. Only twice have the Three Lions roared past this point in a major tournament since the one we hosted back in ’66 – and Lady Luck played her part on both occasions. By rights, England should have lost their last eight clash with Spain, who were denied the winner by an errant offside flag, at Euro ’96 but the sheer novelty of triumphing on spot-kicks was electrifying. Six years earlier, only the Gary Lineker in extra time carried Bobby Robson’s boys beyond the captivating Cameroon.

The realism that has accompanied Roy Hodgson’s brief tenure as national coach has been refreshing but the by-product of England’s serene progress through a tricky group is the raising of hopes up and down the land. Organisation, disciplined and lots of honest endeavour has carried England this far but beating an under-appreciated and united Italian outfit will need some artistry to be married to the application Hodgson demands.

Beckham, Ince and Gascogine toast that point in Rome

Grit is one way of getting through but desire and passion won’t be enough. England’s goalless draw in Rome that clinched a spot at France ’98 has been turned into a backs-to-the-wall battling display over the last decade but that point in June 1997 was based on far more than just Bulldog spirit. The manner of England’s passing that evening led Gazetta dello Sport to conclude that this was the night England ‘graduated from kick and rush’ and, in truth, Ian Wright was exceptionally unlucky not to have made it a more comfortable evening. The template for success was created in Nantes a few months earlier when England comfortably outclassed the Azurri on their way to winning Le Tournoi. Wright raced on a majestic pass from Paul Scholes before returning the favour for the late-arriving little pocket rocket, so shabbily treated in the end by Sven-Goran Eriksson, to double the lead from twenty yards. It doesn’t take much imagination to see Gerrard and Rooney painting pretty patterns like those this evening.

The build-up to England’s biggest game since that sunny Saturday at Wembley sixteen years ago has been dominated by discussion of the Italian influence on our national side – a rather lazy construct dreamed up by hacks linking Capello, catenaccio and the Italians who have earned their living here since the mid-90s. It rather understates the slipping standards of Serie A since the days when Football Italia beamed a Sunday afternoon game into British front rooms as the likes of Gascoigne, Platt and Ince strutted in their stuff in Italy. As Hodgson pointed out last night, it also understates his own influence on Italian football.

They’ve held Hodgson in high esteem in Italy for a while. Not just for reshaping the philosophy and technical strategy at Internazionale in the mid-to-late nineties but also because Hodgson’s achievements against Italian sides over the years have been significant. His Malmo side knocked Internazionale out of the European Cup in 1989, drawing at the San Siro thanks a late equaliser from Leif Engvist after a 1-0 home win. Hodgson’s Swiss team took four points off the Italians as they qualified for the World Cup in 1994 – beating Arrigo Sacchi’s side 1-0 in Berne and drawing 2-2 in Cagliari. No reminder of this website will need reminding of that magical night at the Cottage when Hodgson’s Fulham routed a shell-shocked Juventus, either.

If only Roy could bring Clint off the bench again

Can Roy rekindle the magic in Kiev tonight? Yes, but it’s not likely to set the pulses racing. Danny Welbeck’s movement and pace should test an Italian back line shorn of their most capable centre back in Giorgio Chiellini. The Juve defender’s thigh injury could see Daniele de Rossi pressed into service as a libero again. Brian McBride might have forgiven de Rossi, mocked up by Gazetta yesterday as ready to stop his ‘idol’ Steven Gerrard, for his cowardly assault at the 2006 World Cup but I haven’t. It is show to be a test of Wayne Rooney’s temperament, although the maturing Manchester United man should be sharper having got eighty-odd minutes under his belt on Friday. At the other end of the pitch, England’s centre halves – plus Scott Parker and the skipper – must quell Italy’s pacey forward line. The threat could come from anywhere: be it the deep-lying Pirlo, marauding Marchisio or Brazilian-born Thiago Motta. That’s before we even consider the likes of Cassano, who looks revitalised up front, and the brooding Balotelli.

Width will be vital for England as Italy will be compact whether Cesare Prandelli opts for a 3-5-2 or the midfield diamond.

James Milner's endless running will be vital

With Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson expected to push forward from the full back positions, the discipline of England’s wide players will be crucial. That’s why James Milner – unfairly maligned considering that he’s just finished a title-winning season with Manchester City – will probably start on the right of midfield. His versatility might count against him (Milner could play in any midfield position and even at full-back) but his boundless energy should not. Those unstinting shuttle runs from box to box offer the vulnerable Johnson reassurance in his own third of the pitch and worry opponents tempted to leave the two-footed 26 year-old alone for too long. Far better to use the pace and fearlessness of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, particularly as the teenage starlet isn’t scarred by previous tournament failures, off the bench against tiring defenders.

Hodgson has spent years on the big stage. He won’t be overrawed. England will be ready. But should they fall short this evening, let’s trust the current incumbent to have his own side ready for Brazil in a couple of time.