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Hughes becoming Northern Ireland’s elder statesman

Aaron Hughes feels as though he’s fast becoming an elder statesman in the Northern Ireland squad as new manager Michael O’Neill brings through a new generation.

The Fulham centre back is quoted by the Belfast News Letter as finding it difficult to fit into the conversations of the younger members’ of the squad because he’s not all that au fait with the latest video games:

I honestly look around and feel as if I am the one who needs to make the effort to fit in, rather than the younger ones coming through to settle in the team. They all know each other from the under 18 and under 21s, I could be sitting at lunch or dinner on a table on my own! They’re all chatting about Fifa ’13 or Call of Duty and I’m… well, not really in the conversation!

More understated than the conventional leadership figure, Hughes is hoping to use his international experience to benefit a new crop of Northern Irish talent having been persuaded to return to the national side by O’Neill.

It’s never really been a case of younger players asking me about much, the experienced ones tend to pass it on during training and encourage them to pick up good habits, as well as show a strong work ethic. It’s a good thing, however, that the squad is so young. A lot of them are scoring at their own clubs regularly, which you could argue is the opposite to Northern Ireland normally, but you hope they’ll bring their confidence to the game which should yield goals.

There’s probably an element of fearlessness among them, possibly verging on being a bit naive about the whole thing, because it’s all new. But it’s still football and they’re no less professional. It’s just a positive, because they get out and play, without thinking about any pressure. They don’t have the same baggage.

Northern Ireland are looking to celebrate the first anniversary of O’Neill taking charge of the national side with a first win under the new boss against Malta in this week’s friendly.

It would be great to get the first win for Michael, so we don’t have to talk about it anymore. We are missing Chris Baird and Kyle Lafferty for the next qualifier so changes do need to be made. We go away for club football and the break in between can be two or three months.

This therefore is a welcome refresher, but we are looking for the performance first and foremost, something which can give us a boost ahead of the qualifiers restarting. I know people will say ‘it’s only a friendly’ and that it’s a grind to be away, but it’s always good to be part of the set-up.

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.

Chelsea 0-0 Fulham: Player ratings

Fulham competed from first minute to the last at Stamford Bridge last night – and executed Martin Jol’s gameplan effortlessly. The Dutchman described the game as his ‘perfect scenario’ in his post-match Sky Sports interview and you could see what he meant. The Whites were quickly into their stride, taking advantage of the local discontent at the presence of Rafa Benitez in the home dugout, kept things tight at the back and looked dangerous on the break. So successful were Fulham that there’s more than a tinge of regret that the visitors couldn’t end their 33-year wait for a win at the Bridge.

Schwarzer: It was a measure of how surprisingly comfortable Fulham’s evening was that the Australian had very little to do. He fielded a speculative shot from Torres with consummate ease in the first half and was able to comfortably gather Ramires’ speculative stab from ten yards in the second half. The only time Schwarzer, who organised his defence expertly throughout, looked to be beaten the outstanding Aaron Hughes arrived to hook Torres’ shot clear from underneath his own bar. 7

Riether: The German’s fast becoming Fulham’s most reliable right back since Steve Finnan, even though he hasn’t yet matched compatriot Moritz Volz’s feat of scoring at Stamford Bridge. Riether was resolute in defence, seeing Eden Hazard substituted as Chelsea searched for a breakthrough, and was eager to surge forward. Had Mladen Petric not only just left the bench himself, the on-loan Cologne full-back might have made the winner. 8

Riise: Like Paul Konchesky before him, Riise will have to get over spurning a splendid chance to turn a creditable point into all three. Having galloped fully ninety yards to reach the Chelsea six-yard box, the away fans waited for Riise to finish a flowing break that began in Fulham’s own penalty area, but he failed to make a telling connection. Cech did well to save a deflected strike, but the left back’s wait for his first goal will go into a 57th game. Diligent defensively, but will wonder what could have been. 7

Hughes: Outstanding. Dependable. Flawless. Pick a glowing adjective and it will describe the Northern Irish centre back’s fautless display last night. In the absence of Brede Hangeland, Fulham’s centre halves needed to assert themselves against Fernando Torres and Hughes, for so long the unsung hero of this team, rose to the occasion. Rarely beaten in the air against a taller forward, Hughes was composed in cutting out the danger – twice blocking shots in his own box – before lunging to divert Torres’ effort to safety when it flashed worryingly across goal. 9

Senderos: The Swiss defender has a vocal band of detractors but his sins in a Fulham shirt have been difficult to identify. Having struggled on this ground in the past against Didier Drogba (who didn’t?), Senderos was exactly the physical presence Jol would have sought in the centre of his defence without Hangeland and didn’t put a foot wrong until added time, when a dreadful back header almost let in Ramires. The doubters should give Senderos, who has played two and a half games since April, credit for his part in a precious clean sheet. 7

Diarra: The Malian is such a key component of Jol’s team, with his ability to read the game, carry the ball forward and do the physical stuff, that even when he’s lacking match sharpness – as was clearly the case last night – he’s worth starting on the big nights. Diarra’s presence screening the back four denied the space Oscar and Hazard they craved, but he also forged a successful partnership with Steve Sidwell to keep the ball and dictate the tempo. Brought off as he started to tire after the hour. 7

Sidwell: It was fitting that Sidwell, who passed along the Fulham Road at the speed of a 211 on a non-matchday after a frustrating spell at Chelsea earlier in his career, produced his finest performance in a Fulham shirt at the home of his former employers. The ‘Ginger Iniesta’ scurried across midfield, timed his tackles impeccably, and was clearly up for the contest from the first whistle. He comfortably outfought Oriel Romeu and were it for not the excellence of Hughes, would have been my man of the match. 8

Duff: Restored to the starting line-up against his old club and Duff delivered exactly what you’ve come to expert: a whole-hearted effort, full of running and plenty of defensive work – none more important than when he stabbed a loose ball behind as he dropped beyond the far post. The Irish winger was offensive enough to keep Ashley Cole back in his own half for long periods, a crucial ingredient for Fulham’s success as the visitors looked to assert themselves. 7

Rodallega: An ineffectual and infuriating display from the former Latic, who failed to seize his opportunity to shine on the left flank. Used his height well against Cesar Azpilicueta but failed to attack the Spanish full-back or offer any real threat out wide. Rodallega looked slightly more dangerous when played through the middle, but even Dimitar Berbatov was perturbed by the Colombian’s enigmatic display judging by the Fulham skipper’s sixty seconds of berating him after an attack broke down in the second half. 6

Karagounis: Playing the Greek veteran at the point of Fulham’s attacking midfield triangle was a masterstroke from Jol. Karagounis ran his heart out and was far more effective than when he looked isolated as a left winger at Stoke; crucially, dropping back to form a third orthodox central midfielder when the Whites were under pressure. His pass to release Riise midway through the second half was the ball of the night and went off to a full-throated rendition of his jolly little song. 7

Berbatov: Brilliant without being devastating once again, Berbatov led the team rather than just the forward line last night. Rather like Alistair Cook, Berbatov seems to thrive on the captaincy and was a livewire throughout – completing fifteen more passes and enjoying double the number of touches as Torres, despite costing only a tenth of the Spaniard’s transfer fee. Had the assistant referee not wrongly raised his flag when the Bulgarian burst through on goal, he might have put Fulham in front. His only black mark came in injury time when his baffling decision to receive a short corner gifted Chelsea a last chance to come forward. 8

Substitutes

Baird: The Ballymena boy’s absence from the starting line-up was harsh as Baird’s arguably been Fulham’s most consistent performer since stepping into central midfield in September. Afforded a rousing reception as he replaced Diarra, ‘Bairdinho’ battered a free-kick shot at Cech but stepped seamlessly into the Malian’s role anchoring Fulham’s midfield and picked out a couple of impressive forward passes. 7

Frei: The Turkish teenager likes playing Chelsea and his fearlessness seemed to enliven Fulham as he exploded back into the first team. He dribbled away from Azpilicueta twice in two minutes, beating him on both sides, and on another evening might have won a spot-kick for the second season in succession after being caught by Ramires. Just as importantly, he showed great awareness to tee up Riise’s deflected effort, and it’s great to see such a terrific talent back in a Fulham shirt. Why didn’t Cardiff use him more during his month in the Championship? The Bluebirds’ loss is certainly Fulham’s game. 7

Petric: A late replacement for Rodallega but the Croatian striker – perhaps the most natural finisher at Motspur Park at the moment – couldn’t react quickly enough to convert the only chance that came his way when he miscontrolled Riether’s excellent cross. 6

Hughes signs on for another year at Fulham

Aaron Hughes celebrates reaching the Europa League final with Zoltan Gera

The way in which Fulham slipped out the news that Aaron Hughes has signed a contract extension to keep him at Craven Cottage just after five o’clock last night rather neatly encapsulated the quiet way in which the no-frills Northern Irish defender has gone about his football career.

Hughes, now 32 and back in the ranks with the ‘Green and White Army’ after eight years captaining his country, is one of the unsung heroes of a Fulham side that’s noticeably shorter on star names these days. The former Newcastle and Aston Villa defender, who made his senior debut at the Camp Nou of all places in November 1997, has developed an almost telepathic understanding with Brede Hanglenad – something which was crucial in shoring up a suspect defence as the Whites miraculously escaped relegation in 2008 – and his reading of the game remains second to none.

When Martin Jol replaced Mark Hughes last season, it initially appeared as though Hughes’ versatility would count against him. The Cookstown native was happy to play at full back, as he has done without complaint for club and country throughout his career, to accomodate Philippe Senderos at the heart of the Fulham back four. Even though Senderos has surprised many with his assured performances over the past season and a half, the Hughes-Hangeland partnership took Fulham from the near foot of the Premier League to a Eur0pean final and things look far more assured when they are together at the back.

Hughes, the antidote of the modern celebrity footballer, sounded modest and rather bashful when discussing the new deal.

I am obviously delighted as I have enjoyed my time here so far and to know that I’ll be around for another couple of years is a nice thing for me. I’ve had a lot of good experiences so far and hopefully I’ll have more between  now and 2014.

There’s absolutely no reason, given the longevity of elite footballers’ careers these days, why Hughes shouldn’t be part of the Fulham defence beyond that date too.

Three and easy

It took only 57 seconds for Kevin Nolan to lash the Hammers' ahead yesterday

I always enjoy my trips to West Ham. There’s a historical bond between the clubs that stretches beyond Bobby Moore and 1975 to the likes of Leroy Rosenior and, even more recently, Andy Melville and Luis Boa Morte. More than that, though, the Hammers are a reminder of what football used to be like: a proper club that hasn’t forgotten its roots at the heart of London’s East End and embodies the blueprint that Trevor Brooking is now trying implement across the country for the Football Association after his education at the Boleyn Ground.

Unfortunately, Fulham are far too accommodating almost every time the Whites make the short trip down the District Line. Just as we’ve become accustomed to wretched away showings in the top flight these days, I’m probably a bit too blase about Fulham’s appalling record at Upton Park. Statistically speaking, West Ham are the side who average more points against us than any other since Jean Tigana guided Fulham back to English football’s elite at the turn of the millennium. Furthermore, we’ve mustered just two paltry wins at West Ham in that time – one was on our very first Premier League visit in 2001 and the other was a surprise FA Cup replay success, sparked by a wondergoal from Brian McBride, that perked up a hospitalised Chris Coleman four years later. But, for the most part, our performances at West Ham have been gallant failures or gutsy draws: like the late point secured by Phillipe Christanval after Vincenzo Montella made his debut from the bench. The memory of Junior Stanislas’ speculative injury-time effort taking a hefty deflection off Aaron Hughes and wrong-footing Mark Schwarzer just as we dared to dream that Roy Hodgson’s ten man might break the West Ham hoodoo in 2009 still lingers in the back of my brain.

As I wrote yesterday in the lead-up to the first London derby of the campaign, setting the right tone early was crucial. Sam Allardyce wrote in the programme yesterday about the atmosphere and frenzied pace of a meeting between two sides from the capital – this was the first of ten such clashes this season for both sides – and the Hammers’ boss will have identified this as a home banker in his quest to garner enough points to keep the Hammers well clear of the dreaded drop zone. On yesterday’s performance, the Irons look more like top ten contenders – but that might have had a fair bit to do with West Ham’s desire to respond immediately to their forgettable South Wales sojourn as well as Fulham’s generous defending.

Going behind to the fastest goal of the season might not have been in Martin Jol’s plans, but you know he would have seen it coming. Andy Carroll, who cantered around like a carefree schoolboy let out of lessons early in the warm-up, looked like a man instantaneously free of the pressure created by that hefty £35m price tag placed around his shoulders when Liverpool opted for him to replace Fernando Torres. When a manager and his team-mates believe in him and the side is constructed to his strengths, as he showed for the Anfield outfit at the tail end of last season and during his commanding display for Roy Hodgson’s England against Sweden this summer, Carroll is almost irresistible. The fact that his great mate Kevin Nolan is his captain again at West Ham probably helped clinch a loan move the old-fashioned number nine needed to reignite his career – and it was almost scripted that the pair would combine for the opening goal.

That Fulham conceded from the first high ball they had to deal with set the tone for the afternoon. Allardyce’s plans all came to fruition. Carroll, given the chance to contest a hopeful header from the back with a run at a static Brede Hangeland, soared high and flicked the ball beyond the Norwegian centre half. That allowed Ricardo Vaz Te, so lethal during West Ham’s promotion season last year, to saunter into the box beyond Aaron Hughes and his clever flick caught Sasha Riether out of position and Nolan arrived to send a first-time volley across Mark Schwarzer from twelve yards. 57 seconds was it all took – it was simply too straightforward.

Where West Ham were on the front foot and rampaging forward at will, Fulham were fitful. When the Whites did have possession (and they enjoyed slightly more of the ball than their hosts overall) they frequently squandered it and Mladen Petric was so starved of service that it seemed slightly harsh to withdraw him at half time. The visitors certainly didn’t make enough of Joey O’Brien’s presence as a makeshift left back: twice in the first twenty minutes, Damien Duff beat him with ease but Fulham to give the intelligent Irish winger the ball enough to exploit that weakness.

Instead, the only weaknesses were at the heart of a usually impregnable Fulham defence. The second goal was so sloppily conceded from a set-piece it left me – never mind Jol and his coaching staff – seething with rage. Fulham failed to screen the near post sufficently, Schwarzer should have been more decisive in his six-yard box to connect with Matt Taylor’s inswinging corner and a man of Winston Reid’s aerial ability was given far too much freedom to bend his run and power a header into the centre of the goal.

Coming back from 2-0 down is difficult but not impossible, especially when you consider that Jol had a fair bit of attacking talent to introduce from the bench. The third goal was perhaps the most frustrating of the lot. Mahamadou Diarra might have had a case for being impeded by Andy Carroll at this set-play but a man who has graced the Champions’ League with distinction and made all those appearances for Real Madrid should simply be stronger in that situation in front of a burly centre forward. Hangeland’s header away was clumsy but Fulham failed to close down Taylor from the sort of range where he’s been a menace for years – and paid the penalty.

There was a lot of opprobrium in the away end by this point and poor old Kieran Richardson, once a West Ham youngster, was the target of much of it. This was unfair. Richardson’s an excellent footballer, quietly efficient in midfield, and showed enough ambition to muster Fulham’s first shot on target, which really extended Jaaskelainen down to his left. Given that the versatile midfielder, good enough to be considered worth a serious run in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England side when he broke through at Old Trafford, had hardly trained with his new team-mates after concluding a late switch from Sunderland yesterday, it was a big call to put him in central midfield alongside Steve Sidwell. Richardson, a willing worker and technically sound, will be far better than what he showed yesterday afternoon and is a real bargain at around £2m.

Fulham were far better in the second half once Dimitar Berbatov was introduced, although West Ham were in cruising mode by this point. The Bulgarian looked eager to make an impression, almost as if he was aggrieved to have to sit through the abject first forty five minutes (you weren’t the only one, Dimitar). His first touch was as resplendent as we remember and there were all the clever flicks and tricks to bring his team-mates into play. It was all a little academic but in a single half of football, Berbatov made five chances and that makes him our second most creative player of the season.

Whilst the defending was abject and the defeat proved a painful reminder of why anything more than mid-table is far too ambitious before Jol manages to cure Fulham’s chronic away form, there’s enough to suggest that the Whites won’t struggle for creativity going forward post-Dempsey and Dembele. Anyone suggesting that the Whites looked devoid of dynamism yesterday is right, of course, but should remember that Bryan Ruiz was ruled out with a hamstring injury. The Costa Rican has looked superb behind a lone striker after completing a full pre-season and Berbatov’s arrival will mean that Mladen Petric might have to play out wide. That creates competition for places and I felt Alex Kacaniklic was unfortunate to dropped after his fine start plus there’s Kerim Frei to return from injury.

We might have been well beaten at the Boleyn Ground – but that’s not unusual. In 1968, a side containing George Cohen as well as the late Johnny Haynes and Sir Bobby Robson were battered 7-2. Most Fulham fans would have taken three points from the first three games, considering that they included trips to Manchester United and West Ham. The season’s not decided in September, although Jol will be wanting his new-look side to set the record straight against West Brom after the international break.