With the final blow of the referee’s whistle at Carrow Road on Saturday, Fulham’s tumultuous maiden season in the Football League Championship will draw to a close. It has not been one of heroes, but largely of ignominy and ingloriousness. Misfortune is a cornerstone of comedy and at times this season there has been little left to do but look back and laugh. So here are my Alternative Fulham End of Season Awards
Worst Managerial Appointment of The Season
Has any club been mismanaged quite as badly as Fulham recently? Yes. Several actually. One of them happens to be Wigan, who were officially relegated to League 1 last night only two years after dropping out the Premier League. However, whereas they exited the top flight as a harmless club punching above their weight in a town dominated by a passion for rugby league, they fall from the Championship as a shambles nobody is particularly sad to see the back off. The reason for this was the midseason appointment of former Cardiff manager Malky Mackay. Mackay, in case you were living under a rock for the past year or so, was sacked by Cardiff City after he was exposed to have sent offensive text messages that in this age of super political correctness were actually very offensive. In doing so he managed to undo all of the goodwill he’d bought for himself whilst working stoically under maniacal super-villain lookalike Vincent Tan. What people forgot in the whole episode was that Mackay was tactically as adventurous as a building society branch manager and was on for the sack from Cardiff anyway. Wigan’s appointment of Mackay made no sense from both a political or footballing sense. Compounded by the fact that selling their best player to the MLS in January also somehow went wrong, Wigan have paid the price and will play next season a division down.
The Oxymoron Award for Best Loan signing
This is a tough decision as they’ve nearly been failures to some degree. The nod probably goes to Michael Turner, whose 9 appearances towards the end of the season helped to steer us to safety. Would you welcome him back next season. Probably, yes. Can the same be said for any of Ashley Richards, Kostas Stafylidis, Seko Fofana, Richard Lee or Danny Guthrie? No not really. Maybe Guthrie on a good day. Fofana looked bright in patches and supplied on of the few feel good moments of the season up at Huddersfield but you always felt we were developing someone else’s player by giving him games. The exception to the above is James Husband. The young left back who joined from Boro in a loan swap with Fernando Amorebieta looks to have real potential. Should Boro wish to part with him, I’d gladly send Mr Khan’s money up to Teeside to get him back.
The Village Idiot Award
Kostas Stafylidis – for his absurd two yellow cards in less than a minute red card against Leeds. This minute of madness has likely cost young Kostas any chance of converting his loan from Bayer Leverkusen into a permanent transfer. On the subject of discipline, this season has been very un-Fulhamish (if you’ll excuse the phrase). 7 red cards in 45 games is a poor showing by anyone’s standards and a long way off the Fulham that got into the Europa League via fair play. Red cards cost you points and we had too many cards and not enough points.
The Richard Osman Award for Most Pointless Transfer of the Season
Richard Lee. A goalkeeper on the verge of early retirement due to persistent injury joined from Brentford in March on loan deadline day. Why? I’m not even sure he knows.
(Although I do quite like the rumour that he’s actually an advance scout for Mark Warburton in the event Warburton joins as manager in the summer)
The Michael Ricketts Award
Amongst the legacies from Felix Magath’s reign of doom will be his scattergun approach to transfers. A couple of the more random ones have been semi successful – Tim Hoogland & Nikolay Bodurov, but there is a large contingent that have not been. There’s the aforementioned Fotherinham, pyjama bottomed goalkeeper impersonator Gabor Kiraly, the lesser spotted Thomas Eisfeld, the even lesser spotted Kay Voser and the never spotted Dino Fazlic. However, the award for the greatest of the one hit wonders goes to Adil Chihi. The lumbering winger made a solitary substitute appearance against Cardiff City in August and actually didn’t look atrocious (that’s not to say he was good), however he was never to be seen of again. Presumably he’s been busy phoning Giles Barnes and Jari Litmanen for advice on what to do after a non-playing Fulham career.
The OMG That Was This Season, I’ve Already Blocked That Out Award
Two words…Mark Fotheringham
The Chris Baird Award for Player Who Made a Catastrophic Start but Might Actually Be Quite Good
Shaun Hutchinson. The defender had a nightmare start to his Fulham career being largely at fault for both Ipswich goals on opening day. Subsequent appearances were hardly any better and included a sending off. However, given time and despite a rotating cavalcade of partners at the back, Hutchinson is now slowly resembling a decent centre back. There are still holes in his game and he is living proof of how poor Scottish football is as preparation for the real world but I have a feeling Hutchinson might yet prove an astute piece of scouting and become a future lynchpin of our defence.
The Tutti Fruiti Award for Flavour of the Month
Football manager can probably only be topped by Government Minister for the title of profession where public opinion can spiral out of control against you in a worse manner. Poor old Kit Symons came on the scene as the all-smiling warm hug of a manager we all wanted to replace Felix Magath back in the autumn. Having been recommended by the Five Man Panel of Shared Responsibility to Shahid Khan, Kit was temporarily in vogue as a veritable Mr Fulham until the shine wore off and his tactics didn’t show any sign of getting better. Unfortunately for poor old Kit, a series of dire results and lacklustre tactical performances culminated in all sides of the ground uniting against him in the draw at home to Rotherham a few weeks ago. Hopefully, Kit will eventually find a happy middle ground and perhaps stay on in a role at the club even if he leaves the top job, however he is the latest in a long line of managers to suffer their rise and fall over a short period of time.
The Surprising Thing I Miss About The Premier League Award
Being last on Match of The Day? No.
Losing every week? We still do that.
Having good players? Debateable.
No the thing I miss the most is the referees. The standard of refereeing down here is just so bad. I actually miss the likes of Clattenburg, Moss and Oliver sometimes making semi-logical decisions, though it is nice to not really have any big team bias go against you.
The Abdesalam Ouaddou Award for Most Mispronounced Name
This season saw Ivan Berry replace Diddy David Hamilton as the Cottage’s man on the mic. Poor Ivan hardly had the best of starts to his new career with barely a goal to announce in his first few games and he has got steadily better over the course of the season. What he lacks in gravitas, he does make up for in enthusiasm. However, he has a very annoying habit of mispronouncing two of the simplest names at the club in Hoogland and Hyndman. Ivan over emphasises the “land” in Hoogland as if his name was double barrelled and the over emphasis on “man” in Hyndman would make you thing young Emo is a burgeoning superhero. You probably never noticed, so, well, sorry about that but now you will.
The Adidas Infra-red Award for the Worst Use of the Colour Orange
This season’s home kit was just not good. Grey and White vertical stripes with bright orange trim. Along with the bizarre kit, Adidas gave us black training kit with white and gold shoulders. Hoping we wouldn’t notice, they also gave the same training stash to all of their other template kit teams, so when we played Brentford you had the odd scenario of two teams playing each other with the coaches in identical kit. Hopefully next year’s offering will be white with black trim. It’s not that hard.
The Star Wars Episode VII Award for Excess Hype
Prize wunderkind Patrick Roberts has played so infrequently under Symons you’d be forgiven for wondering if he was still at the club. However this hasn’t stopped several national papers from proclaiming him “the best young English player” and linking him to every club under the sun. It really doesn’t seem to take much to convince a paper someone is worth £15m as Roberts, for all his potential, is yet to justify the proposed price tag when he has played. I’m sure he will, but perhaps the horses need to come back to the stable for now.
The Laughing Cow Award for Best Cheese To Treat an Injury
You’ll have to ask Brede Hangeland. Personally I’d go for some cheddar melted over ham, though perhaps I’m only saying that because it’s lunchtime.
That’s all for Part 1 of the Awards Special. In Part 2 I’ll crown the Fulham Player of the Season.
The announcement this week of contract extensions for both George Williams and Cameron Burgess, the latter of whom immediately went on loan to Scottish side Ross County, comes as most welcome news for Fulham fans.
This season can so far be best described as a voyage of discovery. We are in a new league, with new players and a new manager against new opposition in new stadiums set amid a background of new, ever changing expectations. There have been some new lows and a few new highs (who knew a 3-3 draw at Rotherham could mean so much!). Are we getting promoted this season? No we’re not. Are Kit’s substitutions and tactics sometimes frustrating? Yes they are. Do we need to panic buy this month? Absolutely not.
Of course, should the right player who could help bring this club forward for the future become available, then of course we should move to bring them in. However, for the first transfer window in recent memory, it is not the potential incomings that are bothering me.
Fulham’s best hope of sustainably rebuilding and re-establishing ourselves a division up is to keep and develop our talented young players. In truth, expectations on most of these youngsters are so high, that even if half of them come close to reaching their full potential, we would have a side more than capable of reaching, and staying in the Premier League.
Our goal for now is staying in the Championship with enough time to spare so that the young players can get progressively more game time as the season comes to a close. At the moment, too many of the youngsters’ development is being restricted to 5 minutes off the substitutes bench because the senior players aren’t getting the job done and games can’t be risked.
The most fun time to watch Fulham is if we are winning and somehow we end up with Christensen, Woodrow, Roberts and Williams all on the pitch together. But we have a risk averse manager and are not, unfortunately, often in a position for such frivolity.
The problem though, and this is the perennial conundrum with player development, is that many of the young players simply aren’t ready to play 90 minutes week in week out. Yet in order to develop to a point where they are ready, they must play games. It is a catch 22 scenario. You see why Kit Symons, a manager who himself is learning his craft, is almost on a hiding to nothing?
Let’s look at the players individually; of the homegrown young players, the only ones who have really stepped up this season are Lasse Vigen Christensen, Marcus Bettinelli and Jack Grimmer. It is of no coincidence that these are the ones for whom game time has been the most consistent. None were in the side at the start of the season but all will be mainstays for years to come as long as they don’t leave. Christensen is the particular standout and the Danish Energizer Bunny’s form has seen him linked with Aston Villa in the tabloids. In years to come he shall surely play at a higher level but for now, the best place for him is being the first name on the Fulham team sheet.
Grimmer is a particularly interesting case study. In and around the squad under Martin Jol because of a dearth of right backs, he was sent out on loan last season to Port Vale where he excelled. This season he was sent out again, to League Two table toppers Shrewsbury Town, where he once more excelled. He was recalled to Fulham after goal machine Tim Hoogland suffered a hernia. After struggling to adapt in his first few games, Grimmer has noticeably stepped up in recent weeks. Each passing game is evidently having a positive effect on both his confidence and his abilities. The particularly adept way he marshalled Bakary Sako of Wolves in the FA Cup a fortnight ago was telling considering Sako had run riot on us back in August. If he continues at this rate, Jack will be in the Scotland squad before the year is out.
Why then, have these three particularly stepped up? It is not a matter of loan experience, for Christensen has none at all and he is our best player, Ross McCormack aside. Age, and more specifically, maturity, might hold the key. For George Williams, Patrick Roberts, Emerson Hyndman and Moussa Dembele, all of whom have shown glimpses of what their future holds, this season may have simply come a year too soon.
Williams and Roberts are both exceptional and exciting attacking talents. Williams has several full Wales caps to his name and Roberts is the golden child. Yet neither is quite ready to take the league by storm. When you consider they were playing in the FA Youth Cup less than a year ago, is that really surprising? When given starts, both players have bright spells but appear to go missing for long spells. As explosive attackers, their strengths are about taking defenders on. You simply cannot do that for 90 minutes.
Roberts in particular still has a lot to learn about the nuances of 90 minutes at senior level. Yet at the moment, his development is not going as fast as we’d like because he only really gets on for a few minutes at a time, if he’s lucky. Hyndman benefits from being a part of the US Youth National Team set up with additional games and training camps. Others, like Roberts, Williams and Dembele appear to need a more structured development plan. Not 90 minutes every week, but consistent and increasing game time off the bench.
For the young attackers, the maturity and composure required to develop into regular starters will only come with regular game time. However, this cannot be at the expense of the team whilst they are still developing. It is all very well and good learning when to shoot, but we must stay up, so some of those shots need to go in, hence the catch-22.
Dembele, for example, appears to have an issue with his composure. If he acts on instinct, and instinct alone, he is as lethal as he was at junior level [see the Derby cup defeat where he scored 2]. Yet if he has time to think, he has not yet played enough games and scored enough goals at this level to know the correct decision to make. He will only get this experience by playing games, something he is not, and will not do as our 4th choice centre forward.
We could send him on loan, but as Huw Jennings has said, not every player has the personality for a loan spell some are better suited to staying under the watchful eyes of their existing coaches. We also won’t send anyone on loan unless there is a realistic chance they will play regularly. With Fulham traditionally wanting (if not always successfully) to play a certain way, and with the young players bread in our youth sides to play passing football, would a loan in the rough ‘em tough ‘em lower leagues really do them any good? It is why defenders and goalkeepers often get loaned, but we have been hesitant to send out our creative players.
There are other players whose development is coming along nicely. Cauley Woodrow for example is progressing into a very good player. As the 3rd choice striker he has had semi regular game time this season to go with his loan at Southend last year. He has all the technical attributes to succeed, and given experience and some physical enhancements that come with age, strength and speed etc, he is well on course.
Others like Sean Kavanagh have been a pleasant surprise, and will only benefit from continued interaction with the first team. While others, such as Dan Burn, seem to have stagnated. In Burn’s case, his decline has allowed for Shaun Hutchinson to emerge out of the shadow of his early struggles. At centre back though, we still have Cameron Burgess and Liam Donnelly in the ranks, even if they’ve been lost in the system for the last few months.
There is no formula for successfully developing young players. Between Symons and academy director Huw Jennings, we have the staff in place to practice the alchemy required to strike the right balance with our youngsters, but it remains a crucial and fragile process. The loss of Steve Wigley to Nottingham Forest has clearly hindered the Academy, as has the loss of the majority of their players to the first team where we are seeing several years graduates all at once.
While most successful teams might carry one, two or even three young players in their regular squad, Fulham have gone Full Boyle and flooded the team with them. Coupled with the fact we have the likes of Alex Kacaniklic, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Shaun Hutchinson and Kostas Stafylidis, all of whom are still relatively inexperienced, no wonder there has been a heavy burden on the senior players.
So this January, instead of bringing in yet more new faces, I would like to see Fulham concentrate on doing whatever can be done to further progress the players we do have. Securing them on new contracts, like with Williams and Burgess, is the place to start. It both engenders confidence in the player and provides us with a level of security should the vultures begin to circle.
Our best hope long term is to keep this young squad together and to make sure they progress and develop. If we do, it will be a better investment than any signing could be.
Oh and can Chris David be allowed back in?