When the bell tolled on the August 2012 transfer window, a dark shadow had been cast over Motspur Park. Like something out of a J.K.Rowling novel, Tottenham’s ‘he who shall not be named’ chaiman had left what felt like an indelible mark on the Fulham playing squad with the pillaging of Dempsey and Dembele.
Martin Jol and Alistair McIntosh have a cracker of a petronas charm* though. For the second transfer window in a row, they somehow conjured that rare species, a top line international centre midfielder, out of thin air. Unlike the previous manifestation, Mahammadou Diarra, who was available because of previous injuries, our latest knight in aging armour, was a victim of the financial crisis.
Age and the crumbling domestic economy had somehow led Hundred and 124 cap Greek captain, stalwart and modern day Zeus reincarnate, Giorgos Karagounis, available on a free transfer following his release from Panathanaikos. Well, bravo Mr Manager and Mr CEO.
You know the back-story; Karagounis is a legend in his homeland – veteran domestic stalwart with Athens’ giants Panathanaikos and, more importantly, 2004 European Championship winning talisman for Greece and captain for the important austerity era Euro 2012 campaign, where an unjust booking kept him out of the bail-out quarter final with Germany. Along with spells in Portugal, at Benfica, and Italy, with Inter Milan, there are not many more experienced players in the European game than old George.
Having released our previous captain and rightful fan favourite, Danny Murphy, at the tender age of 35, the signing of now 36 year old Karagounis was initially met with some scepticism.
Sure, he wasn’t Plan A. He probably wasn’t Plan B or even Plan C. Did that seem to bother him? Not one bit. Here was a player who, despite being one of the greats in the modern canon of European football, was simply delighted to be given his shot in the Premier League, and in our fragile state of hearts and minds, that was damn good enough.
It will be a sad day when Giorgos leaves, following the impending expiration of his one-year contract. For Kara was a tremendous asset to Fulham this season. He said it best himself in a recent thank you to the fans interview with the club, “I’m a player that gives my all to a team and to a game, I think the fans see that and appreciate it. They like their players to give their all to the cause. I gave my all to every single game.”
It is not surprising that this humble servant felt it necessary to thank the fans. I’ve never met Giorgos Karagounis, but I’d bet my every last drachma he’s a class act in person. Not since John Pantsil and his ceremonious lap of honour, have we seen a Fulham player of such exuberance and graciousness on the Craven Cottage pitch. Seeing Giorgos walk the sombre “lap of appreciation” after the Liverpool defeat, he was accompanied by his three children and looked genuinely thankful for his chance to play at Fulham, and those fans who took him to heart over the past 9 months.
Giorgos’ energy and passion were central in any success we had this season. But, to merely sideline his impact as just motivational, would be a crass understatement. For much of the season, Giorgos was the best midfielder we had. His two goals, in back-to-back fixtures against Blackpool and Wigan in January will justifiably be nominated for the FFC goal of the season. His energizer bunny–esque celebrations would certainly win celebration of the year too.
Statistically, Karagounis completed 898 passes at a 90% success rate in his 28 appearances. He won 133 duels at a 63% success rate, and 37 tackles at a 79% success rate. 31 interceptions, 16 clearances and 10 blocked shots are excellent complimentary statistics defensively, but perhaps most importantly, Giorgos was our most fouled player, suffering 64 indiscretions this season**, while committing only 29 for the cost of a total of 3 yellow cards. Steve Sidwell in comparison, suffered only 29 fouls, while committing 62, at a cost of 8 yellows and 2 reds. Ill-discipline can cost your team points, while winning fouls can win you them.***
Finally, in letting Giorgos go, I have a nagging fear that history is repeating itself, and we are letting a player and leader of importance leave for nothing on the basis of age and not a lot else.
Regardless, Giorgos Karagounis, Efkaristo (Thank You).
*If you don’t get this, read Harry Potter. There’s no football for the next three months, you may as well find something to fill the time.
**Theatricality comes somewhat naturally to a man who could easily become an actor upon retirement, as such, certain “fouls” were perhaps a tad soft.
***Had we been given a free kick for a foul on Karagounis in the build up to Southampton’s equaliser at St Mary’s, we’d have ended the season circa £700,000 better off.
Martin Jol praised a superb team effort after Fulham moved closer to Premier League with a narrow win against Stoke at Craven Cottage.
The Fulham manager singled out the work rate of central midfield pairing Steve Sidwell and Giorgos Karagounis, who was preferred to loan signings Emmanuel Frimpong and Urby Emmanuelson, as being as just as crucial to Fulham’s victory as Dimitar Berbatov’s sumptuous first half volley or Mark Schwarzer’s vital penalty save after the break.
I think it was a team effort. If you look at the midfield – Steve Sidwell and Giorgos Karagounis – you saw the work rate and the work effort, because we have a problem with their style. It was a team effort but a couple of players made the difference today. Mark Schwarzer made it our day because we may have lost two points again if the penalty kick had gone in.
Schwarzer made three great saves. In the first half from Walters when they got in behind our defence, then when Philippe Senderos tried to hold off his man – that was a great save – and, of course, the penalty.
Jol revealed that Berbatov’s sprint towards the Fulham bench after his vicious volley had found the top corner was provoked by his own insistence that the Bulgarian striker had hardly scored any volleys since signing for the club from Manchester United at the end of the summer transfer window.
Dimitar always scores between 15 and 25 goals [a season] so it would be silly to think that he can’t score 15 to 20 goals for us – that is what I always have in mind. His goal was a good one but I can remember him scoring a lot of great goals. I said a couple of months ago that he never scored from volleys anymore, that is why he came up to me! It’s the first goal he’s scored from a volley [for Fulham] and in the past he did that all the time. He tried to prove a point because he’s a good sport. We’ve got other players who can make a difference but he and Mark certainly made a difference today.
Jol believes his side were good value for a victory that, ahead of the afternoon kick-offs, lifted Fulham up to eleventh in the table.
Overall, if you saw the first half, I think we were the better team. But it’s always difficult against them. They changed their system, they put all these big guys up front, they play this style and it was not easy for us. We should have scored a second goal and we didn’t, so in the end they could have punished us for the fact we only scored one goal. But, of course, we’ve got Mark Schwarzer who saved the game and the three points for us.
It’s about players. If you’ve got good football players, they can pass it around. Giorgos, for example, in the first half – he made the difference for us in midfield. That is what I knew, and that is what he showed. Of course we’ve got good players but sometimes you need to play ugly against teams like Stoke to get results and to earn the right to play your own football, and I think in the first half we did that.
The Dutch coach was delighted that his side have managed to pick up a couple of crucial home victories since Christmas that could set them up for a concerted assault on the top half as the season draws to a close.
I felt before the game that we had a few vital games this year. West Ham United was one of them, Newcastle United was one of them, and Norwich City last time – because we could have been dragged into a situation with five or six other clubs. Now we are surrounded by Sunderland, Stoke – who are having a very good season – West Ham, who were flying and are now below us. So I think these points are vital to us.
Nobody’s quite sure how long Giorgos Karagounis will last at Fulham. His arrival was seen by some as a desperate decision from Martin Jol, signing a 35 year-old stopgap after the Dutchman found it far from straightforward to plug the gaps left by the departures of Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu and Mousa Dembele during the summer. The Greek veteran has had to wait patiently for his chance, but his doughty presence at the heart of Fulham’s midfield has suddenly provided some of the steel that has been sorely lacking during the recent woeful winter winless streak.
He might not possess the fleet-footedness of a Dembele and can’t quite match Murphy’s cultured passing, but Karagounis’ intelligent football brain is an asset to any side. Coupled with his immense hunger for success and a dogged determination, it has made him nothing short of an idol in Greek football. Revered by Panathinaikos fans for his whole-hearted displays over ten years – split into two spells – with the Shamrock, opposition goalkeepers remember the pint-sized predator. Fabien Barthez described the free-kick that Karagounis lashed past him from 20 yards at Old Trafford in 2000 as one of the fiercest he’d ever faced, whilst Arsenal fans still wince at the memory of his diving header that sealed a famous win in the Apostolos Nikolaidis the following season. That’s before we consider the strike that shocked the hosts of Euro 2004, but proved a potent of things to come, as the unheralded Greeks went on to win the tournament, surprising Portugal again in the final.
Karagounis has appeared in a variety of positions already in his short spell at Fulham. Together with Kieran Richardson, he helped alter the momentum of a game that seemed to be slipping away at Southampton, as a substitute in central midfield. He operated on the left of a five-man midfield at Stoke, but it was on his next start at Stamford Bridge, in a more advanced position, that Karagounis really shone. His tireless work rate denied Oriel Romeu and Ramires any time on the ball and John Arne Riise really should have profited from a sublime, searching pass from that sent the full-back bearing down on Petr Cech.
In the last week, offered a chance to add a little more bite and guile in a malfunctioning Fulham midfield, Karagounis has switched from stopgap to an integral part of the side. His performance at the Hawthorns yesterday was typical. He successfully won a physical battle with Yousef Mulumbu for control of the midfield and, crucially, dropped into the deeper positions too often vacated by Baird and Sidwell in recent weeks, to take the ball off the back four. He strode forward with purpose and had the most successful distribution of anyone on the field, completing 92% of his passes. His dynamism and energy allowed Fulham to play more first-half football than they have of late and created the space for the team’s two artisans, Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov, to hurt West Brom.
Karagounis’ introduction to the pace and power of the Premier League has revived an international career that appeared to be after he fell out of favour with Panathinaikos coach Jesualdo Ferreira. Now his country’s most-capped player, Karagounis hopes to end a glittering career in the service of his troubled nation in Brazil at next year’s World Cup. His endeavour has already made him a popular member of the Fulham dressing room, even if he admits he still struggles to understand the hurried English of some of his team-mates. Despite the energy-sapping 75 minutes of action, Karagounis sprinted off the substitutes’ bench at the Hawthorns with all the energy of a teenager to celebrate yesterday’s vital win, and he’s already bellowed at plenty of referees in Greek to avoid a caution.
Should Martin Jol strengthen his midfield as he wishes in the next two transfer windows, Karagounis’ stay at Craven Cottage might be a short one – but the gritty Greek’s already made quite an impression. He’s already eager to build on the win over West Brom and, with Mahamadou Diarra and potential new recruit Derek Boateng possibly off to the African Nations’ Cup in a couple of weeks, he could plenty more ground to cover.