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‘Seri is an absolute steal’ for Fulham, says Meulensteen

Former Fulham boss Rene Meulensteen believes Fulham have pulled off one of the deals of the summer by signing Jean-Michael Seri.

The Whites broke their transfer record to bring the Ivorian international midfielder, who was close to joining Barcelona a year ago, to the Premier League from Nice and Meulensteen waxed lyrical about his qualities on BBC Radio 5 Live last night. The Dutch coach, who spent just 75 days at Craven Cottage in their last season in the top flight, told Five Live Sport:

I tell you what, Jean-Michael Seri … an absolute steal, in my opinion. He is a top six, if not a top three player. He reminds me of Clarence Seedorf – he’s got that guile and moves the ball – and Fulham’s got him. Fantastic.

Meulensteen was also full of praise for the achievements of Serbian head coach Slavisa Jokanovic both in guiding the Londoners back to the top flight and impressing upon the club’s ownership the importance of investing big prior to their return.

Jokanovic has been brilliant. What he’s done – he’s gone in and said, ‘Listen if you want to stay in here [the Premier League], we need to make sure we’re covered in all positions and you’re going to give us the best possible chance’. But looking at what they’ve spent and bring Schurrle in as well and now Chambers on loan, they’ve got some good players already, play some good football, so yeah, looking forward to it.

Four years ago today, Fulham faced 81 crosses and still claimed a point at Old Trafford

A crestfallen David Moyes, soon to be put out of his misery as Manchester United manager, told the press that ‘it doesn’t get any worse than this‘. His reaction was understandable – anyone who had watched the Sunday afternoon live game from Old Trafford would have considered one of the most remarkable results of the weekend – after bottom of the table Fulham resisted 81 crosses, a whole barrage of United pressure and then claimed a precious point thanks to Darren Bent’s injury time equaliser.

Whilst Moyes was left to lick his wounds following what was widely lamented as the nadir of his spell in the home dugout at Old Trafford, this result marked the high point of former Manchester United coach Rene Meulensteen’s brief spell in charge of Fulham. The Belgian followed this draw with a gut-wrenching injury-time defeat by Liverpool at Craven Cottage and, after a far flatter performance saw the Whites eliminated from the FA Cup in a fourth round replay by League One Sheffield United, Meulensteen was replaced by the eccentric Felix Magath in a doomed attempt to preserve the club’s Premier League position.

Meulensteen had sprung a surprise on his return to Old Trafford by handing Fulham debuts to Jonny Heitinga and Ryan Tunnicliffe, the Heywood-born midfielder who had captained United to FA Youth Cup success and left for London only ten days earlier on transfer deadline day, whilst teenage forward Muamer Tankovic made his league debut. The new coach preferred Dan Burn to Brede Hangeland in the centre of defence, with the young defender making headlines in days following the game by comparing United’s constant crossing with the type of attacking he faced during his non-league days.

Fulham absorbed home pressure from the off, but stunned Old Trafford by taking the lead against the run of play twenty minutes in. Little Lewis Holtby dinked a delightful ball over the United defence and there was Steve Sidwell sliding in to steer a finish past the stranded David de Gea. Robin van Persie, who had already been denied by a fine Sascha Riether tackle, should have equalised almost immediately but lifted Rafael’s cross over the bar at the back post. The visitors had another lucky escape when Maarten Stekelenburg parried Michael Carrick’s effort before Sidwell bravely blocked van Persie’s follow-up.

The visitors should have made it two before the break, when they hit United on the counter attack. The impressive Tankovic, looking far from overrawed on the big stage threaded a ball through for former United utility man Kieran Richardson, but the ex-England international fired over the bar. Had Tankovic opted to play the ball right rather than left, Tunnicliffe would have been free for a tap in. As it was, Fulham would still have considered themselves fortunate to head in ahead at half time.

The same pattern continued after the interval. Stekelenburg made a sensational save to keep out Wayne Rooney’s effort from a van Persie cross and it was soon all-out-defence from the man in white. Jon Arne Riise got in the way of a venomous van Persie drive and substitute Scott Parker also produced a block tackle on Rooney, when the England skipper looked certain to score. When Fulham’s defence was breached, they caved in twice within the space of two minutes. First, a tiring back four could only clear Patrice Evra’s cross as far as Juan Mata and van Persie poached the equaliser from two yards and then Michael Carrick’s deflected drive from the edge of the box wrongfooted Stekelenburg to put the hosts ahead.

It looked for the world as though Fulham’s brave rearguard action would count for nothing, but that assessment reckoned without the late drama. Bent, who had been something of a spectator in the final third having replaced Tankovic at half time, stopped to head home the equaliser in the fourth minute of added time after David de Gea could only push Richardson’s shot up into the air, sparking wild scenes of celebration in front of Fulham’s travelling supporters.

Meulensteen: ‘I made mistakes, but I was turning it around’

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Rene Meulensteen has spoken publicly for the first time about the circumstances behind his sacking at Fulham – and he believes that he was beginning to turn the corner in the club’s battle against relegation from the Premier League.

The Dutch coach, now in charge at Maccabi Haifa, has given a revealing interview to journalist Raphael Geller, which is being broadcast on the BBC World Service’s World Football show this evening. Meulensteen, who was also sacked after just two games in charge of Russian club Anzi Makhachkala, maintains that he was starting to steady the ship after a draw against Manchester United and a last gasp defeat to title challenging Liverpool, but regrets that he wasn’t given the time to see the job through by the Fulham board.

Meulensteen, who was originally brought in to bolster Martin Jol’s coaching staff, eventually succeeded the Dutch coach as Fulham’s head coach after the former Tottenham boss was sacked in December. He speaks engagingly about the task he inherited – feeling that he had to get ‘some energy back into the club’ after the dire tail end of Jol’s reign and believing that, in hindsight, he could have adopted Tony Pulis’ survival strategy to cure Fulham’s defensive woes. He welcomed the opportunity to discuss his shortlived spell at Craven Cottage, saying:

It is actually a good opportunity to come back to that scenario and elaborate a little bit more about it, because sometimes fans are being left a little bit in the dark about what really happened. In hindsight, if people say how do you think you did and how it went, first of all I needed to put some new energy not only in the team – but also in the club, to get them back playing with energy and excitement. I thought we established that.

If you ask me, would you have done something different? In hindsight, I would say yes. I would be very honest with that. I think I should have gone more to a sort of Tony Pulis strategy – to get clean sheets on the board, make sure you are hard to beat and play from there. I mean that with the utmost respect. We were actually moving in that direction when we were playing Manchester United away – where we got a draw. Then we had to play four days later Liverpool and we narrowly lost to a penalty in the 93rd minute. That was very unfortunate. And that’s when the club decided to make a change. That to me was not only very disappointing but very, very frustrating because we all knew – everybody in the club knew – that we were just turning the corner. That was the real disappointing thing, because we knew, at that time, if we kept carrying on, we’ve got a good chance of staying up.

Meulensteen, whose reign also included an embarrassing FA Cup exit at the hands of lower league Sheffield United, was swiftly replaced by German manager Felix Magath – but Fulham slipped out of the Premier League before the end of the 2013/2014 season. Fulham fans never really got to know the real Meulensteen, lauded as part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s coaching staff at Old Trafford, but someone who was clearly learning on the job as a manager himself at that point. The full interview is well worth a listen here.

Meulensteen reaches Fulham settlement

Former Fulham head coach René Meulensteen has agreed a settlement with the club, although the sum is far less than he would have received if he had been sacked.

The Dutchman took over as manager from Martin Jol in December but did not have his title of head coach changed. His role became untenable last Friday when the club relieved him of first-team duties and appointed Felix Magath.

The club did not sack Meulensteen, as that would have left them liable, through the terms of his contract, to a much larger pay-off. His deal was set to expire in the summer.

Meulensteen leaves Craven Cottage along with the first-team technical director, Alan Curbishley (first team coach), and the coaches Ray Wilkins (assistant manager), Jonathan Hill and Mick Priest. Magath has brought in the first-team coach Tomas Oral and the fitness specialist Werner Leuthard.

The owner Shahid Khan said: “I’m very grateful to René, Alan and Ray, as well as Mick and Jonathan for their commitment to Fulham. Their efforts were admirable and appreciated, and I wish them the best.”

The sports employment lawyer Will Nash, a senior associate at Charles Russell who has advised Premier League clubs and managers on employment cases in the past, believes Meulensteen could have a case for constructive dismissal if he walked out of Fulham.

He said: “Trying to make him do something that he doesn’t agree with is almost certainly a breach of his contract. Even if he was still technically under his contract as ‘head coach’, it doesn’t sound like [Felix] Magath is going to want him to have the authority that he might have expected as a head coach.

“As a matter of law, if you are effectively demoted or your duties are reduced, then you can argue as the employee that the employer has breached your contract. But then it’s on you to actually walk out.

“At law, if they’ve effectively demoted him, which it sounds like they have, he’s going to have the ability to say I’m suing you for the rest of my contract.”

Ironically one of only a few Premier League managers to have won a constructive dismissal case against a top-flight club was Curbishley, following his departure from West Ham in 2008.

What the Magath? A lesson in (mis)communication

It says a lot about the Premier League these days that getting a draw at Old Trafford is enough to see a manager sacked.

Although sacked might not be the word – more usurped.

With Alistair Mackintosh and Shahid Khan now sat bolt upright in seeming the headlights of doomsday fast approaching, the move last Friday evening to appoint Felix Magath as Fulham’s third boss of the season represents one final throw of the dice in the hope of retaining the club’s top flight status.

The arrival of ex-Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich manager Magath is, to borrow a phrase from Khan’s other sport, something of a Hail Mary. To see how this is going to pan out would be to see into the proverbial crystal ball of football uncertainty. That ball is still very much up in the air and with 12 games to go, 36 points to play for, any outcome is yet possible.

It was a move the caught everyone off guard. Should it though? Under likeable Dutchman Rene Meulensteen it appeared Fulhamwere on the road to recovery, but we were certainly taking the scenic route and may well have had to go through relegation before getting back to pass go.

Under Meulensteen we had simply not improved enough on the lamentable performances that got our first Dutch manager dismissed. In the third of a season Rene was ‘in charge’, Fulham only won 2 league matches, kept only 2 clean sheets in all competitions and got knocked out of the FA Cup to a side in the relegation zone of the division two below our own. Team selection was schizophrenic, tactical focus appeared lacking and the much maligned defense remained on their six month long holiday.

Whilst many of the problems were not of Meulensteen’s making, he failed to bring any true leadership. It may have been unrealistic to assume anything else was possible from a man with little to no managerial experience on his CV, and none in either the Premier League or a relegation scrap.

Finding anything insightful to say or write about Fulham over the past few weeks has been remarkably difficult. There has been a prevailing sense that the dice had already been rolled for the last time. The six new players who arrived at Motspur Park on the final two days of the transfer window appeared big move in the race to stay up. Kostas Mitroglou was our final £11m trump card.

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The excitement of transfer deadline day suffered something of a hangover as the despondency of another convincing home loss at the hands of Southampton arrived less than 24 hours later.

As fans all we had left was hope. Hope not grounded in fact or reason, but the irrational blind hope that a miracle was possible. We didn’t know how or when or why our fortunes would change but there was and is an ever-flickering hope, slowly extinguishing with each new way this team finds a way to disappoint.

Then came Old Trafford and that game against Manchester United. It was written in the stars that Rene would walk back into his old stomping ground and leave with his head held high. The Dutchman had the audacity to start Muamer Tankovic the exciting 18-year-old rookie at centre forward, the ingenuity to drop the undroppable Scott Parker and the gumption to replace skipper Brede Hangeland with debutant John Heitinga, trusting 21-year-old Dan Burn to anchor the defense. Not to mention there was a debut for a 21-year-old Ryan Tunnicliffe who left Manchester United for Fulham only 9 days before.

What transpired that Sunday afternoon was in the eyes of many the watershed moment for this Fulham side. It was the first game Meulensteen had his squad available at his disposal, liberated of the uncontrollable burdens left to him by his predecessor. Free from the personnel shackles, this was a moral victory for Rene, even if it took a 95th minute equalizer from Darren Bent (the Darren Bent who was rightfully dropped for Tankovic) to actually secure anything from the game.

Tasked with the then near impossible follow-up fixture, the performance at home to Liverpool was again encouraging. Both games were examples of stripped back tactics, a lesson in doing what you can do rather that attempting what you can’t. For this Fulham side, learning to play without the ball is something they should have started a long time ago. At this stage of the season, to be leading twice at home only to lose is simply not the form becoming of a team staying in the league.

Whilst Rene was doing some good things, such as successfully blooding youngsters, there had been little to tangibly show for it. If staying up is the only goal from now on, Meulensteen may simply not have been the man for us. A case of the right man at the wrong time.

There is much to question the logic of Meulensteen’s appointment into our predicament. Were he appointed in July with funds at his disposal and a pre-season to train the players his appointment would have made more sense. To task such an inexperienced manager with the job of keeping a mismatched and ill-fittingly assembled squad in the league on short notice was perhaps a fool’s errand in the first place, and one that does not reflect well on Fulham’s Chief Executive and owner with the benefit of hindsight.

Indeed when the dust settles on this traumatic season, there will be an inquisition into the events. Idle speculation as to who is at fault for the chronic indecisiveness will solve nothing with nearly a third of the season to go, but there is little doubt that structural changes above the level of manager are needed to ensure strategy can once again replace emergency planning in the Fulham boardroom.

Enlargement of the board of directors beyond its current four man format is essential. Such a small brain trust places undue stress on Mackintosh in his role as its pivotal member. If the man trying to make the decisions is also the man having to persuade an owner with multiple priorities to back those decisions, is it any wonder determinations have become prolonged and management has at times seen to be lacking focus.

The recent sad loss within the Fulham Family of former director Dennis Turner serves to highlight the current absence of any independent or fan representation on our board. Dennis, a lifelong Fulham supporter served as a non-executive director under Mohamed Al-Fayed and brought his knowledge as both club historian and HSBC’s former chief economist to the role. The club currently has nobody with such outside gravitas.

Whilst Mr. Al-Fayed ran the club with an iron fist, albeit a slightly eccentric one, there is one parallel with our new owner that has surfaced in the last week; Al-Fayed’s sons Omar and Karim were involved at board level, while press reports are now linking Shahid Khan’s son, Tony, to an increased involvement at Craven Cottage. While final decision making power will understandably remain with the Chairman as is his remit, the decision making process remains a critical link to successful strategic planning. Hopefully the Khan’s will follow the Al-Fayed’s lead in extending the board of directors beyond the current close conclave.

From the current episode, it has been the perceived treatment of Meulensteen that has upset many fans along with the miscommunication that has leapt from one misstep to another like a drunk Budweiser frog crossing an ever lengthening pond over the last few days.

Who do we listen to? Who was in charge? Who is in charge? Who still has a job? Uncertainty breeds chaos as it seems so does the certainty of being bottom of the league.

Meulensteen is eminently likeable. His interviews were frank (too much so on more than one occasion) and entertaining and he preached ideals we as fans could believe in. The tumultuous reaction to Martin Jol’s prolonged employment stemmed in part from his attitude towards the fans and ours to him in what became akin to a messy divorce. Rene still had the fans onside. It’s amazing what playing the odd 18-year-old does for the mentality of a fanbase.

There was apparent callousness in the club not confirming Meulensteen’s position after the announcement of Magath’s arrival. The truth is likely more innocent, in that the position was simply not known or agreed. But the incident does not reflect well on the club. Press ridicule has centered on us either bungling the decision making process or our owner and chief executive unsympathetically putting the boot into a man who placed his own reputation on the line by stepping into this fire.

However, it is important to remember Rene was (and maybe still is) Head Coach and has never been our manager and as such his position at the head of the pack never quite seemed set in stone. The arrivals of Alan Curbishley and Ray Wilkins showed Meulensteen’s frailty. They may have been intended to show an edifying willingness to get support, a self appreciation for his own areas of weakness, but in this time of crisis the club, its players and its fans needed genuine leadership, not watered down decision making by committee.

The chant “We’ve got three managers” might have been tongue in cheek, but it was drenched in a sour reality that it might just have been one big cruel joke.

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In Felix Magath, we might just have our leader. The German divides opinion in his homeland. He was seemingly close to taking over at Hamburg last week until the board rejected his request for full control over the club. He is an authoritarian, a disciplinarian and foremost an experienced football manager. Should we stay up, his reputation for wheeler dealing may be fun to watch, but for now, we have a specialist captain to rescue our sinking ship. Perhaps in getting one over on Hamburg we can, once again, still believe.

The hope then springs that Magath’s arrival isn’t the latest in a series of decisions that have happened after they should have been made. Martin Jol was relieved of his duties several months after he should have gone. Money was spent in January on the last possible day it could be spent. Hopefully Felix Magath’s arrival won’t be too little too late.

We have a new manager, we are four points (five if you take into account our hideous goal difference) from safety and we have 12 games to seal our destiny. Only time will tell if this move is the latest bottle rocket to emerge from a madhouse or a moment of clarity that will save our season. For now it is the job of all Fulham supporters to get behind the new man and rally to the aid of our side. An already full allocation at West Brom on Saturday shows the fans are doing just that.

The atmosphere at Craven Cottage against Liverpool last Wednesday was one of the best in recent times. We are all fearful of what has at times seemed inevitable. The r-word may well be the outcome of our season, but in throwing this Hail Mary, Shahid Khan and Alistair Mackintosh have given it one last go.

COYW