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Settling the score

If one game epitomised the desperate nature of Fulham’s winter slump, it came at Loftus Road on December 15. Leaving that ground, Fulham’s home in name only for a couple of seasons before their return home almost a decade ago, after watching a performance hardly worthy of the name was a desolate experience. Spineless, supine, sacrificial: several synonyms could sum it up. Fulham were wretched and meekly surrendered in a second half that unfortunately isn’t forgettable.

The sight of Adel Taraabt, who famously sought a quick getaway from Craven Cottage after being substituted at half time in last season’s 6-0 drubbing, dribbling through the remnants of a lackadaisical Fulham defence to score QPR’s second, winning a loose ball from Brede Hangeland just past the half way line, will send a shiver down my spine for years to come. For me, it wasn’t so much that QPR had secured their first league win of the season and glimpsed survival after the poorest start in Premier League history, but that Fulham were so devoid of fight, passion and spirit. It seemed fitting that Mladen Petric’s deflected strike came too late – it was almost an apologetic afterthought.

Rivalry for me didn’t come into it, although it certainly will have bothered others. I grew up with a raging dislike of Brentford, who were a division above Fulham when I first started visiting Craven Cottage regularly and had aspirations of climbing higher, while Chelsea feel like more natural geographical rivals these days. Passions will rise in anticipation of Monday’s return fixture for many, however. 1983 still lingers long in the memory, an abject 3-1 defeat securing the Second Division title for Rangers, and the deathly phrase ‘Fulham Park Rangers’ should serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come in the years since Fulham conjured up images of the halcyon days of the 60s, the 1975 Cup final and the latter stages of Bobby Moore and George Best’s careers.

More recently, of course, the fortunes of the two clubs have been inextricably linked. From Mark Hughes’ own ‘ambition’ to that of Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson, there’s been a fair bit of traffic travelling down the Askew Road towards Shepherds Bush. Hughes’ departure from the Cottage looks more and more like a moment of hubris that might prove one of his biggest managerial miscalculations – his time at Loftus Road saw an expensively assembled squad plumb depths that few pundits could have predicted in the summer – while his two striking recruits have endured uncomfortable injury-plagued spells at their new club. Andy Johnson’s lack of fitness was the reason why Fulham were unwilling to extend his contract, while Lorcan’s already adequately covered the subject of Zamora’s return.

Monday’s meeting assumes massive significance for QPR as Harry Redknapp runs out of games to prove he can still claim his Houdini mantle. It goes without saying that Rangers badly need a win, even though they’ve climbed off the foot of the table thanks to Arsenal’s pummeling of Reading on Saturday, but the importance of the fixture for Fulham shouldn’t be understated. Jol’s side have quietly crept towards the top half of the table – and as both Swansea and West Brom stumble ahead of them – there’s a slim chance that Fulham could climb even higher. The Whites have acquired the handy habit of finishing seasons strongly in recent years – and Monday’s game offers the rare opportunity to clinch consecutive London derby wins following the defeat of Tottenham before the international break.

Victory tomorrow night would prove cathartic for a number of the Fulham faithful. It shouldn’t be taken for granted, however. QPR do have the ability to score goals – Redknapp’s capture of Loic Remy and Zamora’s return to fitness have offered the strugglers a striking threat that they had previously lacked. If Fulham can console themselves that the mercurial talent of Taraabt might start on the bench, they’ll face a physical and explosive partnership in the shape of the French forward and a man whose ability to infuriate central defenders we know all about.

In their media comments in the build up to this game, it seems as though both Jol and the players have got the message. They seemed lacklustre and leaden-footed at Loftus Road. It wasn’t good enough. There’s a score to settle this time – and a few psychological scars to repair.

The Return Of Bobby Zamora

I remember feeling genuine shock when Bobby Zamora’s transfer from Fulham to QPR was announced. In fact I was so disappointed I treated the situation at the time with complete apathy. It really was a demoralising blow to lose a striker who had been so key to our success over the last few seasons and won who earnt a lot of adulation, if not love, for his stunning 19 goal season during that incredible Europa League run – to our most vicious rivals, no less! But hindsight is a wonderful thing; we’ve gone from strength to strength since he left, and his immediate replacement, Pavel Pogrebnyak, coincided with a fantastic run of form, demonstrating that actually Zamora was maybe more of a hindrance to the team than a help by the time of his departure. Monday marks the first time Zamora will line up in QPR colours since his switch, and as such it’s a good opportunity to have a look at a player who I appreciate, but can probably never really respect again.

The supporter-player dynamic between the fans on the Cottage terraces and Zamora himself was fascinating however. There was a genuine love-hate relationship, with fans wanting him to score goals for the good of the team and demonstrate limited appreciation without ever really warming to a player who visibly disliked them.

After a catastrophic goal return over his first few months at Fulham – after a goal on his debut in August he didn’t score again until we beat non-league Kettering in the FA cup – a number of fans were on his back. The supporters were split into two camps: those with him (responsible for the “his hold up play” cliché which became a running joke) and those against him. It was a huge shame though that there was even an “against him” camp for a player who did genuinely contribute significantly on the pitch to our highest ever league finish despite his lack of goals, and who showed little negative contribution really (you could never question his work rate and he didn’t say anything out of turn). The abuse was vicious and unnecessary and I do have some genuine sympathy for him.

However, there were two paths Zamora could have gone down after this. He could have risen above it and taken the one Chris Baird has since travelled; the Irishman has certainly undergone a remarkably transformation from boo-boy to cult hero. Instead, Zamora took the other and responded in kind. After Kettering he scored twice more in the 2008-09 season, both in front of his home crowd and both celebrated with a hand cupped to his ear as if to say “So what’re you saying now?” before hurling a few choice comments of his own at the stand.

This was the start of a frosty acquaintanceship, whereby Zamora would generally celebrate as if he just discovered his wife was being unloyal before cupping his ear to the crowd. There were a couple of extreme episodes between the striker and the infamous Babygrow Man, a fan at the front of the Hammy End who did not like Zamora nor think much of his ability and let it be known too, so when Zamora scored against Sunderland at home at the Putney End he turned, pointed, mimed himself eating a burger (presumably in reference to Babygrow man’s large belly) before quite clearly yelling “f*** off” in Babygrow’s direction. A surreal moment but a very real demonstration of how Zamora felt.

Then there were his inexcusable actions while he was managed by Martin Jol. The two clearly didn’t get on and Jol implied as much in his press conferences, once saying “He does’t like crosses, he doesn’t like defending, he doesn’t like the fans.”, but in that situation both parties must remain professional. Zamora instead leaked information to the press about players discontent in what really amounts to slander. Zamora’s exit was inevitable and clearly motivated, even if he tried to cover it up with a false impress of QPR’s ambition.

As I said, it was a real shame that this is how Zamora chose to behave. While I do not, and would never, condone malice from the stands – and would even go as far to say as if you give some then you should expect some back – I believe Zamora could have been a genuine legend in the same ilk as McBride had he chosen to behave differently. Strong, hard-working and possessing genuine guile and quality following a rocky career carved in the lower leagues, when on song Zamora was undeniably supreme (just ask Cannavaro!) and just the sort of player we love to support. Instead, we are left unfortunately disliking someone who fired us to a European final and unable to celebrate a forward’s 19 goal season.

So when Zamora returns on Monday, expect a chorus of boos and a player utterly determined to bite back. A crying shame indeed.

LRCN

Listen To This Week’s Cottage Talk Featuring A Sascha Riether Exclusive!

This week’s Cottage Talk podcast has just finished broadcasting, and as per usual it was a ninety minutes packed full of Fulham content. I joined Will Paul, journalist Dean Jones and host Russ Goldman to discuss the news of our success in the Dallas Cup and Hangeland’s new contract as well as the return of Bobby Zamora, before Russ presented an exclusive interview with player of the season-elect Sascha Riether and an in depth preview of the QPR game on Monday. Listen by checking below.

Listen To Cottage Talk: 29th March 2013

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LRCN

Up next: Sunderland (a)

A tricky trip to Sunderland awaits for Fulham this afternoon with Martin O’Neill’s side desperate to drag themselves away from a relegation dogfight by ending their poor run of form with a win. Martin Jol has been at pains to point out that his side are by no menas clear of the drop themselves despite two successive clean sheets and an important win over Stoke last week and has set his players a target of reaching the forty-point mark as soon as possible.

Jol would dearly love to record a third away victory of the campaign at the Stadium of Light to add to the wins at Wigan and West Brom but his first focus will be to try and avoid the defensive mistakes that so hampered Fulham in their 3-1 defeat by Sunderland at Craven Cottage back in November. That was Sunderland’s first away league success in nine months – and the damaging defeat abruptly ended Fulham’s encouraging start to the campaign. Though the match – and arguably the trajectory of Fulham’s season – turned on the sending off of skipper Brede Hangeland, Fulham still fashioned plenty of chances but their visitors were far more clinical in front of goal.

That sort of sharpness in the final third has eluded Sunderland of late – and it might have been what prompted O’Neill to pair Steven Fletcher with Danny Graham up front for the first time in their 2-1 defeat at West Brom last weekend. That was the Black Cats’ third straight league defeat in a row – their worst run under O’Neill – and John O’Shea has urged his team-mates to discover the kind of consistency that will see them to safety. O’Neill chose to focus on the positives after the Hawthorns’ setback and was encouraged by the number of opportunities his side created against West Brom, which suggests he may field a similar 4-4-2 formation this afternoon. That could mean that Fulham’s defensive improvement could face a severe test against Fletcher and Graham, who have both scored against the Cottagers in recent seasons.

The hosts will be missing the bite of captain Lee Cattermole in central midfield, however, as O’Neill admits the former England under-21 international may need an operation to overcome his troublesome knee injury. Cattermole’s absence could see the Swede Sebastien Larsson pushed into central midfield or usher in a return to the starting line-up for the former Blackpool midfielder David Vaughan. Jol was waxing lyrical about his abundance of midfield options during yesterday’s press conference and Fulham do seem will served in the middle of the park after months of making do without Mahamadou Diarra. It will be interesting to see how the Dutchman decides to line  up at the Stadium of Light, with several players pushing for a recall.

The easiest option would be to field the same side that stoically saw off Stoke in the lunchtime kick-off last weekend. That would see Giorgos Karagounis and Steve Sidwell paired together in central midfield and the Greek veteran has certainly breathed new life into what looked a pedestrian midfield during Fulham’s barren midwinter run. Jol, however, has been talking up Emmanuel Frimpong in the build-up to this game, hinting that another physical contest could suit the Arsenal loanee’s attributes after his combative debut at Carrow Road three weeks ago. Alex Kacaniklic’s departure on loan to Burnley for the remainder of the season suggests that Jol sees Urby Emmanuelson as a more appropriate replacement for Damien Duff, whose Newcastle connections should ensure a hot reception on Wearside, although the Dutch international has impressed in two outings in central midfield as a substitute.

Jol will also have to decide whether to reward Kieran Richardson’s return to full fitness with a start against his former employers, although that would be harsh on John Arne Riise, who has improved greatly on his return to the side. The manager will likely keep faith with his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, with Bryan Ruiz operating just behind the mercurial Dimitar Berbatov in attack. The Bulgarian striker might have to reproduce the kind of finishing that saw off Stoke to beat Simon Mignolet, however. The Belgian goalkeeper was outstanding at Craven Cottage in the previous meeting between the sides and was named North East Football Writers Player of the Year this week – a fitting reward for a fabulous season. No wonder O’Neill’s so keen to tie him to a long-term contract.

MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Riise, Hangeland, Senderos; Karagounis, Sidwell; Dejagah, Duff, Ruiz; Berbatov. Subs: Etheridge, Hughes, Baird, Frimpong, Emmanuelson, Rodallega, Petric.

Up next: Stoke City (h)

In The Guardian’s Friday Premier League preview, Stoke City’s lunchtime visit to Fulham was described as ‘the season’s first truly meaningless’ encounter. It might not capture the imagination of a neutral, but they’ll be plenty of interest at Craven Cottage in a couple of hours. While improved performances since Christmas might have lessened some of the nervousness that followed Fulham’s wretched winter run and Martin Jol’s side now sit in mid-table rather than looking over their shoulders to snatch lingering looks at the relegation zone, three points against Tony Pulis’ team should set them on a course to safety.

Since the departures of Mousa Dembele – who served a reminder of his enduring quality in Lyon on Thursday – and Clint Dempsey towards the close of the summer transfer window, Fulham have been missing a spark in central midfield. Jol was quick to identify a lack of a cutting edge after a dire draw at Norwich two weeks ago, with the visitors mustering just a single shot on target at Carrow Road. This has been a season of making and mending rather than the exhilarating campaign a few of us dared to dream about after those racy early-season displays. Chris Baird and Steve Sidwell did enough as a makeshift central midfield partnership to keep Fulham above water, but breaking into the top ten requires an upgrade.

Jol did at least rectify that by the end of January. In came a clutch of midfielders designed to fill the breach left by those who departed Craven Cottage in the close season. Envious glances have been cast towards Blackburn since Danny Murphy swapped the Fulham captaincy for the Championship in search of a longer-term deal, not perhaps because of the veteran’s swashbuckling athleticism, but more for his football brain and those cerebral qualities that the current side’s pedestrian and one-paced football has seemed to lack. Dickson Etuhu’s bite would be useful against this afternoon’s opponents, too, and there’s a nagging doubt about just how long Jol can count on the evergeen Giorgos Karagounis to rage against the dying of the light.

Mahamadou Diarra has been a massive miss since injuring his knee on international duty with Mali – and Jol handed the Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong, full of social media savvy and the eagerness of youth, a first appearance in a Fulham shirt at Norwich. He provided the physicality Fulham have lacked during Diarra’s absence, but looked like a red card waiting to happen long before Jol opted to replace him with Urby Emmanuelson on the hour. The Dutch midfielder, who has slotted into central midfield with all the poise of Dembele despite spending most of his career out on the left, has all the hallmarks of quality – the ability to carry the ball at pace, an eye for a pass and time on the ball – which is probably why AC Milan are so keen to have him back at the San Siro come the end of the season. It can’t be long before he starts a Fulham game for the first time.

Solving the midfield conundrum is vital for another reason to. It would stop Bryan Ruiz and Dimitar Berbatov treading on each other’s toes as they come deep to retrieve possession. Berbatov, Jol’s marquee signing, is far more effective stalking centre halves in the final third and providing a finishing touch to flowing moves, but Fulham’s inability to provide him with the ball in these areas has led to the Bulgarian roaming around the midfield desperate to have an influence on proceedings. You have to feel for Ruiz, too, pressed into service as a central midfielder against Manchester United and shoved out onto the right side of a four-man midfield at Norwich, when his most fluent Fulham showings have come operating behind a lone striker. The two classiest members of this Fulham side need the space and the service from which to shine – and providing it for them remains a real work in progress.

Stoke have an away record to rival Fulham’s historically meagre return on the road, of late, having mustered just a single success in their last 22 Premier League games away from the Britannia Stadium. Four points separate these sides in the table prior to kick off and, although Pulis has refined his side’s style since their agricultural early days in the top flight, winning the physical battle will prove paramount. The visitors could hand a debut to their January arrival from America, Brek Shea, who recently scored in a behind closed doors friendly. Fulham will need to be at their best to return to winning ways this afternoon – and Jol’s priority will be finding the net, as his side have failed to score in three of their last four league outings.

MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Riise, Hangeland, Senderos; Sidwell, Emmanuelson; Duff, Ruiz, Dejagah; Berbatov. Subs: Etheridge, Manolev, Hughes, Frimpong, Baird, Rodallega, Petric.