Well that was positively embarrassing wasn’t it? Yesterday’s Fulham performance against relegated Reading was nothing short of disgraceful. Not for the first time this season, fans have been left wondering where they can ask for a refund on increasingly over-priced tickets to watch what seemed nothing more than an exhibition in nonchalance.
After losing at Loftus Road to QPR in December there was a genuine feeling of shock at how poor and uninterested Fulham were. Yesterday felt exactly the same. The performance under the early May sun became an ever-worsening comedy of errors that eventually descended into farce.
From a squad filled with more detritus than your average landfill site, to on the day performances laced with so little compassion and energy that you could have been excused for thinking you were watching eleven robots, yesterday will live in the memory as an unfortunate reminder of how not to tackle a late season game, and it could yet have consequences significantly worse, with a two game relegation dogfight for survival looming.
Even amongst the catalogue of glumness, we could and should have still won yesterday’s match. Had Reading been penalised for Stephen Kelly’s clumsy and reckless felling of Dimitar Berbatov inside the area, as they should have been, Hal Robson-Kanu would not have been able to put them 2-0 up. The opening penalty was inside the box by the width of a fingernail, or was it? Match of the day didn’t really care to analyse those finer details.
But refereeing decisions are not tantamount to an excuse. Decisions like those should light a fire under the belly of motivated players, yet ours sunk like shouted at schoolchildren.
In the end it is all quite simple. I had my non-football watching fiancé at the game yesterday, her restricted view ticket, a £58 addition to the three season tickets we already hold (see what I was saying about over-pricing). I kept testing her observation skills by asking for tactical insights, and she stated what seems the blindingly obvious yet seems to go un-preached by those in a position to do some preaching. Our players do not seem to look up when passing, Senderos, Hangeland, Riise, Emmanuelson, Duff and Karagounis particularly guilty of this. There is also no team movement, Reading attacked as a wave, and defended as a group of 11, standing as a single unit. Fulham attacked as individuals and defended as statues.
When you fail to execute the simple things, it is no wonder the complex seems a mile off.
For all this though, we still could have salvaged something from the game. Hugo Rodallega, for all his energy and positive attitude compared to some, missed three chances to score that a striker at this level has to put away, hitting the keeper, post and crossbar is simply not good enough. Profligacy is a reason for failure, not an excuse.
I will lay off tearing into Bryan Ruiz as some seem to be doing, not only his two goals, but his boot was the sole creative asset we possessed all day. Yes he should have scored 4, but at least unlike some, he was trying to go in the right direction.
The real issue yesterday was the defence. Sascha Reither aside, it was a monumentally bad game for the collective back 5 (or 6 if you include an out –of- sorts Richardson). Philippe Senderos, so often unjustly criticised and scapegoated this season, was poor, but he was not alone, Brede was out of sorts, while the John Arne Riise tenure at left back must surely be at an end. Mark Schwarzer had an awful game too, the penalty aside; all the goals were preventable by the last line. In the twilight of his career, Mark’s form over the last 3 months has been outstanding, but on this occasion, Martin Jol’s not so subtle catcalls for a new goalkeeper seem entirely justified.
It is no wonder a performance like this reared its ugly head again, in a season where you lose your best three starting midfields and replace them at a cost of less than a single ticket to yesterday’s game, is it any wonder ambition and progress have been replaced by terms like ‘muddling’ and ‘escape’?
At 40 points it appears the dressing room had thought themselves safe on April 1st. They are not. From 12th to 18th in two games is yet a real possibility and will yet likely depend on results elsewhere. Should the lack of desire be replicated come Liverpool next Sunday, we could do worse than starting the Under 18’s against Swansea following their 3rd consecutive league title. There are certainly a few youngsters who’d contribute more to the first team at the moment than their under-performing older siblings.
To not show ambition is disappointing, but to not show any heart yesterday was equivalent to disrespect – to themselves, to their coaches and to those fans for whom the season doesn’t stop until the end of the final game. Seeing as the team stopped playing on April 1st, can we pro-rate our season tickets?
The winds of change are blowing. This summer must see deadwood expunged and ambition shown. However, we have to get there first. There are two games to go. Let’s join together and show support. Players, fans, coaches all rallying together can turn this game’s negative into a positive. Use this as the fire to ignite some passion for two games and turn all fears of relegation into hearsay.
Yesterday was embarrassing. So Fulham. Come to play next Sunday. Come to win. Or don’t come at all.
Saturday’s frenzied final fifteen minutes at Reading was the ultimate test, as a friend of mine put it yesterday, of whether you consider your pint half empty or half full when it comes to Fulham. After a first half where the Whites simply failed to get started (it rivalled the false start on the south coast in terms of effectiveness), Martin Jol’s side came roaring back and looked set for all three points until a fraility that is now becoming familiar – defending set-pieces – reared its horrid head once again.
Schwarzer: Questions are starting to be asked again about our Australian goalkeeper, although the fickle nature of football means that will always happen when you throw away a late lead. Schwarzer could do nothing about Leigertwood’s superb strike that opened the scoring, but he feels to dominate his six-yard box in the manner that marked his arrival from Middlesbrough four years ago and coincided with the dramatic improvement in our defensive record. With all the criticism flying around, it is worth remembering that his injury-time double save from Hal Robson-Kanu prevented a Reading winner. 6
Riether: Just as we were all lauding Riether’s all-around excellence since swapping the Bundesliga for the Premier League, along comes a display to make you thing again. He failed to deal with Jobi McAnuff’s raiding down the Reading right and the Royals’ captain often found gfar too much space in behind the Fulham rearguard. Riether certainly wasn’t the only one culpable for allowing McAnuff to roam infield in the run-up to the opening goal – but he also wasn’t involved in the final third until well into the second half, although he did make a crucial clearance with Jason Roberts baring down on goal. 6
Riise: The Norwegian’s second season back in English football has started far better than his first but he doesn’t have the legs to recover as swiftly from those lung-busting gallops up the left flank as he used to in his Liverpool days. Jimmy Kebe, like McAnuff on the other flank, was afforded far too much time and space – both in front of the back four and, more worryingly, behind the full back, to influence proceedings and Fulham were fortunate not to have paid a higher penalty. 5
Hughes: This wasn’t the Northern Ireland defender’s finest hour and a half. Instead of being confident and assured, Hughes – much like his fellow centre back – looked hassled and harried, competing both with Pogrebnyak, who should have punished some sloppy marking to give Reading the lead early on, and Roberts for possession. There was an alarming amount of space between the two central defenders during the first period – and when one of them needed to be commanding to help preserve the three points with in the closing stages, they were found wanting. 5
Hangeland: Certainly the most error-strewn display we’ve seen from the new captain since Andy Carroll ran riot at Upton Park. Ironically, Fulham appeared to have dealt well enough with Pogrebnyak for the Russian to be substituted with ten minutes to play, but late substitutes Adam Le Fondre and Robson-Kanu found worrying amounts of space in the Fulham box. Calls for Hangeland to dropped are laughable – but he’ll need to up his game for when Fulham face Fellaini, Jelavic and company on Saturday. 5
Baird: Far from his ususal composed self in the first 45 minutes, but few in black emerged from a torrid first period with any credit. He was more involved in breaking up the play after the interval, saw a free-kick that was threatening McCarthy’s far corner deflected just wide and capped a more than competent display with a fine header to give Fulham the lead – although the injury he sustained during the joyous celebrations wasn’t part of the plan. Manfully limped back to the half way line and tried his best to carry on but had to be replaced by Steve Sidwell. 7
Diarra: Didn’t impose himself on the match as match as Jol would have wanted and was certainly outhustled by Jay Tabb and Leigertwood in the first half. His presence on the ball and decision making make the Malian such a vital part of the side Jol’s trying to build, though, and Diarra was much more influential in the second half. Seemed to fade in the final ten minutes or so, which is understandable give his recent fitness problems. You get the feeling that Fulham’s season will be shaped by how regularly he’s in the starting line-up. 6
Duff: Full of eager running, although most of it was sideways or towards his own goal in a dismal first half – and Duff was visibly dismayed to have sent a decent chance to equalise wide from a Richardson cross just before the break. Looked much more effective when he received the ball in advanced areas in the second half and cleverly created the space for Ruiz’s excellent equaliser with a quick give-and-go. The effects of his illness meant he was also likely to be taken off early – but Duff’s been possibly the most consistent performer in a Fulham shirt so far this season. 6
Richardson: My theory on Richardson’s inclusion for this game – and by extension the ignoring of Alex Kacaniklic’s creditable claims for a starting spot for the second week in succession – is that Jol was worried about the pace and threat of Jimmy Kebe. Richardson’s not going to give you express pace or dynamic ability in the final third (especially as he seems to have spent the latter part of his spell at Sunderland as a full back) but he will work hard. Unfortunately, application wasn’t enough on Saturday as Kebe found far too much space and Fulham lacked an outlet on the left to stretch Shaun Cummings. Richardson did deliver a couple of dangerous crosses from which both Rodallega and Duff should have done better, but it was far from a convincing display. 5
Berbatov: Brilliant. I’d be tempted to end my assessment of the Bulgarian’s display there if it didn’t feel like cheating. Very much the leader of the team in forward positions, forever pointing, prompting and cajoling, but the frustration was that Fulham failed to provide him with enough of the ball to make a telling impact until the hour mark. Playing in that slightly deeper role, Berbatov’s control, shielding of the ball and distribution were exceptional – and his finish for what looked like the match-winner was utterly sublime. The way he wheeled away in ecstacy to celebrate with the travelling fans showed that he’s not just at Fulham to pick up another pay cheque or have a laugh with Jol too.9
Rodallega: Frustrating, if you’re being kind, woeful – if you aren’t. Rodallega’s an enigma. When it works, he’s a genius and a bit of a cult hero (see Wigan away) and when it doesn’t, you’re left wondering what all the fuss is about. He scored with a header at his old club last month but sent two tame headers straight into Alex McCarthy’s arms from a similar position this time around. There was little in the wayu of an inventive movement or searing pace in behind to compensate for those misses either. 5
Ruiz: Bryan Ruiz’s introduction was greeted by a particularly foul-mouthed tirade from a ‘gentleman’ a few rows behind me. A single swish of his left foot three minutes later shut that ‘supporter’ up and the rest of the away end enjoyed dancing to a disco ditty in the Costa Rican’s honour for the rest of the afternoon. Playing in the classical number ten role, Ruiz released Berbatov to play further forward and his influence on the game simply can’t be understated. Not content with scoring a goal to rival those audacious ‘scoops’ against Everton and Bolton, he swung over the corner that led to Fulham’s second and must have ended any debate about his quality in the space of a brilliant half hour. 9
Dejagah: Another impressive effort from the bench, injecting pace and a desire to run at tiring defenders just when it was necessary. He wasn’t able to exploit as much space as he had against Aston Villa the previous Saturday because Reading had been able to observe his eye-catching debut, but the Iranian’s impressive start to life in England must have been one of the reasons why Jol felt comfortable with sending the fit-again Kerim Frei to Cardiff on loan. 6
Sidwell: Dropped from the starting line-up to compensate for the return of the fit-again Diarra and that must have been a big disappointment to Sidwell on his return to his old stomping ground. Replacing Baird with ten minutes to play was unexpected and it might have been difficult for him to get up to speed with a game that had just been cranked up to more than 100mph, but it didn’t seem like that. The ‘Ginger Iniesta’ prodded through the pass from which Berbatov seemd to have snatched all three points and the devastation on his face after Reading’s third was matched by the disconsolate looks around the around end. 6
The past few weeks have seen one ‘hot-button’ issue dominate football debates up and down the land: the standard of refereeing. One by one, decision after decision, refereeing controversies are racking up faster than you can spell Mark Clattenberg.
I wrote the majority of this article before our game against Wigan at the weekend. Lee Mason did his best impression of someone who didn’t know the rules in a shambolic performance whereby decisions were seemingly made at random intervals in order to fill some kind of quota. However, the main talking points were two non-decisions. The non-penalty we arguably should have had in the first minute when a Gary Caldwell somewhat robustly hacked down Clint Dempsey in full stride, and Pavel Progrebnyak’s non-goal when it appeared on replay that his shot from 3 yards cannoned back off the underside of the crossbar over the line. Hard decisions, yes. Wrong decisions, also yes. Something doesn’t add up.
I must caveat the rest of this I am not having a go at referees (well, not entirely). It is undoubtedly the hardest job on a football field, short of tackling Moussa Dembele. The top of the English game is played at such pace and with such strength and passion that I defy any man to get 100 percent of the decisions right 100 percent of the time.
There are also more forces at work here, beyond that of human errors of judgement that you, can come to expect and, unfortunately, learn to live with. The most egregious of these, is the long quested foe that is simulation. Diving. It is a part of our game, it shouldn’t be. When Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville suggested that it was just a part of the modern game, he opened a cauldron of fire and divided the opinions of players and fans.
The debate on diving, and referees, took on a new level a few weeks ago, when QPR’s Shaun Derry was sent off at Old Trafford, despite the man he supposedly fouled, Ashley Young of Manchester Utd, being proven to be both offside and to having have dived. Unfortunately, of course, the linesman missed the blatant offside and the referee missed the dived.
It is important to remember that football is a contact sport. Contact alone does not necessarily merit a foul. Yes, it’s not rugby and I’m not suggesting carte blanche on physicality, but some commentators, players and members of the media would have you believe we are in the business of watching rhythmic gymnastics.
This particular furore was reprised two weekends ago when, once again, that man Young, took the slightest contact from an Aston Villa defender, and followed it with a swan dive so grand that you wouldn’t be surprised to see him at the Aquatics Centre come London 2012.
At the complete other end of the spectrum, when Reading took on Leeds in a televised Championship match over the Easter weekend, the referee failed to control the match from becoming an advert for mixed martial arts. It was a lack of consistency on that occasion that was the main frustration. Leeds had one player sent off for a poor two-footed lunge in the early stages. It was, to all intents and purposes a red card offence.
What irked many supporters of the Berkshire club was that, later in the game, Leeds players on certainly one, if not two, further occasions committed fouls worse than the earlier red card offence. One of these abhorrent challenges left pivotal midfield energiser bunny Jem Karacan with a broken ankle.
The final two decisions I’d like to consider both involve Chelsea. The Solomon Kalou penalty against us at the Cottage and Juan Mata’s “ghost goal” in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Tottenham.
The first was such a close decision that there was no unanimous opinion anywhere as to whether it was, or wasn’t, a penalty offence. When referee, Mark Clattenberg, told Danny Murphy that it was a foul by Stephen Kelly, and not the skipper, a controversial decision became a wrong one in my mind. Once again, contact doesn’t mean foul, especially if it is the attacker who initiates contact, as happened here.
The incident in the semi-final was, however, less debatable. The awarding of Mata’s “goal” by Martin Atkinson, despite the ball barely entering the demilitarized zone, let alone crossing the border, was simply appalling. Goal line technology I hear the masses cry. Well, yes, frankly. FIFA has said that, come July this year, there could be an agreement in place for it’s introduction. Not a moment too soon, but what’s the chance that FIFA find a way to obstruct this much-clamoured progress?
Other sports the world over have introduced the option to call upon video evidence, even without the need for Hawkeye or some chip and pin device being planted in the ball. Would cricket fans say the use of Hawkeye has improved their sport? Would rugby fans argue that try decisions being made accurately has improved their sport? Of course they would.
There’s little or no retroactive action that can be taken to compensate teams for wrongly awarded penalties or goals. Should Man Utd have their win against us rescinded after the almost unanimous feelings that the 91st minute penalty against Danny Murphy was, wrongly, not awarded? No because a penalty is not a goal until it hits the back of the net.
On the other hand, the lack of retrospective action on violent conduct and simulation is something that I find particularly hard to tolerate. If we want people to stop diving, then start handing out three match bans. Ashley Young might stop his flagrant cheating if he couldn’t play until August.
Finally, as it stands, a player can’t have retrospective action taken against him, unless the referee admits to not having seen an incident. This means the likes of Mario Balotelli, who planted his studs into Alex Song’s groin, in full view of Martin Atkinson without sanction in the recent Arsenal v Man City game (not Atkinson’s best few weeks) go unpunished despite the ex post evidence being crystal clear for all to see.
There is a changing wind blowing through the annals of footballing power at the moment, and not a moment too soon. We all love our sport, and when played at it’s best, is when the referee is invisible. It is a thankless job for sure, but it probably says that on the job application, along with “must give penalties to Man Utd at Old Trafford”.
There are several simple changes that would make the game we all love better for all involved. The introduction of goal line technology is the first; heck, even goal line cameras and a willingness to get the decision correct would work. I am also a firm believer in post match citing of violent conduct and diving even if missed by the matchday officials. The FA should stop protecting referees as if they are infallible, like all of us, they make mistakes (perhaps a few too many at the moment), but let’s get decisions right, it’d make the game that little bit better.