Eleven years ago this evening, I was in a fairly important meeting. It was in the days before I possessed a smart phone and I was sat with my colleagues in a semi-circle listening to a sober external speaker going the importance of auditing. My role wasn’t a financial one – but my boss had given clear instructions that everyone was to attend.
Fifteen minutes into the presentation and my phone started beeping like crazy. I apologised profusely and put it on silent – whereupon it continued to vibrate. My boss sidled over to me and whispered into my ear, ‘It seems important. Why don’t you deal with it and then come back and join us?’
I stepped outside onto Tottenham Court Road and saw that I had seven missed calls, all emanating from people who I knew from Saturdays spent at the Hammersmith. I returned Ron’s call – as he was someone who had been going down the Cottage for decades. He was also never the most positive of souls (‘the bloody Whites knocked the positivity out of me in the 80s,’ he’d forever tell me and many others).
Ron answered almost instantly, which was unheard of – and he was uncharacteristically cheerful. ‘Have you heard?’ he asked. ‘They’ve done it. They’ve finally sacked the clown’. The jester to whom he was referring was Lawrie Sanchez, who had apparently just been relieved of his duties. It turned out all those phone calls – and several subsequent messages were to inform me that Fulham had got rid of the former Northern Ireland manager.
Looking back now, you could construct quite a compelling case to say that Sanchez was unlucky. Several of his signings – Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and Danny Murphy – went on to become Fulham legends. Another who didn’t, David Healy, had the clearest of goals ruled out after Mark Schwarzer pulled his shot back from behind the Putney End goal-line in stoppage time after Brian McBride had badly injured himself in the act of scoring. The Whites had a clear penalty appeal waved away at Villa Park that would have put them 2-0 up. It seemed as if Sanchez never got the breaks.
By the end of his reign, the football was dire and Sanchez’s direct approach totally bypassed the midfield technicians like Murphy and Steve Davis in search of Healy, who was never likely to win much in the air. We never saw much of Lee Cook and Shefqi Kuqi looked so our of place leading the line it was laughable. What wasn’t as funny was Fulham being cut adrift in the drop zone after six winless weeks.
Indeed, Sanchez had only mustered two league wins all season and a backs-to-wall effort against Newcastle by the River Thames ended with Joey Barton stroking in a late penalty. That left him with a league win percentage of 14% – the worst of any permanent Fulham manager in the modern era. Hope was in short supply that evening as we walked away from the Cottage – but now good old Ron was almost buoyant. And with good reason, in retrospect, when you think what Roy Hodgson did next.
The euphoria amongst my mates was widespread, but even they would have called for the men in white coats had I suggested that Fulham would contest a European final three and a half years later. Sanchez’s reign was blissfully short but the mess he left behind should be remembered when you read some of the online comment of late advocating the axing of Slavisa Jokanovic.
I walked back into my meeting after about ten minutes. My concerned boss asked, ‘How are you doing? Everything okay?’ I thought for a moment about how to sum up the emergency that had required me to leave. ‘Never been better,’ I replied – and left it at that.
Last night was a first-class Fulham performance. The Whites could have below par or taken Burnley for granted but they showed character to get through some sticky early moments before establishing an unassailable advantage.
Chris Baird continues to have a magnificent season. At the moment, you expect him to come out with a Superman cape on – because he seems to be able to do anything. Strong in the challenge, aware of what’s around him and his positioning and good in the air, Baird’s been exemplary in central defence and outstanding in midfield. He looked terrific at right back last night and seems so controlled on the ball, gone is the stagefright of that horrible Sanchez season.
Nicky Shorey looks like a really promising attacking outlet on the other flank too. Both of the full backs provided goals last night and that was one of the interesting things about just how Fulham have progressed under Roy Hodgson. Chris Coleman’s last game was a lamentable defeat by Manchester City and the distribution from the full back positions was woeful that day:
Jamie’s report on our defeat at Blackburn is well worth a read. I was particularly interested in his concluding paragraph:
A shame. Roy Hodgson is rightly talked of as one of our greatest managers and has presided over a period of unprecedented success. But, like pretty much every side we’ve produced since promotion in 2001, Roy’s Fulham are generally only able to win at one ground. We’ve now failed to beat all of Wolves, West Ham, Wigan, Birmingham, Burnley, Stoke and Blackburn on the road this year. And sadly, it’s spoiling what could have been another marvellous season.
He’s pretty much right. But it set my mind racing. Rich has been busy looking at our away stats, but I’m interested in the breakdown of our away league wins.
Things weren’t much better under Jean Tigana, footballing genius that he was. We won just four out of 35 league games under the Frenchman and all bar one came in our first season back:
West Ham 2-0
2002-03 Sunderland 3-0
4 out of 35 gave Tigana a success rate of just 11%.
Chris Coleman got a single win when he was in temporary charge (thanks to a Louis Saha strike at Charlton – 1-0). Things got a little better the following season when we astonished everyone by finishing ninth:
Man Utd 3-1
We had to wait until 2006 for our next victory on the road, secured by Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra, a 2-1 win at Newcastle, made bittersweet by Jimmy Bullard’s horrible injury. It was Coleman’s last away success, leaving him with 11 wins from 66 league games – a strike rate of 16%.
Poor old Lawrie Sanchez didn’t muster an away win.
Roy Hodgson’s was a long time in coming, but once Erik Nevland secured success at Reading we didn’t seem to look back:
Man City 3-2
We had a bit of success the following season too, once we opened up a bit away from home:
Man City 3-1
That leaves our single success this term on the opening day at Fratton Park (thanks to Bobby Zamora’s backside), to give Roy seven away wins from 41 league games (17%). Chuck in the win in Basel, which I ignored for methodological reasons (Tigana’s team beat a host of lower league opponents on our way to the Cup semi-finals in 2002) and the record’s more impressive. Hodgson’s teams have amassed more away points on average than Tigana’s, Coleman’s, Sanchez’s and – yes, of course – Lewington’s. That last one’s not hard.
It’s all rather predictable. We haven’t won enough away from home. How do you sort it? That’s an entirely different question.
A poster on TIFF this morning muses over whether Fulham’s participation in the Europa League has made us a more attractive proposition to players from around Europe. I’d say the answer is a definite yes. Bringing in the likes of Damien Duff, who despite his age possesses undoubted quality, and Stefano Okaka (touch wood as it’s still not confirmed) on loan suggests that Roy can now shop a higher level to when he was battling to simply save our top flight status.
Arguably, going further than the group stage in Europe can only help the club further. You might have noticed that a few more links have sprung up on the right hand side of this page. When I first started going to the Cottage as a child, it was difficult to get 4,500 Fulham fans together in the same place. Now, we’ve got supporters following us from far flung places like Poland, Bulgaria, Russia, Sweden, Norway, America and Australia. It’s nowhere close to the international fanbase of the top four but it is pretty impressive given our relatively recent ascent.
The arrival of Okaka, who is apparently flying into London on Tuesday to conclude the loan deal, will give Hodgson a few more options up front. Without Bobby Zamora for a while, Roy will have felt that he needed to bring in a new striker. Okaka’s not a conventional target man, but as Rich and Nick both point out, he’s an upgrade on what was available already, even if that might be a bit harsh on the lesser-spotted David Elm, whose Fulham career seems destined to be a short run.
I fancy he’s got the versatility to be both a threat in the air – he climbed really well to score the winner in Rome that we all cursed at the time – and he’s obviously got the pace to hurt defences that may try and push up against us. He will probably complement our other strikers too. Both Johnson and Kamara are poachers, though Joe’s got the ability to produce something unexpected and AJ’s more of a worker, who sometimes infuriates you by drifting into the channels too often. There’s the possibility that Erik Nevland could get some more playing time too, particularly if Kamara and Zamora remain injured for any length of time, and that would fit in with his new contract talks.
Going back to Okaka, here’s a look at what we might be getting on loan:
Let’s hope he can have a greater long-term impact than our last loan signing from Roma. Vincenzo Montella quickly won a place in the Fulham fans hearts for his clever vision and effortless running, but was sent packing by Sanchez, who felt he didn’t fancy the physical stuff. Perhaps Okaka can do enough to justify a permanent move.