Brede Hangeland to Arsenal? Cue lazy newspaper journalists smugly saying “I told you so”, now that Arsene Wenger has finally revealed his interest in Fulham’s Norwegian centre-back. Weeks of uncorroborated speculation in the tabloids has led to an uncomfortable pre-season for Fulham fans and it might yet be a more than uncomfortable new campaign. The vast majority of the Cottage faithful see the giant as a key part of Roy Hodgson’s hugely successful defence – which only three other sides conceded fewer than last season. The late interest from Arsenal – if acted upon – leaves the Whites with no time to bring in a replacement before the big kick-off, that is assuming there even is one out there within Fulham’s realm. Under a week to fill a hole left by the best centre-back in the club’s Premier League history would be a mammoth task, even for Roy ‘ticket to Scandinavia, please, I need a new player’ Hodgson.
That probably explains Magnus Troest’s arrival on trial, then. And the sudden interest in Middlesbrough’s Robert Huth. Perhaps the impressive (in pre-season, at least) Chris Smalling could make the grade? This writer thinks, however, fans would rather be discussing the team’s chances with their rock having signed a new contract, rather than wondering if his place in the team will be taken by a 22-year-old Dane who did not break into Genoa’s line-up. Then again, remember January 2007: Brede who?
The sale of Kolo Toure to Manchester City has left Arsenal as short as Fulham with regard to defensive options, and Hangeland is indeed an excellent, if not better, replacement. And £15m is undoubtedly a bargain – and less than they got for the Ivorian – but, luckily, Arsenal is usually a rather tight outfit. Hodgson does not intend to budge: “We are going to be as desperate as a club can be to hold onto him.” The Fulham manager has also insisted he is under no pressure to sell his star man: “He is one of our key figures, and if we lost him it would be an enormous blow. But we’re not looking to sell players. In fact, my chairman is encouraging me to add to our squad.” And so are the fans, but there has still been no notable additions to the team – but no departures, either. With the opening weekend edging closer, Hodgson is likely to begin the new campaign with the team that beat FK Vetra 3-0 last Thursday – which is also the same XI (excluding the recovering Simon Davies) that played most games in 2008/09.
There will be tougher opponents than the Lithuanians should Fulham have a good Europa League run but the Whites still need to get the job done in order to qualify for the tournament proper. Andy Johnson bagged a brace after Dickson Etuhu celebrated the birth of his child with the opener – all goals arriving in the second half to put the Cottagers through to the play-off round with a 6-0 aggregate win. Next stop, Russia. It would be nice for the players and fans to see more of the continent, but for now the (Eastern) European tour continues as Amkar Perm will welcome Hodgson’s troops on August 27, after the first leg at the Cottage a week prior. But before all that is the small matter of the new league season.
The setting of Fulham’s 2007/08 final day escape – Fratton Park – is first up this time around, and the Whites will hope they can begin this campaign the way they ended that memorable one some 15 months ago. It has taken until at least March in the past two campaigns to take three away points back to the Cottage, and if they are to press on and reach Europe again, victories must be claimed from such fixtures early on. With Manchester City’s spending and Spurs’ improvement under Redknapp, seventh – and even the top half – will be an even tougher ask than last year. In order to survive with the big boys and not step backwards, Fulham must have its Brede, or Craven Cottage may not be the fortress it was last year. The Whites need hostility, not hospitality, and that begins with matching Wenger punch-for-punch.