This question has been on the lips of Fulham fans all summer, and an answer is still elusive. Arguably, Fulham achieved Europa League qualification on the back of other teams’ – Tottenham and Manchester City, in particular – failures and they cannot expect that to happen again. Take the aforementioned three clubs (and even throw, the much stronger this year, Sunderland in there) who were separated last season by just three points, and ask yourself – what is the difference between them? Your answer – Fulham is known as a selling club, and the others are not.
Obviously this is less relevant for City – everyone is a selling club to them, but with regard to transfer speculation this summer, the Cottagers’ main stories have been about whether they can hold on to their star players, namely Brede Hangeland and Clint Dempsey. Tottenham, on the other hand, have been blessed with speculation about who they are bringing in, not hanging on to. So, this writer refers to the original question – how does Fulham push on? Obvious now, isn’t it? By improving the squad in transfer windows, as opposed to constantly replacing departed stars. If they can do that, then fans can talk about the Whites being part of the European furniture.
Steed Malbranque is still often missed (for his football talent, not his personality), and Papa Bouba Diop’s boots have only just begun to be filled, by Dickson Etuhu – and, looking at Saturday’s game, with Diop on the floor so much, he is even more beastly than the Senegalese. It took eight Premier League years to find a defender capable of winning a header, so Fulham must hang on to this one to avoid losing any progress made under Roy Hodgson. David Moyes’ Everton is the benchmark Fulham must follow (although perhaps ignoring Saturday’s result) – years of consistency leading to years of European qualification. That is the goal, and Hodgson is the manager to achieve it, the missing piece is improving the squad, inch by inch.
The other way Fulham can improve this season is – as mentioned in August 12’s Club Focus – form away from the Cottage. In many ways, last weekend’s result represents a full circle in the Whites’ turnaround under Hodgson, set to drop out of the league two seasons ago, a 1-0 victory at Fratton Park confirmed the manager’s greatest achievement. On the opening day two seasons later, that result is equalled as a sign of the Cottagers’ continued improvement, albeit thanks to Bobby Zamora’s lower back. If he cannot score with his feet, it is good to see him using his head and broadening his chances by bringing other body parts into play. As usual for Fulham, the last minutes were edgy as they failed to kill off the game when the chances arrived – Andy Johnson guilty of an absolute howler – but hang on they did for an away win at the first time of asking, six months earlier than most would have expected. Cracking the away day blues, is there anything Roy cannot do?
He even wrapped up two important signings before Saturday. Mark Schwarzer and Clint Dempsey both penned extensions to their Cottage stays, until 2011 and 2013, respectively. Hange-watch continues, the latest being rumours of a £50 000-a-week contract offer for the Norwegian to extend his stay at the club. Nothing to report on the transfer front, so let’s turn to the next fixture. It was Blackburn, but Fulham are still in Europa League qualifying so the annoying Thursday night matches continue. Annoying because now the club either has to play two games in three days (if the next league fixture is on Saturday) or regular Sunday matches – with awful transport links and lazy, hung-over supporters. Fulham should not complain, however, European football brings glamorous continental sides to the banks of the Thames, and this Thursday’s opponents are no exception – Amkar Perm, oh yes. Previewing Fulham matches is difficult because the starting XI is already decided, barring injuries of course. I would say Hodgson should give Riise and Nevland a run-out, but it is futile as Zoltan Gera and both Johnson and Zamora are fit, so he won’t.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it seems to be Hodgson’s motto and it certainly is not, so look at the line-up at Fratton Park for this Thursday’s first XI against Perm.