Claret and blue are the colours of the week at Fulham as all the talking points have come from West Ham, Aston Villa and Europa League opponents FC Basel. Okay, Basel’s strip is more red and blue, but close enough. Roy Hodgson mixed-and-matched his line-up for his side’s first Europa League home game, selecting players from both the usual first XI and from the supposed second string – and it resulted in three points. The performance was a long way from polished, but the reserve – aside from Paul Konchesky and Mark Schwarzer – defence played impeccably, allowing the Whites to cling on to a narrow 1-0 win. In fact, this writer is unsure which player was man of the match – Chris Smalling, or his namesake centre-back partner, Baird.
It has been an incredible turnaround for the Northern Irishman Baird. In the (say this quietly) Sanchez ‘era’, the ex-Southampton man was played at right-back, and performed awfully. He was many fans’ scapegoat for defeat and no-one thought he was cut-out for the top flight. Hodgson, in contrast, agrees with playing players in their preferred – and, not surprisingly, best – position. For Baird, that is centre-back, and in every appearance there this season, he has played like a man possessed. He is sharp, strong and organised, a far cry from the slow, out-of-position lightweight that the Fulham faithful once came to know, and hate. In him, and indeed Smalling, Fulham has superb options in the heart of defence, so Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes had better not become complacent or risk being replaced. No problems in defence then, what about the midfield?
Having already signed Jonathan Greening, Damien Duff, Bjorn Helge Riise and Kagiso Dikgacoi over the summer, Whites boss Hodgson has his eyes on another midfielder. Greening has been off the pace in his few appearances, Riise currently lacks the required discipline to be considered and Dikgacoi is either not fit or not good enough – his 15 minutes on the pitch so far failed to give an indication as to which, however. Despite the many options available Fulham has been heavily linked to Villa’s Nigel Reo-Coker, since his bust-up with Martin O’Neill. It could easily be the newspapers adding two and two, but making five, or perhaps Hodgson is not entirely happy with what he has seen so far from his central midfield.
As far as this writer can see, if cover is needed anywhere in central-midfield, it is for Danny Murphy in the creative role. Yes, Reo-Coker is determined. Yes, he knows how to get stuck in. But what if Fulham’s captain has an off day? Can Reo-Coker share the attacking burden? No. This doesn’t mean he is a bad player, but Fulham does not need to spend £3m on a midfielder to challenge for Dickson Etuhu’s slot. Dikgacoi is doing that, and so is Greening, and Baird if need be. Etuhu can certainly be improved upon, but Reo-Coker would not walk into the first XI, and so he should not be purchased. The Whites need more creativity and flair, not another battler – at least until the current crop have been given enough of a chance.
The midfield players worked superbly in the last league outing against Arsenal – Etuhu battled, Murphy created, and Zoltan Gera and Clint Dempsey put telling balls into the box, and Hodgson will ask for more of the same against fellow London strugglers West Ham on Sunday. Gera has pointed out what most fans are already thinking: “I don’t know why we are better against the stronger sides. Last season it was the same.” Even if the Hungarian manages to get that message through to his teammates, Fulham still have the task of beating a side that usually gets the better of them – as it stands, 11 games have passed since the Whites beat their London rivals in the league, spanning almost eight years. Well, the Hammers were not in the Premier League for two seasons running, but 11 games is a long time in football.
If the Cottagers can stop Arsenal from playing, then it should be simple to do the same to the Hammers. Playing as they do at home – working hard, defending from the front – Fulham’s tactics do not need to change for away games. As long as Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora make their opponents’ day difficult, then the confidence will sap from the home team, and grow with the visitors. It is all well and good saying this, but a bogey team is a bogey team and when the teams kick-off on Sunday, the result is in the hands of the gods – rational thinking will go out of the window, but the players could do worse than look at Baird’s turnaround for inspiration. Records are there to be broken, so the Fulham faithful can hope.
Fulham Club Focus
Long season ahead – July 29
Confirmed: Zamora’s foot does fit in his mouth – August 5
Fulham needs Brede to survive – August 12
How do Fulham push on? – August 18
Roy Hodgson raids the Post Office queue – August 21
Lethargic Cottagers slump to derby defeat – August 25
Makeshift Cottagers shuffle into Europa League – August 28
No ammunition from midfield as Cottagers continue to fire blanks – September 1
Window shut firmly for Fulham – September 4
Hodgson must adapt to rid closet of skeletons – September 8
Forget August, the season starts now – September 11
Normal service resumed? – September 15
Second string given chance to shine – September 18
No-one fearful of Fulham, so time for Plan B – September 22
Rotatation, rotation and more rotation – September 25 Ten points for effort, but no points where it matters – September 29 Cottagers should follow Baird’s example – October 02