Roy Hodgson has been and gone, doing a better job than anyone could have hoped for, but he has left behind a squad – while very capable at this level – which is aging and includes several players who have contracts set to end after this season. Some may well not be seen by the new manager as in his long-term plans, but they must be kept happy in the short-term, at least until Hughes can gather the team he feels he needs to compete.
The Whites have, in the past, made the mistake of letting players go without first lining up an adequate replacement, and if the progress is to be continued this cannot be allowed to happen again. It took the club too long to bring in players in place of the likes of Steed Malbranque and Luis Boa Morte and should Mark Schwarzer end up joining Arsenal, which is looking increasingly more likely, this could well leave Fulham severely lacking between the posts. Even so, Hughes proved during his time at Blackburn his shrewdness in the transfer market, so there is likely a contingency plan in place in case of such a situation arising.
Of course, any news about arrivals or departures are to be taken lightly until they are confirmed, so Fulham fans are expecting to see a completely familiar starting XI for Saturday’s season-opener at Bolton. The same squad, of course, that experienced winning on the road in the Premier League just once in 19 attempts last season. A fact that sets things up intriguingly indeed – it could become clear whether a slightly more positive away set-up is all that was needed to exorcise the travelling demons. Or, conversely, Hughes could become the fourth-successive manager unable to crack the Fulham away-win enigma.
Just one game, in truth, will not solve or prove anything. Fulham’s sole away win last season came in the first of the 19 at Fratton Park, against the eventual 20th-placed side. Even in that 1-0 win, the result could be argued as fortuitous, and certainly not a classic, fortune-turning performance. So while an away win would be just the start everyone at the club is hoping for even just an impressive, positive performance could well be enough to convince fans of Hughes’ style and ambitions with the club. A lot, then, rests on the trip to the Reebok – for one, it is important to start well so that Hughes doesn’t come under much early pressure, and secondly the opportunity is there to start an exciting new chapter. The only certainty is that no-one knows what to expect, not only on Saturday but the year to come.
The Craven Cottage faithful have not been used to the unknown for a while. Throughout Hodgson’s entire tenure, preparation and consistency were the key to the successful machine the Englishman operated – which meant, oftentimes, predictable tactics, team selections, and results. There may be some chopping and changing of the team while Hughes looks for his preferred XI, or he may find the balance straight away, again that is unknown and is yet another area of intrigue.
Hughes could hardly face a more interesting test straight away than Bolton away from home. All through Hodgson’s spell, Fulham were consistently muscled out of games by more physical opposition – particularly on their travels – and Bolton, with Kevin Davies leading their line, are one such team. If Hughes, with his experience of managing several tough players in his days at Blackburn, can keep his side playing football on the ground and also match up when required in the brawn stakes then he could become very popular amongst the Whites faithful, who at times were fed up with lightweight away performances.
The Premier League looks as strong as it has done for some time, in terms of the mid-table and relegation battle, so away points will be arguably more important in 2010/11 than previous seasons. Even just a handful of wins would make Hughes look a genius, and when better to start than straight away?