Sunday, September 28, 2008

Failure, more on how to cope with it - Fulham 1 West Ham 2

Three losses in eight days is the sort of form to test even the most optimistic of supporters. The 1-0 defeat at Blackburn Rovers was disappointing, losing to Burnley midweek was even harder to take. This game therefore took on greater importance than it might have otherwise done. An opportunity to show it had been worthwhile resting so many first choice players in the Carling Cup. An opportunity we blew against a West Ham who, though they should be applauded for taking their chances, rarely looked capable of beating us.

In fact we beat ourselves. A period of madness in the last 5 or 6 minutes of the first half saw us concede two poor goals and have Andy Johnson sent off. Game Over and still 45 minutes to play. In a fiery opening half hour, Fulham were unusually reckless in their challenges with three other players finding their way into the referee's book along with Johnson. It was Johnson though that defined what went wrong in the game. Having made a poor pass that fell well short of it's intended recipient, he dived in much too high on West Ham left back Ilunga, making no contact with the ball. It was a shocking challenge that on second viewing was worthy of a straight red. To make matters worse, as the clock ticked down towards half-time, Johnson made another unnecessary lunge across Lucas Neil to get an equally deserved second yellow and effectively ended any chance we had of salvaging the game. This had followed our concession of two goals in which we conspired to do so many things wrong it was difficult to lay the blame on any one individual.

On 43 minutes Carlton Cole out muscled Brede Hangeland to push the ball out wide to Matthew Etherington. This left the Norwegian horribly out of position and struggling to get back to defend. Etherington left Konchesky cold as he out paced him down the wing then cut inside where Hughes was attempting to cover for the still absent Hangeland. A poor cross come shot was fired across Schwarzer who could only palm it out to the feet of Cole, the striker gleefully accepting the gift and firing home under little pressure as Paintsil looked on. Fulham had probably just edged the game up to that point but the goal gave West Ham new impetuous. Within two minutes they caught us with a sucker punch, a long ball from Mark Noble had our defence back peddling and Paintsil was caught out again as Etherington surge passed him. Schwarzer came rushing out of his goal only to see Etherington clip a shot around his out-stretched arm and nestle in the back of the net. We'd just imploded for no obvious reason.

As the second half got under way it seemed a forgone conclusion that we'd already lost the game. Incredibly though, we played really well and were comfortably the better team despite the numerical disadvantage. This was the Fulham we'd seen against Arsenal, working hard, passing quickly and controlling the match. A clear handball from Lucas Neil led to a penalty which Danny Murphy duly dispatched on the hour mark and suddenly it seemed like we might still get something. We certainly had our chances but nothing went in. Would we have stood any better with AJ still on the pitch? Hard to say, maybe the work rate wouldn't have been quite so high, but you have to think it would have helped. For the second Premier League game in a row Roy decided against making any subs. I briefly glanced at TiFF to see the usual outrage at this, but felt at the time he was right to stick by the 10 on the field. I didn't think they were noticeably running out of legs and I didn't think we had anyone on the bench who could have swung the game our way.

It's been a disappointing week no doubt, yet somehow I feel fairly upbeat about our situation. We do appear to becoming more and more like a mini-Arsenal. We're playing some neat football that I can really enjoy but we've got a soft underbelly that can leave us exposed if we're not focused 100%. The second half was exciting to watch, it flew past very quickly (inevitable when you're losing the game) but there was always the chance of an equalising goal. Had that arrived I think we'd have celebrated it like a win, in the end we didn't manage it but there was promise in the way we tried. Keep believing and the results will come, no one ever said this was going to be easy!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

That Turf Moor Jinx

We never bloody win at Turf Moor. We might say this about a lot of grounds, but in the case of Burnley's home ground it's actually true. This has been on TiFF before but it emphasises the point so well I thought I'd reproduce it here as well - a total of 28 consecutive games in the league and cup of which we have drawn just five and won none. Roy's stated the importance of the cups to us already and it would be fantastic to go on a proper cup run this season. Fingers crossed eh?

English FA Cup Burnley 3-0 Fulham 26-02-2003
Football League Championship Burnley 2-1 Fulham 20-02-2001
Football League One Burnley 1-0 Fulham 01-05-1999
Football League One Burnley 2-1 Fulham 18-04-1998
Football League One Burnley 3-1 Fulham 11-09-1993
Football League One Burnley 5-2 Fulham 17-10-1992
English Division 2 (old) Burnley 1-0 Fulham 05-03-1983
English Division 3 (old) Burnley 2-2 Fulham 24-10-1981
English Division 3 (old) Burnley 3-0 Fulham 07-03-1981
English Division 2 (old) Burnley 2-1 Fulham 02-02-1980
English Division 2 (old) Burnley 5-3 Fulham 18-11-1978
English Division 2 (old) Burnley 2-0 Fulham 25-04-1978
English FA Cup Burnley 1-0 Fulham ------1977
English Division 2 (old) Burnley 3-1 Fulham 24-08-1976
English Division 2 (old) Burnley 2-2 Fulham 30-12-1972
English Division 2 (old) Burnley 1-1 Fulham 25-03-1972
English Division 1 (old) Burnley 2-0 Fulham 30-09-1967
English Division 1 (old) Burnley 3-0 Fulham 23-08-1966
English Division 1 (old) Burnley 1-0 Fulham 08-01-1966
English Division 1 (old) Burnley 4-0 Fulham 26-12-1964
English Division 1 (old) Burnley 4-1 Fulham 10-09-1963
English Division 1 (old) Burnley 4-0 Fulham 12-04-1963
English FA Cup Burnley 2-1 Fulham 09-04-1962
English FA Cup Burnley 1-1 Fulham 31-03-1962
English Division 1 (old) Burnley 2-1 Fulham 20-02-1962
English Division 1 (old) Burnley 5-0 Fulham 01-10-1960
English Division 1 (old) Burnley 0-0 Fulham 30-04-1960
English Division 1 (old) Burnley 1-0 Fulham 25-08-1951
English Division 1 (old) Burnley 0-2 Fulham 21-04-1951

Friday, September 19, 2008

Who watches the watchmen?

When Willie Young scythed down the diminutive Paul Allen in the 1980 FA Cup final the “football world” reacted with righteous outrage. I was twelve at the time and that moment has stayed with me ever since. Any discussion about the “professional foul” is accompanied in my mind by the image of a giant ginger defender taking the legs away from a young Hammer on his way to score a second and cup winning goal for his side. I think Young got a yellow for his troubles and West Ham went on to win the cup anyway so no real harm done but it did effectively change the rules of association football forever.

This week John Terry’s red card for rugby tackling his opponent was rescinded on the grounds that it was not considered “serious foul play”. There was discussion on Match Of The Day about whether or not Terry had been sent off for a “professional foul”. There’s no mention of this term in the FIFA Laws of the game only a list of reasons to send a player from the field of play. This includes “preventing a goal scoring opportunity” which is the most common interpretation of a professional foul. It’s clear Terry didn’t do that as Ricardo Carvalho was desperately dashing into view to provide the excuse of a covering defender. The Referee stated post-match that he had sent Terry off for “serious foul play”. I really didn’t understand why anyone would have an issue with this. It was after all exactly that. Halsey stuck to his guns, earning in the process some element of respect (from me at least), but was then told by the FA that he was wrong and “demoted” to officiate in a League One match.

I completely fail to understand what the FA feel they’ve achieved by doing that other than to undermine one of their own officials at a time when they are supposed to be encouraging respect from all parties. Personally, I think it was exactly the sort of challenge that should be punished with a red card. It was clearly a cynical foul and completely outside the frame work of anything I think any fan of the game would want to see on a football pitch. To Terry’s credit he didn’t complain too strongly and left the field after only a minor whinge at Mark Halsey. A small gain for the Respect campaign possibly, but wait, here comes Sir Alex Ferguson to exercise his right to operate completely outside the boundaries that other managers attempt to stay within.

Meanwhile, over at the circus that St. James’ Park has become, a more serious offence was also being correctly dealt with. Danny Guthrie’s tackle rightly received a red card. An automatic three match ban – no problem there. However having subsequently discovered that he also broke Fagin’s leg, putting the Hull player out of action for at least six months, further punishment was surely appropriate. I don’t believe Guthrie is normally an aggressive player but the challenge was premeditated and the outcome something the governing bodies should have been keen to do everything in their powers to condemn. The FA didn’t agree. This time they claimed that only in exceptional circumstances could further punishment be applied, citing the Ben Thatcher attack on Pedro Mendes as an example. Well done English FA. One moment your undermining your own referee’s for reasonably interpreting the laws of the game, the next you’re failing to offer any sanctions against those players who might take sporting endeavour a little too far. I’m sure Danny Guthrie regrets what he did, and is unlikely to make a similar rash challenge again, but what sort of message does this send out to the type of player (and yes, even after Roy Keane’s retirement, they do still exist) who see this as part and parcel of the game?

Maybe it’s just nostalgia but back in the day when we allowed Referee’s more opportunity to make their own minds up we seemed to have less controversy. Of course the media is a major cause of this. The growth of digital television and the introduction of more dedicated sports channels means broadcasters need content to fill their programmes with. Too often it looks as though football authorities are just reacting to the media clamour, rather than thinking for themselves. However, it’s just as important that when the FA (or UEFA or FIFA) do have to get involved in decision making, they get it right. I’m afraid from my viewpoint they very rarely do. I think we need an independent body to make these judgement calls, a group unconcerned with it’s own media image, made up of ex-professionals and ex-referees who actually understand and love the game. Can it really be that hard to achieve?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Stockport Moment

Whatever the score might have suggested Fulham completely took Bolton apart on Saturday. It was a joy to behold and brought to mind a match we played against Stockport County under Jean Tigana. We beat County 4-1 that day but passed them off the park. Remarkably it was 1-1 at half time but the second half performance was a special moment, one where I realised we were in for an exciting and successful season. Stockport were left chasing shadows and I can recall actually feeling sorry for the opposition. This game might not have been quite so emphatic a display, but at times it wasn't far off.

Bolton had reverted to the style of football they played under Allardyce. It's not pretty to watch but it can be effective. They're very physical, make niggly fouls that they seem to get away with time and again, and generally spend a lot of time pushing and shoving and getting in your face. Kevin Nolan is the epitome of this. A few years back I thought he was a half decent player. A cut price Steven Gerrard perhaps. Now he looks as far removed from a top class midfielder as it is possible to get. Slow, overweight and ugly. His tackle on Bullard in the second half was cynical and deliberate and got the yellow card it deserved. It seemed rooted in the mind of a player that knows his time has been and gone and he was deservedly heckled from that point on. The biggest cheer of the day came from an appallingly misplaced pass that flew wildly out of play for a throw in. Fulham aren't a team that normally copes well faced with this style of football, but we demonstrated a work ethic similar to that seen against Arsenal, stuck to the game plan and came out on top.

The first goal came after a neat interchange of passes enable Bobby Zamora space to scamper down the left wing. He lobbed in a cross that was initially cleared by a Bolton defender before being slammed home by the right foot of Zoltan Gera. I've been expecting great things from Gera who was a player I'd admired for some time. This was the first game I'd seen where he really looked at home. The goal seemed to give him added confidence and he went on to have an excellent game. He almost took the game beyond reach in the second half, stretching to reach a Simon Davies cross, he somehow directed it back towards goal where it came back off the crossbar before being gratefully cleared.

It was Zamora, though, who was my man of the match. His hold up play is excellent and the interchange with Andy Johnson promised a great deal for the season ahead. Zamora almost opened the scoring when he connected with a high ball into the penalty area before lashing home a powerful volley, but he was adjudged to have fouled Jaaskelainen. Television replays suggest that he did win the ball fairly, but we all know that 'keepers nearly always get the benefit of doubt. Shortly after that a neat one-two with AJ led to him firing a header at Jaaskelainen from point blank range. This time the Fin saved well. With the first half running down, I was starting to worry that we might regret not taking our chances but Bobby popped up with a neat bit of skill to give us the two goal cushion we deserved. Collecting the ball on the left side of the penalty area he turned sharply inside to leave man mountain Danny Shittu all ends up, and gave himself space to fire home a right foot shot into the right hand corner of the goal. A superb bit of skill completed with an excellent finish.

This was another good team display. Andy Johnson looked sharp and speedy (though at one point in the 2nd half he was out sprinted by Shittu, an exception I can only put down to a lack of match fitness) and seems set to be a vital part of the team. I wasn't that positive when we were initially trying to sign him, but in one match he's pretty much convinced me I was wrong. I'm easily swayed! Danny Murphy was imperious in the centre, providing the focus of our passing and working hard for the full ninety minutes. In fact every one of the starting eleven contributed positively to a winning performance. There was a short but disappointing cameo from Seol that may have undone any good will he had salvaged after his effort against Arsenal. We also conceded a somewhat soft goal (announced as Heidar Helgusson's - which would have been his annual goal against us - but was eventually awarded to Kevin Davies) and looked a bit shaky as Bolton started lobbing balls in our box. The important thing though is that we survived it and can now look forward to the next fixture with some momentum on our side.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Late tackle ...

Despite the luxury of making some notes on the way home, I've not found time to put together a proper match report. I figure any later in the week and it would be the written equivalent of a Kevin Nolan tackle, so for now check Craven Cottage Newsround and Following The Fulham for their excellent match reports which pretty much say everything I'd have said anyway. I'll be back at some point this week to discuss what was a very impressive performance from the Whites.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Still no JB but a great result

Jimmy may have missed out yet again but England's unexpected 4-1 victory over Croatia was a huge improvement on recent performances. Technical problems with Virgin Media meant I missed the first half but it sounds like we worked really hard to control the game and this formed the foundation from which we went on to dominate the second half. A great night for Theo Walcott, building on his performance against Andorra with another great game and a thrilling hatrick. It was Wayne Rooney, though, who really stood out for me as the man of the match. He was involved in most of our best attacking moves and capped it off with a well taken goal. If nothing else that should at least prevent commentators from banging on about how long it is since he scored for England.

Hell, whisper it quietly ... even Frank Lampard had a good game.

Hopefully Jimmy will have gained something from his time in the England squad and will be raring to go come Saturday.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Words of wisdom

Time, I think, for me to move on from upsetting Liverpool fans and talk about Fulham again. Last week Roy Hodgson was interviewed by to discuss the summer transfer dealings. He made some interesting points about the size and shape of the squad. The key quote I picked up on was this.

When I came in January we really had far too many players and lots of them just trebling or quadrupling up for positions, never getting a game and obviously costing the Club a lot of money, but not playing any football. Whereas now, with a squad of only 23 players, of which three are goalkeepers, it will give the younger players, like Milsom and Brown, a chance to push forward and show what they can do in the First Team squad. It will give the players on the fringes a greater chance of playing, and although the squad is at the limit in terms of size, at least it’s full of the right type of players that we want to be at the Club.

He makes an excellent point regarding the size of the squad and the subsequent opportunities for young players. I've previously expressed a concern that we might be short of players and yet have also been keen to see our development squad start to make the breakthrough. Clearly you can't have it both ways. There won't be any quick fixes under Roy but this does give a positive indication that he'll be looking to bring young players through which can only be a good thing for the long term future of the club.

Moritz Volz has also written another excellent piece for The Times, talking about the uncertainty of the transfer window, how he's settling in at Ipswich and trying to get the local press to spell his name right. It doesn't sound like his debut for Town went all that well but I'll be keeping an eye on Volzy and the other loan players as the season progresses.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

He's better than Steve Gerrard, he's thinner than Frank Lampard

Jim Bullard, Bullard!

So another hugely unimpressive England game comes and goes. We did a "professional job" and won the game but it wasn't pretty and it certainly wasn't fun to watch. Maybe we are too impatient, want too much too soon, but I saw nothing to indicate we were making any steps towards having a team capable of winning (or even performing well) at a major competition. After the excitement of Jimmy's inclusion in the squad, it was a huge disappointment to see him fail to even claim a place on the bench. It looks pretty unlikely now that he'll feature against Croatia and I'm beginning to wonder whether I really care about England anymore.

There were a few bright points. Theo Walcott looked very lively in the first 20 minutes, Joe Cole added some much needed invention when he came on (and of course took both goals very well) and ... well that's it really. There seems to be a lack of balance in the side, a failure to step up a level and really take a team on. We just do enough to get by. I know I'm biased, but I couldn't help feeling Bullard would have added something to the centre midfield. Lampard was largely anonymous and even his free kick that lead to the first goal was miss hit. On paper both Lampard and Gerrard are better than Jimmy, but they've failed to show that for England. I think it's about time they got the kick up the arse they deserve and started having to actually win their place again.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Taking Stock

The hours following the end of the transfer window felt very much like the calm after the storm. The arrival of the Abu Dhabi Group at Man City and their shock purchase of Robinho from Real Madrid, followed by the resignation of West Ham manager Alan Curbishley and potential departure of Kevin Keegan from Newcastle seem to point to shift in power in the Premier League.

Fulham, meanwhile, were quietly streamlining the squad. I like this. It makes things neat. There's not much point in retaining players at the club who would only ever play in the very worst of injury crises. That said, by my calculations, we're down to 25 first team players which might be leaving us a little threadbare should that injury crisis suddenly appear but also seems a respectable number of players to work with.

Players Out = 29 for approx £3.5 Million
Brian McBride, Kasey Keller, Tony Warner, Carlos Bocanegra, Philippe Christanval, Ian Pearce, Simon Elliott, Bjorn Runstrom, Jari Litmanen, Ismael Ehui, Bradley Hudson-Odoi, Corrin Brookes-Meade (all released). Dejan Stefanovic (Free transfer to Norwich), Michael Timlin (Free transfer to Swindon), Paul Stalteri (Loan return), Ricardo Batista (nominal fee to Sporting Lisbon), Nathan Ashton (undisclosed, but small, fee to Wycombe), Steven Davis (£3M to Rangers), David Healy (undisclosed fee to Sunderland), Alexey Smertin (contract cancelled by mutual consent), Antti Niemei (Retired). Plus the following players on loan; Elliott Omosuzi (Norwich), Lee Cook (QPR), Hameur Bouazza (Charlton), T.J. Moncur (Bradford), Eddie Johnson (Cardiff), Moritz Volz (Ipswich), Gabriel Zakuani (Peterborough) & Collins John (NEC Nijmegen).

Players In = 12 for approx £21.4 Million
Mark Schwarzer (Middlesbrough, Free), David Stockdale (Darlington, £600k), Zoltan Gera (West Brom, Free), Andranik (Bolton, Free), Chris Smalling (Middlesbrough, Free), Bobby Zamora & John Paintsil (West Ham, £6.3M), Frederick Stoor (Rosenberg, £2M), Pascal Zuberbuhler (free agent), Andy Johnson (Everton, £10.5M plus), Dickson Etuhu (Sunderland £2M), Julian Gray (Coventry, loan).

I wrote a piece in The Fulham Review about the players that left last season and called it "The Sanchez Cull". By comparison that was small fry. The big difference is Roy has generally cleared out players lower down the pecking order and found replacements for the key positions. One of the best bits of news not covered above is that we still have Jimmy Bullard in the squad. England International Jimmy Bullard, that is. I doubt we've heard the last of that particular story but for now we can revel in watching the first Fulham player to claim an England spot since ... err ... Zat Knight.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Niemi Retires

Sad news from the Club today announcing Antti Niemi's retirement from football. I don't think anyone really expected him to feature in our first team again but I had hoped he'd find another club to play the final years of his career with. I was there the day he injured his neck against Watford and, whilst the injury might not have been quite as bad as it appeared, I don't think Antti ever fully recovered his form. I'll remember him for the good times though, he was a great buy when he first arrived and a very good 'keeper at his peak. I'll also remember that goal he set up (and almost scored himself) against us at Loftus Road in a 2-2 draw with Southampton.

I wish him the very best for the future, whatever it might hold.

Nice touch by the Club to wait until the hub-bub of the transfer window and died down a bit too. There's a farewell interview with Niemi here and a photo special here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

FFC Deadline Day round-up

A little like Mark Hughes, I spent the morning on the golf course. Unlike him, I didn't attempt an audacious bid to snatch Dimitar Berbatov from under the noses of my greatest footballing rival. My department's 6-a-side team could certainly do with a little Berbatov magic, eight games a season and only 15 minutes each way wouldn't be too onerous, but I suspect the lack of any salary and minimal opportunity for European competition (actually none at all) might put him off. Shame, we've probably got a better chance of claiming silverware this season than either Spurs or Man City (though following the late breaking news that City have managed to sign Robinho for a British record £32.5million transfer fee, I might need to reconsider their chances!).

Gabriel Zakuani was first out the door joining Peterborough United on a one month loan. The short time span might be something to do with the complicated rules of loan deals currently in place, so I'm not sure what Gaby's long term opportunities are at the Posh. He could do a lot worse, they're a team on the up and could well challenge for Promotion this year, at least it gives him a chance to re-establish his credentials at a level he has performed well at before.

An overdue mention for Dickson Etuhu who signed from Sunderland for £2million on Friday. He's had a lot of stick on TiFF already but plays defensive midfield which is an area we needed more options. There had been rumours that Leon Andreasen was not happy with his lack of game time, and that Etuhu was viewed as a replacement but it seems he is just here to add depth to the squad which must be a good thing.

Collins John returns to his home land to sign with NEC Nijmegen for a season long loan (or on a free transfer if you believe the BBC - who knows what's going on there, his contract was supposed to have expired in June). We'd all seen CJ's potential early on but for one reason or another he seemed unable to take this on to the next level. I know there's a lot of fans who still felt he had something to offer but I think having failed to set the world alight at either Leicester or Watford it really was time for him to start again somewhere else. Nice that he's gone to a team who we have quite amicable links with, he's still a young player and I hope he's found a team where he can really make an impact.

A bit out of the blue - we've signed Julian Gray on a season long loan from Coventry. The 28 year old was linked with us back in his Palace days, and featured in the Premier League for Birmingham City between 2004 and 2006. He can play left midfield or left back, so will provide cover for Kallio whilst Konchesky is injured and could also be used as back up to Gera.

There'd been rumours that Alexey Smertin was heading to Cardiff but was awaiting work permit clearance. Not sure if that move is still on (turns out its not - he didn't want to go) but Fulham have confirmed Smertin's contract has been cancelled by mutual consent. Easy come, easy go.

A fairly quiet end to the window then. Someone on TiFF suggested Roy was probably tucked up in bed reading P.G.Wodehouse which made me laugh. He was actually at Motspur Park, where the reserves lost 3-1 to Portsmouth. In many ways good to see that Roy felt he'd got the job done already. Rushing around in a panic trying to buy something before the shops shut is rarely a recipe for a successful purchase. He has certainly used the day to clear out any players he didn't want, we're looking decidedly trim. I think we could do with another centre back and maybe an extra striker but that will just have to wait until January now.