River-Cottage-Football: Fog on the Thames

NEWCASTLE UNITED’s fans are incredible. Just consider the club’s honours list: last trophy of any significance, 1969; most recent FA Cup triumph, 1955; last league title, 1927. They haven’t had much to cheer about, but they are intensely loyal, passionate and mostly, very well behaved considering that the river Tyne, in football terms, has been very foggy for years.

At Fulham, they were signing their hearts out to try and persuade Rafa Benitez to stay at the club. And who can blame them? Benitez is a top quality jobbing manager who likes to be in work. Unappreciated up the road from Fulham, he does a job and does it well. That’s why there’s no shortage of clubs that would take him on. Newcastle like a high profile manager – Keegan, Dalglish, Gullit, Robson and Benitez fits very well into that group. But, as we all know, this is a club that has underperformed for decades.

Some would say that the reason Newcastle United, with its great support, has been unsuccessful is because of where it is, that the commercial and cultural heart of the nation is in the south, underlining the overwhelming concentration on London and the capital flows that accompany it. Newcastle as a city, has suffered when the country tips into recession and its football club, despite a few peaks and false dawns, has never really recovered its status it enjoyed in Victorian and Edwardian times.

This was the final day of the 2018-19 season and attention was really focused on Brighton and Merseyside. Fulham were already relegated and Newcastle’s main concern was the future of “Wor Rafa”.

Relegation at some clubs provokes a sense of anarchy and betrayal. Sunderland fans kicked seats to bits when they fell into League One in 2018 and when some clubs have been relegated, there has been a pervasive sense of doom and apocalypse. When Manchester United went down in 1974, there was something very surreal about it. None of this at Fulham, it was all smiles and loud cheers for a squad that was clearly out of its depth in the Premier.

There’s a great deal of hope in the air at Craven Cottage, a belief that the squad picked by Moneyball logic can regroup and win promotion in 2020. There’s plenty of singing about Scott Parker, the newly installed head coach, who some insist is “one of our own”. Charlton Athletic may have something to say about that.

Parker clearly has the fans’ vote at the moment, but his record, despite three recent wins, does not inspire too much confidence. It is said the players are happier than earlier in the season, but it hasn’t really translated into results – Fulham may have won against Everton, Cardiff and Bournemouth, but when it truly mattered, they have fallen short. Parker was in charge (temporarily and full time) for 10 games and he lost seven. That’s a win rate of 30%, admittedly better than the two previous occupants of the manager’s seat.

But how many of the summer of 2018 signings will still be with Fulham next season? One would assume that not many, that there will be get-out clauses in their contracts, with relegation being one of the events that could trigger a move. The club may also want to dispose of some of their acquisitions given the likely lower level of income. Others may wish to leave a relegated club. There has been talk of the still developing Ryan Sessegnon defecting to Tottenham or West Ham, while Aleksandar Mitrovic has apparently expressed a desire to leave Fulham.

Fulham manager Scott Parker (centre) and Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez (right) during the Premier League match at Craven Cottage, London. Photo: PA

Fulham were poor against Newcastle, who looked like a team with a point to prove. The first goal was a superb strike from Jonjo Shelvey, who may be wondering what life would have been like at Liverpool should he have stayed at the club. Alternatively, he may be thinking that, with a name like his, how did he avoid being cast in the TV series, Peaky Blinders. Shelvey, who is more Chadwell Heath than Small Heath (the Peaky HQ), sublimely controlled the ball when it came out to him from a corner and his finish was pure quality. Silence at the Hammersmith End, deep-throated cheering from the Geordies at the opposite end. Pretty soon it was 2-0 after Sergio Rico failed to stop Christian Atsu’s low shot.

Fabian Schär’s header in the 61stminute was textbook, but nobody was marking the Swiss centre back. Finally, Salomón Rondon made it 4-0 in the dying seconds. It was not the sort of result Fulham needed as they down-size for the Championship and head for the summer. “A change of attitude and personnel,” said Scott Parker of the outlook for 2019-20. One word of caution, though, don’t let Tony Khan near player recruitment, Fulham.

 

River-Cottage-Football: Where it all went horribly wrong

MY year at Craven Cottage didn’t work out as planned on two counts. First of all, I was taken ill in Japan in November and my trips to Craven Cottage were curtailed for a couple of months while I recovered, and then after a setback in early March, I was again prevented from returning to my seat in the Hammersmith End.

Secondly, after eagerly awaiting the new season with the prospect of a new-look Fulham making an impact in the Premier League, on the field of play it all went horribly wrong. After the first game, a 0-2 home defeat at the hands of Palace, I got into a conversation with a die-hard Fulham fan, who was disappointed that over a £ 100 million of player transfers had not yielded a bright start to the campaign. “But had you heard of the players the club bought?”, I asked. “Not really,” was his reply. “And there you have it – £ 100 million on players from where? And £ 100 million is nothing. Not today.”

Fulham did not buy wisely and neither did they manage their season well. After three managers in a season, they must now be asking themselves if they dispensed with the services of candidate number one, Slaviša Jokanović, rather too easily. He was, after all, supposed to be a man for the future and even on Chelsea’s radar. Even if he’s only a very good Championship manager, he would suit Fulham nicely in 2019-20.

But Jokanović took Fulham up in 2017-18 and was then given a dozen new players, many of whom had been selected, one assumes, by data experts rather than track-suited professionals. Did Fulham discard their promotion team unnecessarily? And where will the hired guns all be next season, one wonders? And will Fulham be able to keep their better players, now that some have had a taste of the Premier?

Already there is talk of Aleksandar Mitrović going to West Ham, to Tottenham or China. And Ryan “one of our own” Sessegnon, who didn’t quite make the impact people expected, has caught the eyes of Borusia Dortmund and Tottenham.

It became obvious early on in the season that Fulham’s new players were going to find it hard to gel. Admittedly, they played some good football at times, but defensively they were simply awful. Teams like Arsenal, Bournemouth and West Ham had it incredibly easy when they came to Craven Cottage.

When Claudio Ranieri was appointed, obviously with the hope that he could produce the sort of magic that would transform Fulham from relegation certainties, it already had the look of desperation about it. There was to be no Leicester 2.0 (it was indeed a one off) and yes, he was a nice guy. Perhaps we can go down fighting with a smile?

But that was not enough and when Scott Parker was given the poison challis, you knew the game was up. Parker, popular with the people, was the last roll of the dice – we’re down, let’s put someone in who the fans like, another “one of our own” in a way, and let’s give him the job for next season. The script is already becoming clear – Parker takes the role in the Championship, does well and is being touted as “one for the future”. And so on and so forth.

In all probability, most of Fulham’s 2018-19 signings won’t be at the club in August. It is amazing that relegated players are as quick to flee the scene of the crime they were involved in as club chairmen are to release players signed during the over-exuberance of a season in the big time. But it needn’t be all doom and gloom – Fulham will benefit from parachute payments and this will give them an advantage in the Championship, which is a fascinating division, after all.

Will I return? I will see the rest of the fixture list out and will renew my season ticket. Fulham is an excellent club, the people are civilised and the Cottage is a lovely ground to watch football. Even after a dismal season, the possibility of a promotion fight looks quite appealing. But a note to the people behind the scenes at Fulham – choose your signings carefully in 2019-20 and always on the basis of first-hand knowledge.

Photo: PA