You might be aware of that scene from I’m Alan Partridge and the little piece of comedy gold when he is informed he isn’t getting another series of his chat show and, one by one, all the ideas he pitches as alternatives – potential classics such as “Monkey Tennis” or “Arm Wrestling with Chas and Dave” – are rejected until he finally snaps, jabs a fork into a block of Stilton and thrusts it into the face of Tony Hayers, the BBC’s head of commissioning.
That little sketch – “D’ya want some cheese?” – comes to mind now Felix Magath has left Fulham and one of the stories that suggests he, too, had some strange ideas of his own before everything unravelled. Again, it involves a large mound of cheese and, much like Alan, it is difficult to know where it leaves him professionally.
It goes back to last season when Brede Hangeland, then the Fulham captain, was diagnosed with a slight thigh injury and the club’s doctor, Stephen Lewis, with more than a decade of working in elite sport, put together a recovery programme to try to get him fit for the weekend. Except Magath thought he knew better. There was another way to treat the problem, he said. So he sent the kit-man to the Tesco in New Malden, a short drive along the A3 from Fulham’s training ground, to buy a large block of cheese.
Hangeland was then told to perch on the end of a massage table and spend the afternoon in that position with a slab of cheese carefully positioned on the sore spot. The cheese, according to Magath, would have soothing effects. Hangeland was a sceptical patient and, funnily enough, Lewis decided a few months later he would rather stick to more orthodox practices and left to join Brighton and Hove Albion. Hangeland could not wait to get away either and has been a frequent critic of Magath ever since. Others, I suspect, will start to be more forthcoming now he is gone because it is clear, speaking to some of the people who have now left Fulham, that his regime was even more bewildering and unpleasant than previously thought.
It is certainly difficult sometimes to remember that the man Fulham sacked on Thursday, bottom of the Championship and dropping like a stone in a well, had won two Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich and another with Wolfsburg in the previous decade.
The Strange Case of the (Craven) Cottage Cheese is one thing but the stories about Magath are multiple and it would not be any surprise here if Fulham, despite losing their first game with Kit Symons as caretaker manager, begin climbing the league once a bit of common sense returns to the club and now they have started to bring back some of the ostracised players.
The list of outcasts featured Bryan Ruiz, who you may recall featured in many people’s World Cup XIs because of his performances for Costa Rica, and previously included the club’s £11m record signing, Kostas Mitroglou, now on loan at Olympiakos, and Fernando Amorebieta, formerly of Athletic Bilbao. Every day they would be left to mundane exercises on the next pitch to where the first-team squad were going through their sprints. Maarten Stekelenburg used to be with them, too, until he moved to Monaco on loan, and the Magath way was very much to close them off as if they did not exist. Another player was seen talking to Stekelenburg and one of Magath’s coaches ran over to tell him it was not permitted.
Perhaps none of this would have mattered too much had Magath shown he was a brilliant tactician or motivator. Yet this was the man who played Dan Burn, a 6ft 6in centre-half, at right-back in the 4-1 defeat against Stoke City last season that tagged their toes for the relegation morgue. Burn found out on the day of the match and the poor bloke put in a performance that can be accurately measured by the Stoke Sentinel’s post-match interview with Oussama Assaidi. “I felt very sorry for their defender,” the winger said. “He was a nice guy. He asked me to change sides, he didn’t want to play against me any more.” After that game, Magath turned on Burn in the dressing room. When Burn pointed out he had never played that position in his life he, too, was sent into a form of isolation (though, unlike others, he was eventually brought back).
As for Magath’s training methods, the stories are alarming. After one defeat, the German cancelled a day off and brought in everyone to play a full 90-minute match. At other times there have reputedly been three sessions in one day, some purely devoted to running the players until they were close to dropping. It was punishing and primitive and, slowly but surely, the Fulham players came to realise why Magath was known behind his back as “Saddam” at one of his former clubs.
Fulham can hardly say they were unaware of what he was like when his other nickname from Germany was Quälix, a mix of Felix and the verbquälen (to torture). Magath does have a record of achievement behind him but it is an outmoded style and now Fulham probably have a better idea now why Lewis Holtby, on loan from Tottenham, immediately asked to return to White Hart Lane when he found out that Magath, formerly his coach at Schalke, was taking over. In Germany, the joke is that Magath stopped winning matches because the opposition always included some of his former players – who disliked him so much they would give everything to beat him.
Magath had not been in work for 18 months when Fulham’s owner, Shahid Khan, offered him a way back in February and the only conclusion to draw is that his old-school style of boot camp management just does not work in modern-day football. Players don’t want to run until they fall or operate in an environment where they hardly dare utter a word. When they have been made to run through woods for 45 minutes, they don’t want to find the manager has emptied their water bottles for reasons only he knows.
One story has emerged of Magath calling players into his office and then just staring at them for two or three minutes without saying a word. Another comes from this season when two of Fulham’s first-year pros turned up late for training and Magath fined them so heavily it led to a meeting of the club’s senior players to decide how to take him on.
Eventually, the captain, Scott Parker, went to see him and tried to argue that the amount of money involved was not really fair for two teenagers on relatively low salaries. Parker explained there was a legitimate reason why they had been late and did his polite best to make it clear the punishment was disproportionate to the crime. Magath refused to budge. “They need to be taught a lesson,” he said. Parker – a class act – ended up paying the fines.
The theory here is that Magath brought through so many of Fulham’s academy-produced players because it better suited his control-freakishness, on the basis they were less likely to argue and more likely to fall in line, like Daleks. There is a difference, though, between being a manager who wants power and rule and one who is unreasonable and dictatorial to the point that it alienates everyone. Magath, to put it bluntly, was an unpleasant man and the trail of ill feeling he has left behind him brings to mind what Jefferson Farfán of Schalke once said about his former manager. “All the managers at Schalke in the last few years gave something to the club,” Farfán said. “The only coach who didn’t leave anything positive behind was Magath. All he left behind were fines.”
For Fulham, it could take some while to repair the damage. Yet Symons, I’m reliably informed, is one of football’s good guys and already working to make Craven Cottage a happy place again behind the scenes. The chalk to Magath’s cheese.