Monthly Archives: February 2010

Sunderland 0-0 Fulham

If this game were a cartoon it would be Tom & Jerry, with Sunderland both Tom and Jerry, running around frantically in a strangely futile loop, and Fulham Spike the dog, conserving energy and only getting involved when absolutely necessary, but generally in control of the whole situation.

Which is not to belittle the suffocating excellence of our heroes, more to suggest that, after the heroics in Ukraine and ahead of the FA Cup Quarter Final, this was almost exactly the sort of performance we needed.  Quiet, accomplished, and fruitful.

Sunderland could make neither head nor tail of it all.  They played with three forwards (Bent, Jones, Campbell), but hadn’t thought of a way to make the most of this superficially dazzling array of talent.  Fulham – like Spike the dog – just had to *be there* and wait for the annoyances in front of them to tire, which they did.

Only when Bolo Zenden came on for Sunderland did things get a bit more tricky.  The classy Zenden, in an attacking midfield role that made Sunderland’s attacks slightly less predictable, nearly scored with one dabbed effort, and nearly made another with a frightening cross that journeyed all the way across our six yard box before being met by a flying Alan Hutton, whose full-stretch finish was that of a full-back.

At the other end Fulham made little headway, with Zamora and Mensah having a classic backing in/pushing duel that befuddled the referee into several frustrating decisions.  We must, though, be sympathetic to the referee in these situations: often there really is no right answer, both players jostling for the ball at the same time.  How do you judge the guiltier party?

There was little else to declare.  Simon Davies, getting sharper every game, lofted in some nice aerial balls that on another day might have created something, otherwise it was nice to see Dickson Etuhu taking charge of the midfield again – he seemed to be thriving out there today.

And now onto Spurs, and the chance to go to Wembley…

Lint, teeth, and the curious circularity of it all.

This morning is the last day for my black tooth.  When I was 16/17 and playing cricket I top edged an attempted hook shot into my own mouth, sending two teeth flying into the air.  Someone found them, put them in a glass of milk, and got me to a dentist, where they were reinserted, but this is not what nature expects for its teeth and they haven’t been right since.  I have no issue with discolouration – this is just ‘one of those things’ (someone should make a book of ‘those things’) – but it gets infected a lot and the pain has become hard to deal with.  So we’re taking it out this afternoon.

This is exciting news, and has given me much cause to ponder the last few years and how things have been, what’s been good, what’s been bad.  This morning I was reading Richard Brautigan’s “Sombrero Fallout”.  I bought the book when I first got to Dublin in, probably, 2004.  To begin with I had no possessions with me and needed to stock up on essentials.  I bought two CDs, both by Yo La Tengo, and then went hunting for books.   There was a small independent shop on Grafton Street that sold all sorts, and from there I bought a few of Canongate’s Rebel,Inc series (the Brautigan among them) and a couple of Lawrence Block’s crime novels.

I remember writing back emails to friends and family back then.  How everything suddenly seemed alive, in technicolor.  Before I left it felt like London had swallowed me up: my sense of self, my sense of being able to manage the world, all gone.  Now, in Dublin, I felt free.   Accordingl, I signed off that first email home:

So there we are. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be doing this, after years of not much in England I feel really alive, to the extent that I feel I ought to write a really cheesy song about it all or something. Clearly the novelty will soon wear off and it’ll be back to real life again, but perhaps I’ll move to Wales when that happens. I think Dublin’s all I wanted it to be, and I’m absolutely loving it.

Being in a strange country got me back into reading again, and I haven’t stopped.   (Dublin was great for a time, but soon I missed home.)

In “Sombrero Fallout”, which I came back to this morning, the introduction refers to another of Brautigan’s short stories in which the main character replaces his house’s plumbing with poetry.  I’m not sure how this works but I looked up the collection in question (entitled “Revenge of the Lawn”) to try to find it.  Nope.

But I did find a train ticket inside the book.  Not a ticket, a “sales voucher”, £15.50, from Balham, on the 17th November 2006. Where was I going that day that cost me £15.50?   It was printed at 07:30 in the morning, so may have been work related.  Was I going to Brighton for the day?   It’s a mystery.

A better mystery was found inside a second hand copy of JP Donleavy’s “The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B”.  Here was a real-life bus ticket that someone had left behind, many years ago.

Who was reading this book?  Where were they going?

I looked up as much as I could on the internet.   The 65 route bus goes from Surbiton to Ealing.   LONDON TRANSPORT 22225 is another clue.  This, I discovered, is the individual bus, registration UGR 697R, registered in December 1977.  I would have been almost two at the time.

So my mystery reader was on this bus, reading Donleavy, some time after 1978.  Now, more than 30 years later, I have been reading the same book on various buses and trains around South West London.   Were I American I might try to weave some kind of mystical meaning around this.   As it stands I shall just imagine someone from the 70s reading Donleavy as the bus crawls around these grumbling London roads.

It is not much of a mystery, I grant you, but nice curiousity, I think.   A mystery that can never be solved, and all the better for it.  Many of the best things in life happen in our imaginations, floating around beautifully like (as Brautigan wrote in Sombrero Fallout (albeit about a Japanese woman taking off her clothes)) “like a kite takes gently to a warm April wind”… a step away from the real world.   (Brautigan, only two lines later, wrote “He was also one of those people who have a lot of trouble drying themselves after a bath.  When he was through drying himself, 50 percent of his body was always still wet.”)   Indeed.

In “Revenge of the Lawn” Brautigan muses on his childhood:

“there are pieces of distant life that have no form or meaning.  They are things that just happened like lint.”

Indeed again.   Brautigan may have had issues, may have been bonkers, but he knew.

My tooth will be removed in three and a half hours.  The dentist is about half a mile from Twickenham rugby stadium.  England and Ireland kick off at about the same time as my operation.   There will be thousands of people in the area, having a jolly day in their barbour jackets.  I will be having a happy day, too, with my tooth being removed.  But it is a worrying day as well.  Will we get through the traffic?  What if the operation doesn’t work?   Why do I feel sick writing this?  So sick.

But the world will keep on turning, buses will keep running, and people will be reading to themselves to shut away the world around them, which is the main thing.

(I can’t think of anything original to write about Fulham.   Things are just about perfect, aren’t they?)

Shakhtar Donetsk 1-1 Fulham (2-3 on aggregate) (Fulham go through)

“I can’t tell you how I feel.  My heart is like a wheel…”

Fulham have beaten the Europa League champions, Shakhtar Donetsk.  Over two legs.

The 2-1 first leg lead was always going to be tested tonight, but my word how the team battled.   Shakhtar piled on the pressure, racking up the shots and the corners, but there were always white bodies around and Mark Schwarzer in goal to beat things away.   Hangeland and Hughes were at their repellant best, and the famed Hodgson organisation once more trumped the fancy football of our illustrious opponents.   That’s the way to do it.

In all these European games the away goal is central to everything.  Shakhtar got one at our place so, if we were to go through, we’d need one there.   This felt unlikely before the game, but as time marched on there grew a sense that we could just nick something.   Soon enough a Damian Duff free-kick whizzed onto the head of Brede Hangeland, who nodded the ball beyond the unmoved goalkeeper to make it 1-0.

Moments later the TV people gave us a shot count:  Shakhtar 11-1 Fulham.  It felt slightly underhand for us to be ahead.

But there’s no sense apologising for these things. Shakhtar were blasting balls at Schwarzer’s goal like an old lady spending her pension money on scratchcards: certainly the potential gain is attractive, is this really the best approach, given the situation?   Fulham held the game in a strange kind of control.

We knew that Shakhtar would score eventually, it was just a case of when, and what would happen after that.  The turning point (such that it was) saw Douglas Costa introduced.  He promptly beat several Fulham players in one dribble and suggested much danger lay ahead.   Douglas Costa (I am assuming this to be his full name) was popping up everywhere, and eventually had the nous to have a crack at our third choice left back (heretofore putting in another admirable shift, it must be said).  The Brazilian dummied and hurtled around Kelly, cut the ball back to a teammate, and before we knew it the ball was in the net.

Would Fulham survive?   David Elm replaced the tiring Zamora and Fulham did all that they could to keep the ball away from trouble.  Zoltan Gera missed a Geoff Hurst style counter-attack chance, shooting *just* wide when he could have wrapped things up, but Shakhtar still couldn’t find an answer.   As time ran down Danny Murphy was sent off for hacking at a Shakhtar player in a nothing position (a decision Murphy and everyone else will regret bitterly) but soon enough the final whistle had blown.

Erm.  Bloody hell.  We’ve just beaten Shakhtar Donetsk.  Juventus await.

Bob’s goal

Someone on TiFF very kindly posted this ‘amateur footage’ of Bobby Zamora’s free-kick winner on Sunday.

What I liked about this was that it showed how the wall was, I suspect, able to distract Hart to the point where he wasn’t able to react to Zamora’s shot in time (as we’ll see, he was a millisecond away from it).   (it could just be that they were clearing a gap for Murphy, but the point holds either way – credit to Etuhu and, I think, Gera here.  Also to Duff on the right end of the wall).

I may well be overthinking this, but either way, there’s so much more to these things (in this case, a wall) than we appreciate.

Fulham 2-1 Birmingham City

Another triumphant victory.  After the dizzy heights of Thursday this was always going to be troublesome, but my word what an ordeal it turned out to be.

Things felt languid from the off, and after two minutes Chris Baird thumped a header past Mark Schwarzer to give Birmingham the lead.  A strange beginning – how often do you see very early own goals? – but it ensured we had to play positively from there.

Fulham put together some pretty decent approach work.  When we weren’t dropping long balls into the inside right channel – clearly a pre-determined plan, and quite a succesful one – we were switching play quite well, and Duff, Baird, Shorey and Davies all saw plenty of the ball in wide areas.   Shots were rarer, though, Birmingham’s famed organisation limiting us to opportunist efforts that didn’t unduly worry Joe Hart.

Half-time came, and we were almost in control of a difficult situation.   We just needed a goal.

It didn’t look like arriving.  If the first half was full of neat build up, the second descended into park football style bouts of head tennis.  We got pushed back and seemed to have lost all of the momentum built up before the break.  But ugly games do not always stay ugly, and Damian Duff bagged an equaliser that will demand inclusion on any BBC goal of the month competition.

Duff had started to rise above the mediocrity even before this goal, and here he was cutting inside in trademark fashion.  Birmingham had to know what was coming – any advanced scouting worthy of the name would’ve warned them – but on he went, further infield, then out of nowhere he unfurled an unbelievable strike that whizzed past Joe Hart’s right hand, clanked onto the inside of the post, and settled in the bottom corner of the other side of the goal.   Duff celebrated before the Riverside Stand (he has done this before and is unique in doing so), “pumped up” (to use the phrase of our times) and delighted with what he had just done.  And why not?  Goals like that don’t come around very often (except at Craven Cottage, where screamers into the Hammersmith End are becoming happily common).

Birmingham seemed slightly affronted by this, and revved up some attacks of their own.  James McFadden, all beard and no substance to this point, capitalised on some lax Fulham defending (we were starting to see a lot of this) and thrashed a drive against the underside of Schwarzer’s crossbar from distance.  Was it in?  It might have been, but it all happened so fast that nobody could tell.    On they came, looking like a side with another goal in it.  Fulham were by now huffing and puffing, with Etuhu looking particularly exhausted.  We couldn’t keep the ball, we looked ragged.  Only Zamora and Gera offered signs of hope, with some typical hard-running, but there was no real end product in the offing.  Bjorn-Helge Riise came on and injected some enthusiasm to proceedings, but where would a goal come from?

The game had one more twist.  Zoltan Gera (whose performance today may have been a 9/10 or a 5/10 – very hard to judge) earned a free-kick inside the D.  Joe Hart will have known that Bobby Zamora recently scored from this very spot against Burnley, but will also have spied Danny Murphy standing over the ball.  Neither corner of the net was safe, then, and Hart shuffled nervously on his line, waiting, waiting, waiting, diving, picking the ball out of the net.  Zamora’s in such a groove at the moment that his technique is flawless.  He addressed the ball perfectly, swung that wonderful left boot, and the ball flew home, winning the game.   “Are you watching, Fabio?” called the Hammersmith End.  My concern was that the England manager might have left early to beat the rush, but he’ll have seen enough by then in any case.   “Bobby for England” sang the entire stadium.  Why not?

It’s only football but I like it

It was a marvellous game wasn’t it?

One of the fascinating things – as discussed at length below – was the clash of styles and the changes Roy Hodgson had to make to get the game back on track.  The diagram below shows a crucial part of this:

In the first half we got pushed right back.   We had to defend narrowly because to stretch the defence leaves gaps, and Shakhtar would’ve been through those in seconds.  When people talked about the defensive unit shifting back and forth together this is what they meant:  the defence had to stay as a compact four to keep the attacking players outside the area.

Such was the attacking prowess that the midfield got sucked into all this too, and we had two banks of four essentially squashed into the penalty area.   This allowed the likes of Kelly and Davies to double up effectively, allowed us to ensure that there were always white shirts in the way of Shakhtar shots, but it left us with a big problem:  when we did get the ball, where could we go with it?

This is that American notion of field position again.   If you win the ball in your own area you have the small problem of being about 70 yards away from the opposing goal.    You can make up some of this distance by hoofing the ball clear, but 90% of the time it’ll be back again in seconds.    If Zamora wins a clearance he has to hope that Gera or Duff are nearby to help him.   And even if they are, you still need more men than this to build an attack.   So the ball comes back.

If you try to play your way out you run into difficulties too.   Most passing moves – even from the very best teams – don’t go on for very long.   Say (for the sake of argument) that you string seven passes together before someone makes a mistake or it’s won back by the opposition.   If this passing move starts in your own area then, by the time your notional seven passes are up, you’ll probably still be in your own half.  And here comes another attack.

Of course, the opponents are over the moon with the situation.   They have the ball in your half pretty much continuously.   If they make a mistake there’s no way you’ll score because you’re too far away from their goal.   They can afford to keep prodding away, and if you lapse just once they’re in.    If your entire team is defending around the edge of your area you have limited margin for error; if your defence is up on the halfway line mistakes are much less lilely to go unpunished.

Under these circumstances we can see how the latter part of the first half played out as it did.   We couldn’t get the ball, allowed ourselves to be frightened into massing around our penalty area, so when we won the ball back we had nowhere to go, and on came another attack.

Roy had to do two things:   move his team further up the field to give them some breathing space, and make them keep the ball better to take advantage of this.

Easier said than done, of course, but we managed to make it work.     It was immediately noticeable that Hangeland and Hughes were setting up much further up the pitch, that the midfield wasn’t dropping so deep, and that the team were trying to keep the ball more.    While Shakhtar still saw much of the ball, it wasn’t the relentless whirlwind of one-touch attacking football around our penalty area, it was a much more stretched game played all over the pitch.

It gives us another opportunity to praise Danny Murphy.   Murphy looked like a fireman organising the evacuation of a burning building out there.   His demeanor was very much of the “yes, this is serious, but we can deal with it.  Follow me” variety.    He knew that the principles Hodgson had insisted on would work, but that the team had to have patience, had to believe in itself.   Murphy was massive in the second half, leading to an awesome degree.   There was a moment when we had a goal kick and Murphy turned and screamed at Stephen Kelly to get himself onto the touchline to give Schwarzer a short (possession maintaining) option.  Schwarzer didn’t take that option, but Murphy knew what Kelly should have been doing and told him so.   He was at it all half.

I have embroiled myself in several discussions in the last few days, discussions in which the word “best” has been used by myself in relation to Thursday’s game, and the teams involved.   I got very carried away.   I accept the counter arguments here:  rjbiii rightly insisted that Shakhtar are not the best team we’ve seen, for example.    He’s right.

And so am I.

The best gig I’ve ever seen was Juliana Hatfield at Bush Hall, London, in 2005.   It was the best gig I’ve seen because, as a long-standing fan, I had, at that point never seen Hatfield live.  I – and many other fans – had been waiting a long time for the gig.   Myself, Hade, and my mate Dan traipsed up for the show.  Dan had listened to Hatfield at uni too.   His (then) girlfriend, Sally, had had some of her albums as well.    Our housemates were all Lemonheads fans (half of them could play all the songs on guitar too:  Dan did a very good ‘Being Around’, for instance).   It was quite the appreciation thing we had going.

Bush Hall’s a small place in QPR land, and by now I was in “don’t let the tubes break down; don’t let me have an accident; don’t let anything happen; I have to see this” mode.    As a now unsigned artist with no major lable backing it was a fairly understated show, Hatfield, an electric guitar, and a hall full of fans.    It was extraordinary.   I was on cloud nine.   She was better than I could have imagined.  The loud bits rocked, the quiet bits sent me to heaven.   Dan loved it.   Hade smiled politely.   Perfect evening.

That was the best gig I’ve been to.

Shakhtar Donetsk were, I think, the best team I’ve ever seen.    Now, they are not the best team I’ve seen in the literal sense.   But Chelsea or Manchester United or even Arsenal are just really good versions of us, or of themselves, or of everything else we’ve seen so much.    Shakhtar Donetsk and their laser beam passing were what I’d been waiting for for years, what I had never expected, what I didn’t know could happen.    It was Bush Hall all over again, dumbfounded, electrified, thrilled.

And we stopped them.   The Ali-Foreman fight was on my mind as I left the ground (and someone mentioned it in the comments on Hammyend.com, too, so clearly I wasn’t alone), and I think that there’s something in that.

I would advise you to watch the whole fight if you can, but the above is a thrilling summary.   Foreman came at Ali for five rounds.  Ali took it all, swaying into the ropes, doing his best to ensure that whatever contact he took wasn’t clean, and doing whatever he could to stay in the fight.  As the commentator says, Foreman was bigger stronger, and a very able fighter.    But Ali took it, and then, wonderfully, turned the fight on its head with some phenomenal punches.     Just as the Hangeland/Gera/Zamora payoff had a thrilling, violent, surprising element to it, so too did Ali’s awakening in the fight against Foreman.

Most boxers could not have survived five rounds of punches from George Foreman.  It just doesn’t work that way.   But Ali, a supremely skilled fighter, did what he had to do and finished the encounter with a wonderful counter.   Similarly, that Shakhtar onslaught was like nothing we’ve seen, but somehow the lads survived it, and, by making the necessary adjustments, found a way to turn the game on its head later on.   Foreman, like the Shakhtar players, will think back on the battle and wonder at its unfairness; Ali, like Fulham’s players, will be looking back with satisfaction at at job done, against the odds, to perfection.

Fulham 2-1 Shakhtar Donetsk

Speechless.  Roy Hodgson has guided us to many stupendous results, but this was on another level altogether.  Never have we had to deal with an onslaught like that.

It started very well.  We nearly went ahead in 30 seconds, and did go ahead in 2 minutes, Zoltan Gera driving home from the inside left channel.

Any hopes that we might have caught Shakhtar on an off day were soon dashed when we didn’t see the ball again for 45 minutes.   Their tempo was extraordinary.  Slow passes around the defence, all the time in the world, then in the blink of an eye the team was skitting around our area.  How?  Their change of pace and movement was like nothing we’ve seen before.   Their attacking play was like that of a basketball team in a hurry, all flips and dinks and all perfectly controlled.

A goal had to come and did, Luiz Adriano scorching onto a through ball and rounding Schwarzer for a scintillating and thoroughly deserved equaliser.

We think of players like Danny Murphy and Simon Davies as good technicians, but the Shakhtar players were light years ahead of the best we could offer.  That they only broke through once is a testament to our defence.   That we got back into the game is down to the manager.  At half time the task seemed hopeless, but the players had to get the ball in the Shakhtar half, had to keep it better, and had to hold a higher line to keep the orange and black attackers away from our penalty area.

And somehow it worked.  Fulham noticeably upped the tempo, and while the moves lacked the cohesion of Shakhtar’s efforts, it re-established us in the game, proved that we weren’t going to take this lying down.   Gera and Zamora were intelligent in leading the line, using the ball increasingly well and pressuring to just the right extent without the ball.  The game became cat-and-mouse:  Shakhtar passed patiently, waiting for a Fulham player to lose his position, waiting for someone to over-commit, but the whites stood firm and didn’t budge, and soon the game was even again.

And then… Hangeland passed through to Gera, Gera’s balletic flick to Zamora, Zamora thumps home from 25 yards with his right foot, flicking the bar, buried in the net.  A howitzer, a monster, an absolute screamer, and somehow we’re ahead, and somehow we’re still in the tie, and somehow we’re about to beat the UEFA cup holders and one of the best teams I’ve ever seen.

This is where we are now.  This is what we can do.  This is football at its best, as good as we will see.

(After that slightly excitable initial ending, a quiet word for Stephen Kelly.  The left-back has had a difficult time of late, but put in a shift and a half tonight.  Some of his tackling was from the top drawer.  That took guts, ability, and some sturdy help from Simon Davies.  Well done to him.)

QI: Fulham players in Europe

While we get excited about the game tomorrow, here’s an interesting thing.  Total UEFA games played by our squad members:

No.    Name            P    Gls
19    Pascal Zuberbühler    90    0
13    Danny Murphy        55    7
18    Aaron Hughes        52    2
16    Damien Duff        45    4
5    Brede Hangeland        44    2
1    Mark Schwarzer        29    0
11    Zoltán Gera        21    4
10    Erik Nevland        20    4
4    John Pantsil        19    1
17    Bjørn Helge Riise    15    1
27    Jonathan Greening    10    0
25    Bobby Zamora        10    4
3    Paul Konchesky        8    0
6    Christopher Baird    8    0
2    Stephen Kelly        7    0
23    Clint Dempsey        7    1
20    Dickson Etuhu        5    1
29    Simon Davies        5    0
35    David Elm        5    0
26    Christopher Smalling    4    0

Pensioner’s report: Fulham 4-0 Notts County

Job done, match won.  Professional but less than clinical – Zamora missed after 90 seconds and Davies fluffed an easy chance in the second half but both got  goals and both took them well.  Davies after 22 minutes, Zamora after 41.

My neighbour complained that we were overelaborate in the second half but once again Duff proved strong, direct and accurate: 3-0 in the 73rd minute. Well timed substitutions with Thursday in mind.  Thus a run out for Riise and a goal for Okaka.  4-0 in the 79th.  Game over.

Afterthoughts.

Since Shorey joined us we have won four matches with four clean sheets. A talented defender and no mean passer of the ball.  An invaluable acquisition at just the right time.

All a bit easy?  All a bit boring?  No – because County did have their moments.  Lee Hughes and Ben Davies had chances and it took a fine save from Schwarzer to keep out Westcarr.  Schmeichel made three good and one miraculous save – damage limitation of a high order.  Clapham (once of Premiership Ipswich) remains a classy midfielder.  The diminutive Rodgers twice brought down Hangeland.  My neighbour was convinced that the second offence was more Hangeland than Rogers with a County penalty the proper decision.  Not their verdict and not their day but the supporters sang out and sang on.  “Four nil and you still can’t sing! Four nil and you still can’t sing!”

I hope these County supporters enjoyed their day out because for all their industry they caused us less
trouble than Accrington this term and Kettering last term.

Mrs Pensioner as a graduate of Nottingham University with family and friends at the Putney End would have settled for 4-4 and a replay down memory lane- sorry Meadow Lane.  Far be it for Mr Pensioner to rattle the domestic cage on Valentine’s Day but we have enough to do in Europe and in the Premiership without extra fixtures.  David Hamilton gave us “Viva El Fulham” at half-time.  Amen to that but in 1975 we had eleven games and far too many replays.  Let Spurs and Bolton exhaust themselves while we go about our business quietly and effectively.

Come March 6th/7th we could have a couple more of the walking wounded up and running.  The return of Simon Davies was one of the many satisfactory aspects this good day’s work.

Busy time at the moment so I found myself working from home.   For those of us with wandering minds, working from home is a godsend.  I get a lot more done this way.   Today’s background distractions were various football dvds I once purchased from ebay, including the Champions League Final of 1994 (I think), Ajax v AC Milan back when both teams were packed with the best of their country’s players.   Then I watched some of France v Northern Ireland from the World Cup in 1982.  Jean Tigana was looking quite sprightly, and Aston Villa’s Martin O’Neill was unlucky to have an early goal disallowed.  Here he is, disappointed:

It was also a bumper surprise postal day.  Juliana Hatfield’s new “Peace and Love” album arrived, an acoustic affair that seems a little undercooked on first listens (although the enigmatic “Evan” – “Evan I just love you I guess” is either trying to say something or playing a joke on us all (Hatfield and Dando were long rumoured to be an item, way back when)).  Also there was a t-shirt from Tom Hodgkinson at “The Idler” (slogan: “Do Less”) and a second-hand copy of JP Donleavy’s “The Unexpurgated Code”, the author’s rather mental all-encompassing guide to life (e.g. “Upon being stung on the end of your prick by a bee on a golf course” – this is our manager’s favourite author, incidentally).  Two of these three packages were sent by their creator, which is a minor but happy twist derived (not quite the right word?) from the way that the modern world works.

There is little of note happening in the world.  Timmy has a ‘sit up and take note’ chalkboard offering, in which we see that Burnley really didn’t get anywhere near us the other night.  Mad.  I always struggle with chalkboards, which offer so much but usually tell so little, but this one’s a doozy (a doozy?  What?).  The point is that it’s a simple illustration of *something* tangible.  The black line is everything, in this case.  Top work, sir.

Update:  Dan has some good chalking, too.   Look at Shorey’s crossing, etc.

Otherwise, it’s Thursday night and there’s no game until Sunday.  I have – remarkably – taken the decision to miss the match in the name of valentine’s day.  I’m not sure what came over me.

Shakhtar Syndrome

Quite interesting piece on Shakhtar.

Also, did you see John Terry’s  mistake last night?   The ball sailed over his head and Saha belted home the winner.

When Chris Baird did that people said “should never play right-back again“, as if he’d do the same every time a high ball entered the box.    I appreciate that Terry and Baird took very different career journeys before reaching their gaffes, but still:  anyone can make a mistake.     Baird has been a terrific story for us, and all credit to him for sticking with it and improving his game.   But in some ways he’s been quite fortunate:  had we not qualified for Europe, had we not lost players to injury, it’s easy to imagine him out on loan, possibly even skippering Southampton towards the Championship.    Take nothing away from him – he’s been brilliant – but sometimes life’s twists and turns go your way and sometimes they don’t.    As Baird himself said, you’ve just got to take the chances when they come.  This he has done, emphatically.

Next day

Just as playing against a good team highlights any weaknesses, playing against a bad team emphasises strengths. So last night we saw several encouraging signs:

Dickson Etuhu, as discussed last night, seems to make Murphy play better. Hard to assess whether this was just the Burnley factor or the two of them working brilliantly as a combination, but something clicked. Murphy must have spent more time in the attacking third than he has in all other games combined this season. His goal, well taken, was a reaction to a nice Elm knockdown, but how often do we see him make those runs? Hardly at all. It wasn’t just then though, he got in the box all game. Etuhu, for his part, was swaggering about the place. He looked leaner than I remember him, and moved quickly, passed accurately, and got stuck in to an amusing degree (the yellow card slowed him down on this front).

David Elm, says Roy Hodgson, has been a pleasant surprise. Indeed. Dan highlighted this the other day with some chalkboard work, but he seems a lot more involved in buildup play than most forwards. He doesn’t look a natural footballer in the way that Shorey does, but he’s effective enough, and has a nice portfolio of skills. You’d say that he’s a 6/7 out of 10 in enough areas to be a useful squad player: good enough in the air to win high balls, alright at holding the ball up, tidy enough to pass the ball around, seems to have decent instincts in the area (he’s effectively scored twice now in not much time on the pitch), and will work for the team. No ‘wow’ factor, but solid. Compare this with Nevland, who is a deadly finisher but has a poor first touch and is not a good passer. Not wishing to kick a man when he’s down or anything, but it’s an interesting contrast, I think.

Zamora was phenomenal. When he plays like this few defenders can stop him. The trick is to get bodies around him to take advantage, and we more or less achieved this. Damian

Duff was too good for Burnley. Even when things were messy Duff was playing well. He get go left and right, can cross or shoot, and was a menace and a half to a sub-par Burnley defence. He is now, I think, our best player.

The defence, with Baird and Shorey on the flanks and Etuhu standing guard, looked phenomenal. Schwarzer really had very little to worry about. Nicky Shorey could not have played better in his first two home games. At this rate Konch is going to be very worried about his place. Shorey seems to be a natural attacking left-back: the step up from fielding Baird or Kelly out of position to Shorey is enormous.

Finally, nice to see Simon Davies back. He had a quietish game, but he’s a definite plus when he’s fit and we’ll need him in the weeks ahead.

Fulham 3-0 Burnley

No Premiership game is a walk in the park, but tonight’s 3-0 win was as near as we’ll get.  Burnley (away record now P13 W0 D1 L12 (F8 A38)) played some moderately tidy stuff to begin with, but soon found themselves two goals down and from there it was over as a contest.

Brian Laws set his side up in what looked like a 3-5-2 formation, a setup that allowed acres of space down each flank for an enterprising team to exploit.  It took us a while to get going, but before long balls were being pinged down the touchline for Duff to hare onto, and things looked like they might get out of control.  We went ahead through a Danny Murphy close range strike (nice to see him in the box), the skipper collecting David Elm’s neat knock down and ramming home.  Then a second: Zamora wormed his way into a shooting position, got in a decent low effort, Jensen saved, the ball fell to Elm, who scored his first goal for the club.  Great moment for a player who’s made a fair contribution in his short time in the side.  Pleased for him.

Laws rearranged his deckchairs into a 4-4-2 formation, but by now all but the indomitable Andre Bikey seem a shadow of their recent selves.  Fulham were in control, with Dickson Etuhu exuberently imperious, reminding us of those happy days when he first came into the team and Danny Murphy suddenly played like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.   The same happened again tonight; Murphy seems to trust Etuhu and plays a far less restricted game with him around.  (or it could just be that we were playing Burnley)

Also fizzing with life was Zamora, who was thoroughly in charge of his markers.  Any ball in the vicinity was to be his, and his alone.  He got it shielded it, and played it to someone else charging forwards.  Classic centre-forward play.  Fabio Capello must at least consider him for international action in the months ahead.

And it was Zamora who score the cherry-on-top third. A free-kick on the edge of the area certainly looked dangerous, but Zamora’s sweeping finish had an inevitability about it that surprised everyone.  Pow!   Jensen got nowhere near it.   3-0.

There was time for Stefano Okaka to show some nice touches and almost add a fourth, but by now everyone knew the game was up.

Much of what we perceive to be form is just the fixture list at work.  So while a winless run of five games wasn’t a good thing, it made things look worse than they were.  Similarly, we’ve had a nice run of three games, after which things seem reasonably well again.   It’s a nice feeling, and reminds us that Roy’s methods tend to ensure that things generally work out for the best.

Roy wants to spend

Roy making his usual noises about next season:

“A lot of the money that I have spent in my couple of years has actually been recouped, in part by the sale of Smalling.

“Of course that doesn’t help the chairman, because all the money he has put in in the past hasn’t been.

“However, I am still asking him to put money onto money and I am aware of that.”

It’s funny just how much football teams change isn’t it?    You’d think that, once in a while, teams would settle down.   But these days it just never happens.   Can we build a team to stay the same for five years?  Almost certainly not.

Schwarzer – will be 40 before too long
Paintsil – should be okay for a while
Konchesky/Shorey – one of them is going to have to leave at some point
Hughes/Hangeland – would be nice for them to play out their days together.  I’d like that
Duff – you’d hope we’ll keep him a while
Dikgacoi/Etuhu/Baird/Greening – presumably can’t all be happy, but all are keepable
Murphy – one of these days he’ll have gone on too long
Dempsey – Dempsey’s a risk to get plucked; Gera should be keepable
Zamora – looks set; Arsenal should buy him though
Johnson – we still need a long-term ‘answer’ here don’t we?  I like the look of Okaka but that’s just conjecture.

So the team, if it is to be ‘finished’ for a few years, is still short a playmaker and a goalscorer.    And maybe some depth.  And a goalkeeper really.

There.

Hear me mumble

Timmy from The Offside was good enough to invite me to take part on his podcast.   I have never actually listened to a podcast, I don’t think, but thanks to the miracles of modern technology Timmy called me on Sunday night and we had a brief chat about Fulham, which he recorded.   You can listen to that recording here.   I did try to speak up, but some things aren’t meant to be, and I was my usual mumbling michael.

The extent of it…

Depth Chart:

Schwarzer, Zuberbuhler, Stockdale
Paintsil, Baird, Kelly, Stoor
Hangeland, Hughes, Smalling
Konchesky, Shorey
Duff, Davies, Riise
Baird, Dikgacoi, Etuhu
Murphy, Greening
Dempsey, Gera, Greening
Johnson, Kamara, Nevland, Okaka
Zamora, Dempsey, Elm

Not ideal is it?   But at least we have Schwarzer (saved our bacon on Saturday) and the centre-backs (although is Hangeland fit?).     Hopefully Zamora (again, we must assume not fully fit as his shoulder was supposed to keep him out for a long time) will be fit for Tuesday, too.

Jamie’s report: Bolton 0-0 Fulham

You might have picked up from our manager’s interviews recently that we’re ravaged by injuries. Given that, and the location of this game, only the most optimistic of travelling fans could have had reason to expect anything more than what occurred here: a deeply conservative performance which just about did the job of gaining us a point.

Our defence was solid enough for the most part, with Baird and Hughes reliable as ever and Shorey looking classy as he had done on his debut. As for Hangeland – Bolton’s aerial bombardments are his bread and butter, and whilst still not looking the player that he was a year ago, he stood up well and went some way towards dragging himself back into form.
We got lucky once in the first half, when the Norweigan’s weak clearance was smashed towards goal by Mark Davies, somehow hitting both the back of Schwarzer’s leg and then the bar before being hoofed away. Meanwhile, up front for us, Elm tried his best in his Zamora-lite role and did ok; Nevland was having an awful day and barely contributed anything positive. In truth, though, both were starved of service and can’t really be blamed for the ‘0’ next to our name in the scoreline.

The tactic of waiting for the opposition to get back before attempting to mount an attack is an extremely frustrating one to watch. On the odd occasion that we won possession and a break was on, Duff in particular could often be seen jerking from foot to foot, arms waving desperately pleading for the ball, only for Murphy/Baird/Dikgacoi to turn and pass to a centre half instead. At least the South African showed enthusiasm in his Makalele-type role, impressively snapping at Bolton heels and generally making a nuisance of himself before picking up an injury of his own in the second half.

With fifteen minutes to go we were treated to the bizarre and interesting sight of Chris Smalling being brought on up front. Not a very Roy-like move, you’d think – could this relative recklessness/experimentalism be related to having the youngster sold under his nose? In fact, Smalling did ok – certainly no worse than the two who had preceded him – as did Okaka, who entered the field at the same time. The young Italian made one thrilling (dare one say ‘Kamara-esque’) run at the Bolton defence where he skilfully beat two men before finally being tackled as he approached the penalty area. I’m sure Hodgson will soon drum that kind of behaviour out of him.

With time ticking by things got slightly more exciting, if only due to the clock itself. At the death, Bolton roused themselves and we had some defending to do, which we couldn’t quite manage: Elmander missed an absolute sitter having been put through by Davies, and then Davies himself had a header ruled out for no apparent reason. Luck was on our side, and a decent point (all things considered) was ours to take back to London.

More evidence

Dikgacoi on after 55 mins.  Here are our passes before then, and after.    Did well.

Now Portsmouth’s:

Subtler, but less in the middle, more at the back, particularly at full-back.    This is surely the Portsmouth midfield losing the ascendency.

Greening: neither a problem nor a solution

Some talk about Jonathan Greening on Friends of Fulham and, following up, by Dan at Hammyend.com.

Well this sort of thing’s been my bread and butter for yonks, so I couldn’t resist wading in as well.

It’s been noted that Greening has been in the side when we did well, and out of it when we did not.

All of which is true.   However, there’s been a suspicion in my mind that Greening has ‘chosen his games’ quite well (not that he’s chosen them, of course).  He’s been selected in the matches we expected to win, and not selected in the tricky away games.  

This is shown below.   I took the bookies’ expectations for each game and looked at how they saw the points going, and compared this with where they ended up. 

Well, surprise, surprise, we’ve overachieved with him (starting) and overachieved without him.    We’ve won points we weren’t expected to fairly consistently all season, and the presence of Greening doesn’t seem to have had too much effect on that.

It’s far from an exact science, but perhaps gels with what many of us have imagined:  that he’s neither a big plus nor a problem.   For a backup midfielder who might need an extended run in the side, this is absolutely fine.   He’s played his part and is a decent addition to the squad.

Thursday things: how Dikgacoi changed the game

My neverending quest to understand football has taken me in many strange directions.  Most recently I have been reading a couple of coaching books by a man named Allen Wade.  Wade’s name won’t mean much to you, I don’t suppose, but it was he who taught our Roy to coach back in the day.    From there it was natural enough that I might further explore Wade’s philosophy, as a way of getting an understanding of Roy’s.

Not so fast: the game has changed a lot, and in one of Wade’s books much is explained from a three back perspective.   But in the other he does have a handy ‘manager’s checklist’ of things to look out for in games.

One seemed very relevant last night:  (I’m paraphrasing) if you are under pressure, what is the source of the pressure?  Which opposing player is driving this, and can he be stopped?

Like most good points it seems obvious when spelt out like that, but in retrospect, this was critical to the game last night.   At one point O’Hara and Boateng were thoroughly in charge of our midfield.  It wasn’t that Baird and Murphy weren’t doing a good job, just that they weren’t getting the run of the ball, they seemed extended, the second phase possession was always eluding them, etc, etc.   Roy acted decisively here and (to my surprise at the time) brought on Dikgacoi, who proceeded to have his best game in a white shirt by a distance (and he’s played pretty well up to now, too).

Dikgacoi has a number of strengths.  One of them is just that, his strength.  He is one of these players who seems to be on the right side of any maneuvering, if two players are competing for an ungainly ball, Dikgacoi seems to have a talent for leaning his way into the ascendancy.  It’s a useful ability in these hurly burly games.  Also, he can get about. Our midfielders have a fairly sheltered life in the middle of the park, the emphasis being on keeping shape and holding a shielding position, but Dikgacoi seems able to be in the right place when we’re defending, but also to get up the pitch when we’re attacking.   This bears closer inspection – is it indiscipline or just good midfield work?  – but he does have that something extra that our other midfielders don’t have.  He also uses the ball well, able to receive and circulate with ease, and has already made a number of telling tackles in and around our penalty area.   In short, I am very impressed.

Back to last night.  Dikgacoi came on and shackled O’Hara et al quickly and effectively.  It is surely no coincidence that as soon as he was introduced we started to put together long spells of possession, and denied Portsmouth much by way of attacking.    It is also no coincidence that Murphy stepped up at this point, too.

It all came together, didn’t it?  Shorey was starting to really dig in on the left flank, Duff found another two gears, Baird took his midfield skills to full-back and we became a blur of incisive attacking play.   Nothing special, but back to what we used to be, back to what we expect from this Fulham side.

Now, none of this would have counted for much had we not scored, but we did score, and it came as a result of the pressure we applied to Portsmouth.

PS  – From OptaJoe on Twitter:  “16 of Fulham’s last 20 league goals have either been scored or assisted by Clint Dempsey or Bobby Zamora. Pivots”

Wowzers.

PPS – remember my shots on target for/against analysis on the premiership a week or so ago?  Perhaps not – I don’t know if anyone reads it – but I noted that Portsmouth are still outshooting teams without getting the points this advantage ought to give them, which either means that they’re far better than their league position or supremely wasteful.  Well last night’s game was interesting in that it played out according to script.   Are they better than their league position?  Yes.  Are they wasteful?  Probably.  Interesting point from Roy after the game though:  Portsmouth aren’t a rag tag and bobtail side – their wage bill is probably much higher than ours.  Indeed.

Fulham 1-0 Portsmouth

It’s all about the result.  Today was a double-edged sword:  on the one hand, when in bad form, what better than a home game against the team at the foot of the table?  On the other, surely this only adds to the pressure?  For Portsmouth are, to an extent, in a false position, and would be fighting for their lives.   A nasty game alright.

And the omens were poor.  Walking through Bishop’s Park we happened upon some kids backchatting the charity collectors:  “Haiti?  There’s a recession on mate.  (racist parting shot).”  If I’d had a baseball bat (or the personality to actually do something in these situations)… Then the burger fan, the siren’s song that is frying onions on cold a winter’s evening;  then the inevitable siren’s trap of mystery meat and rubber rolls, only saved by wonderful, wonderful ketchup and mustard slicks, squirted with joy, devoured with mixed feelings.  The rain starting to fall.   Surely the result could only be bad.

But we did okay.  New boys Okaka and Shorey both look like sound acquisitions, Okaka a sort of Kamara/Zamora/E.Johnson hybrid who will only get better as he gets used to things here.  Shorey was arguably man of the match, class on the ball (he’ll beat players if they commit too soon), confident in crossing, we’ve unearthed a real gem.   He made quite the difference, and with Greening in decent form our left side was impressive.

Portsmouth had the better of things early on, missing good chances and largely keeping our players away from David James’ goal.  One Greening header looked like it was going in, but Okaka failed to apply a finishing touch, and held his head in his hands for some time after the ball had squirted wide.  We couldn’t see exactly what had happened, but Okaka’s reaction suggested that he ought to have scored.

Otherwise the standout performers were the officials, who made all their decisions at random.   Ball out of play? Portsmouth!  Man falls over?  Portsmouth!  Perhaps they were using dice to decide.  Perhaps there was a pattern we didn’t detect.  Certainly they weren’t worried about what was actually happening on the field.

At half-time the sentiment seemed to be that we had survived the worst of things and should, from there, take control.  This we more or less achieved, Kagisho Dikgacoi joining Danny Murphy in the midfield and transforming that area of our game;  now we bossed things.  Damian Duff came alive, and soon we were passing it around, enjoying long phases of possession, like we did in home games before Christmas.  A goal seemed likely, but would we have time?   Zamora flicked a header just wide, shots were blocked, but then, right on cue, Duff won the ball on the right, persuaded the ball across the area, and who should appear but Greening, rolling the ball into the empty net from 10 yards.    His first goal for the club, and in some ways a vital one.

That was always going to be that.  Zamora removed himself with a grimace (not another injury?) and Portsmouth enjoyed possession, but this one was in the bag.  A vital momentum changing win, and now we may face a decent run of fixtures with some confidence.

Numb3rs

Okaka gets 9, Shorey gets 7.   Best squad number allocation for new players ever?    I was always disappointed when Seol took the number 7, having grown up watching Kenny Dalglish use that particular number to devastating effect.   Shorey’s okay in 7, in a Steve Coppell type way.   True, he’s not a right winger, but the 7 gives him a cultured sheen, and I am hopeful it will lead to some lovely dangerous crossing.   Give a man 33 and he’ll play like a 33.   Give him 7 and he’s got to get his sh1t together.   (not that this aided Seol particularly, but then he should always have been a 37 or something).

The number nine is even more important, and it’s nice that Okaka gets to use this one straight off.   Go forth and score, young man, it seems to be saying.

Roy says that both will be playing tomorrow night, which will be fun.

My team:  MS/SK-BH-AH-NS/BHR-DM-CB-DD/SO-BZ

With poor old Kagiso Dikgacoi (#34) having to wait it all out again.  Zoltan Gera is injured, as is Simon Davies.   Pity, as both are good players.

Fenestrative fun

Well there we go.

The club neatly summarises ins and outs, but the major business equates to:

Nicky Shorey and Stefano Okaka in; Chris Smalling and Joe Kamara out.

We also welcome Germany youngster Christopher Buchtmann from Liverpool, and have sent Tony Kallio off on loan again.  James Beattie was nearly signed but we couldn’t agree personal terms.

What does it all mean?

First, Kamara.  Which is your favourite Dio moment?

The bicycle kick against Spurs?   Why was he even trying that?  In the last minute!  When we were behind!

The twist and turn and squirm shot that got us going against City?

The burst and bury finish to win the game against City?

And let’s not forget that he also won the free-kick from which we scored at Portsmouth, scored in Rome, Sofia, and St James’s Park at cheapsportsequipment.com or whatever it’s now called.

Quite a CV for a player who never really got going at Fulham, no?

Put another way, we got way more than £6,000,000 of value out of him, financially, emotionally, irrationally.   Goodbye, Diomansy, we will miss you and your unfathomable ways.

Chris Smalling we’ve talked about.

Tony Kallio seems to have lost Roy’s trust, and is no longer seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’ as a reserve full-back.  Shame, he seemed to have something about him at one point, but in the cold light of day, the Championship does seem about right for him.

With all the injuries we badly needed a fullback too, the question was where we might find one.  January signings tend to be spare parts and misfits, and generally speaking, players who are doing a good job are not available unless their team is skint or something unseemly has happened.    Shorey was plucked from the Duff and Murphy bin.  He’s not as good as them, but it’s the same sort of signing, a good player down on his luck who might well thrive in the right environment.   He may well not thrive, but at least he’s a proper left-back who once got himself picked for England, so I don’t suppose we could have hoped for much more.

Okaka is a mystery.  People talk about their evaluation of him from our Europa games, but I don’t know that you can read too much into those glimpses.  Roy’s watched him and seen something, but it’ll take a special player to make a tangible difference to the side’s goalscoring prowess at this point in the season, and he’s more likely a calculated risk with what the ‘mericans call ‘upside’.   If he doesn’t adapt we’ve really lost nothing;  if he does we’ve a nice player on our hands.   Who knows?   Time will tell.

The lad from Liverpool is, according to the messageboards, rather highly regarded.  But anything can happen with youngsters, and unless a player is clearly ‘ready’ I think speculating about their future is best left to whenever they pop up in the first team.  Until then they’re merely one of several hopefuls whom we may never see playing for Fulham.

Speaking of which, master of Finland, Wayne Brown, is on loan at Bristol Rovers.  I feel rather deflated by this.  I know the Finnish league is a notch or two off our own, quality-wise, but he was so well regarded that I had hoped he might get a few games on the bench, a few starts in cups, and then more first team fun over the next season or two.   Might still happen, of course, but it does feel like something of a let-down.   Ho hum.