Monthly Archives: January 2011

Elation

That felt…awesome.

When we got the draw a few weeks ago, I thought our Cup run was over before it began. We hadn’t beaten Spurs in the Cup since Queen Elizabeth, or something around then. Harry Redknapp actually takes this competition seriously, and the match date wasn’t close enough to Spurs’ Champions League duties that we could catch them distracted.

But before the game even began, there was a glimmer of hope: Redknapp’s lineup. His hand was forced a bit with injuries in the middle, and I doubt he wanted a replay — February 19; three days after the first leg tie with AC Milan — but a 4-1-4-1 with Sandro as the holding midfielder and Defoe all alone up top? Surely could this be our day?

On oue side, Hughes has settled into a groove that coincidentally Roy found success with: the triangle-esque offense that relies on a striker, striker/midfielder slotted in behind, and the wings cutting in. Last year Roy found a formula of Zamora up top, Gera just behind, and Dempsey/Duff/Davies crashing in on the wings to great success. Now it is Andy Johnson, Dembele, and the usual Dempsey/Duff/Davies trio; with Gera subbing in where needed.

The rest was history. Rich has all the tasty details in the post below so go read that again, and savor it.

Today made up for that 4-0 loss four years ago, a horrible afternoon that, to me, began the downfall of Coleman. It also made up for last year’s crushing exit where David freaking Bentley scored and put our Wembley dreams to bed. And this past fall’s game where they whined and complained enough to have the ref overturn the linesman, and win the match.

Right before the match Chopper posted on Twitter: “Dear gods of football. Please let us win today…”. Well, God answered our prayers.

Enjoy these random screen-captures, a la the ever-awesome 30fps:

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Mighty Fulham 4-0 Spurs

Is this the Tottenham Hotspur we never beat, the team intending to go deep into the Champions’ League, and which contains some of the most irresistible attacking players in the country?   It must be.

This team could have lost 7-0 today.  Fulham had to make do with four.   Spurs made a gift of them all, but Fulham would point to tremendous pressure to force these mistakes, and faultless execution in taking advantage of them.

The first goal arose when Johnson harrassed Dawson;  Dawson turned out of trouble but could only pass the ball to Dempsey, who charged into the area and drew contact from Hutton.   Dawson had almost been on hand to cover, but Dembele slyly blocked him off.   Murphy took the ball and planted his kick into the top right corner, past Gomes who nearly reached it.   Wow, 1-0.

Then Dawson tried to turn away from Dembele, lost the ball and the man in one go, and snatched at Dembele’s shirt.   Dembele was in the area and wriggled free to shoot (saved), but Phil Dowd realised that a foul had been committed and that a red card and penalty had to be awarded.     Two penalties in five minutes, game theory time!   Who would go where?  Murphy went left this time, Gomes didn’t, easy.   2-0.

Then a third!  A Duff corner, AJ flicks on at the near post (!), Hangeland with the poacher’s finish (!).   Whatever works.   What were Spurs doing?

The game was up, but the best was yet to come.   Dembele in the centre-circle, from a standing start, ran around Bassong (seriously, how often do you see that in professional football?) then galloped into space, nobody came to meet him so he slammed a low shot hard and fading away into Gomes’ bottom corner.  A phenomenal strike, just phenomenal.    This is what the fuss is about, folks.   This man can play.

If the first half was the night of our lives, the second was a beautiful sunrise on the beach the next morning.    Fulham cruised it, passed and passed and passed, and Gera, Dempsey and Hughes all came close to adding more goals.     Never mind, 4-0 is quite enough, and a home tie against Wigan or Bolton will do nicely, thank you very much.

Fenestration talk now

Here at CCN we haven’t got too involved with the whole transfer window nonsense.  Perhaps the recent good performances have dulled our hunger; perhaps the return of various players just make things look a bit better.

Before the window we’d have identified the following needs:

a defender of some sort.  Some wanted a right-back; others left.

a central midfielder.  We’re not short of these, of course, but the idea was to get a better player than the current cadre, ideally someone young enough to succeed the Murph when his legs do finally “go”.

a centre forward.  Because of Zamora’s injury.

What have we got?   Steve Sidwell for one, and in his one and a bit games he’s looked handy.  I’m not convinced yet that he’s doing anything that Jon Greening can’t do, but he does look like he has something about him.

Gael Kakutacould be anything, although I’m inclined to assume that the player he most closely resembles in our side is Moussa Dembele.  Kakuta’s looked phenomenal whenever I’ve seen him play (on Match of the Day), but it’s been so long since we had a young, dynamic flair player that I really can’t picture him in a Fulham shirt.  It could be Wayne Routledge all over again, or Giles Barnes, or something altogether new.   We shall see.  What it isn’t is Shaun Wright Phillips, which is a shame because SWP is a good player and very nippy to boot; we distinctly lack nippiness, AJ’s return to relevance notwithstanding.

And then what?   The centre-forward of our dreams is still not in our car, and it seems increasingly likely that we’ll be back on the phone to Millwall and asking for ‘insurance choice’ Steve Morison (whose Millwall form has gone to pot since the window opened) after all.   He’d be a Kuqi type signing, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (Kuqi being an interesting example of perception perhaps overtaking reality: for one thing he really never was that fat, and for all his myriad limitations, he made some quite important contributions to a desperately poor side, without which, etc, etc).

Do we still need a centre forward?  Yes, but AJ is better than we could have dared hope, and with Dembele dovetailing nicely behind him I’m less inclined to panic.  Sure we missed chances at Anfield, but that’s what teams do; you can’t score them all.   Perhaps we’d be better off making do and mending, then signing a progressive player in the summer.

At full-back we seem likely to pick the roving left back that is Paul Konchesky.  I have no bone to pick with Konch, who, like his former manager, took a career choice that backfired badly.   We’ve all done it, and it seems ridiculous to suggest that we shouldn’t want him back because he once left us.  This strikes me as the worst kind of unthinking:  if we need a left back and the best available is Paul Konchesky, then certainly we should sign Paul Konchesky.  What are we worried about; that he’ll want to leave us again?   That he won’t be committed because he once dared presume to leave Fulham behind.   Give me strength.

I’m not sure that there’ll be anything else beyond the above, and I’m not sure there needs to be.  With AJ and Dembele fit and well we look a decent side, and the return of Zamora will only improve this.  Sidwell’s a good fit for the middle of the pitch, and Konchesky would certainly be useful while the promising but perhaps disorientated Salcido gets his head on straight.

Liverpool 1-0 Fulham

A tale of two shins.  John Paintsil’s diverted a muddled ball over his own goal-line; later Raul Mereiles’ sliced a powerful Hangeland header away from danger.

Liverpool scored early when Torres beat our offside line and slotted home.  It was disallowed – wrongly – by the male linesman, a let off that Fulham made the most of.  By 20 minutes or so, having survived the initial rush, we were on top.  Danny Murphy was again dominating the middle of the field, Moussa Dembele seemed keen to dribble past every Liverpool player at least twice, Andy Johnson was racing around like a spaniel on red bull and Clint Dempsey was at his bustling best.  Only Damien Duff seemed subdued.

We might have opened the scoring when Dempsey won the ball and scuttled into the area, but his hard shot from an increasingly difficult angle was at Reina.  Then another chance, the ball squared just behind Dembele, all alone on the penalty spot, and again the shot found the Liverpool keeper.  Dembele did well to retrieve the cross and get it on target, but a player of his quality could have taken a touch and rolled it into either corner easily enough.   Big moment.

In the meantime, David Stockdale was earning his spurs:  a Raul Mereiles header seemed certain to go in, but Stockdale, falling to his right, got a firm hand to it and palmed it away.  Then he tipped over a Glen Johnson screamer.   There’s something of David Seaman in the lad, and I’d like to see him keep his place for a while.

The Liverpool winner was a masterclass of misfortune and bungling.  Dempsey passed loosely towards Baird but the ball was deflected by a harrying Liverpool player into the path of Torres.  His shot clipped Hangeland’s heel and hit the post, from where it rebounded into the six yard box.  Here came John Paintsil to the rescue, but my suspicion is that a prone Stockdale probably deflected the ball just as Paintsil went to volley clear, resulting in a dreadful mess of a clearance that went backwards into the net.  What a way to ruin a good away performance.

Fulham dominated again, Johnson’s slipperiness proving hard for the Liverpool centre-backs to handle, Dempsey getting closer and closer (one flying volley felt like it belonged in his Confederations Cup collection) but then Dembele had the second big chance of the night:  Dempsey soared, headed down, and Dembele volleyed at Reina from close range.  Ouch.  Should’ve scored.  We had other chances, but none so good as that.

It felt like a cup tie as we charged onwards for an equaliser, but Liverpool held out.  If Roy Hodgson was watching he might have raised an eyebrow or two.  Liverpool certainly ran around more than they did on his watch, but this team still lacks something.  Fulham should by now realise that there’s nothing to be afraid of away from home, and take confidence from a very good showing.

The more things change…

Just reading Jim White’s excellent “Manchester United:  The biography” (no, really).    Dave Sexton, who taught Roy Hodgson, has just been dismissed:

For the players, though they liked the manager and admired his knowledge of the game, there was a sense of anticlimax, a feeling that somehow the voltage about the place had been reduced.  Training became less like playtime and more like being back in the classroom.  Lou Macari recalls one session in which Sexton spent an age explaining a complex choreographed move he wanted to put into effect at corners.  After failing to enthuse his enervated players into the routine, Sexton looked despairing.

“We’re all shaking our heads at this point,” recalls Macari.  “Then Big Gordon (McQueen) pipes up, “I’ve got an idea, Dave.  It’s not as clever as yours, but you never know, it might work.  Why doesn’t someone cross the ball, I get my big stupid head on it and put it in the back of the net then we can all fuck off home.””

Martin Edwards:  “It was very hard to do it, it really was, because Dave was such a very, very nice man and full of integrity,” says Edwards.  “But it wasn’t really happening, we weren’t progressing and the crowd was getting restless.  They were.  But mostly I didn’t feel the tradition was being upheld.  There is such thing as the United way.  That is the character of the club, and the supporters demand it.

Spooky.  Sexton had taught Hodgson at one point, and Hodgson certainly looked up to him.

Fulham’s dressing room, et al

h/t to Bilet!

Okay, now I can see why Sir Alex complains about our dressing room. I don’t agree with the whining, but my alma mater, the tiny Division 3 Goucher College, had a larger locker-room. My girlfriend said her high school’s smallest locker-room was still bigger.

Anyway it just adds more charm to the sanctuary that is Craven Cottage. Oh, and are those training tops for sale at all? Wow they look sharp.

Interesting tidbit in today’s Winners and Losers over at F365:

Fulham
Since the nadir of the Boxing Day defeat at home to West Ham, the Cottagers have bounced back with three wins in five. Their pass-completion percentage against Stoke finished at 81% – the highest of any top-flight side outside of the Champions League-qualifying places.

Perhaps it was the competition, or perhaps Hughes is truly having us playing “passing football”?

Lastly, and I could be wrong, but the current 4-point gap between us and the relegation zone is the largest since our win over Wolves in early September. Onwards and upwards…

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Sunday morning news

Andy Gray and Richard Keys in iffy comments about female linesman shock!   #getthesesmugbuffoonsoffthetv

Paulo Bandini, via Twitter, reports that Gazzetta Dello Sport (Italy) only referred to “the beautiful lineswoman”.

Ho hum.

Also on Twitter, Matt Holland, former Ipswich captain, made a point of praising Chris Smalling’s display for Man Utd yesterday.    Nice to see the lad doing well – a great game to get his feet wet (United stormed it 5-0).

Finally, and this one’s about Fulham, Chris Baird’s passing is becoming a legitimate ‘weapon’:

Everyone’s going crazy over Charlie Adam’s passing for Blackpool; Baird’s getting seriously good, too.

Danny Murphy had 90+ passes, incidentally.   Teams have to stop him if they want to stop Fulham.   Surprised Stoke weren’t better on this front.

Fulham 2-0 Stoke

A tale of two midfields:  ours bossed the game, they didn’t use theirs at all.   That’s Fulham v Stoke in a nutshell, and it feels right that the more attentive and skilful eleven should have prevailed.  Which is not to moralise – Stoke wouldn’t be where they are if they played any other way – but equally, if everyone played like they do…

We had previous here, too.   Dembele v Wilkinson, and therefore Hughes v Pulis and Murphy v Stoke City and its stakeholders.  It gave the match a nice edge, an edge sharpened by the presence of haphazard referee Stuart Atwell, whose reputation now preceeds him to the point where it’s impossible to tell if he’s doing his job properly or not, such is the derision shown after most of his decisions: today he seemed more concerned with the minutiae (take that free-kick 5 yards back there) than more serious offences (take as long as you like, Mr Begovic, anything up to 5 minutes per goal kick will be fine).

The Fulham players won their battles in the end.  Dembele mightn’t have chosen a game like this to get back on track, but his class told more often than not, and he wasn’t afraid to mix it when he had to.   Hughes won the game, and Murphy (again) dominated the middle of the pitch, his every touch cheered on by a nicely boisterous crowd.

We started well, Duff smashing a shot against the bar from 25 yards out, then Dempsey made it 1-0 following some good, eager work by Andy Johnson, who worked down the inside right channel and squared it across the area.  Dempsey arrived noisily to turn the ball over Begovic, a typical goal from a man who is having a tremendous season.

We couldn’t build on the lead though, and the game moved from phases where we were in charge, in which the ball was pinged around nicely, and phases where it all got horribly messy, in which nobody could take control.  Kenwyn Jones was briefly in fine form, winning a number of headers convincingly and making life hard for Hughes and Hangeland.  But then he just disappeared from the game.

The second half saw more of the same, a well deserved second goal arriving when Murphy turned in the centre-circle and launched a long ball over the top into the path of Dempsey, who managed to turn the ball between the two centre-backs with Bergkamp-esque deftness (or a slightly iffy first touch).  He was clean through but hauled down by Shawcross, who then had to go.  Murphy took the ball but somehow or other Dempsey ended up with it, smashing home his second.   Murphy trotted back to the halfway line rather than celebrate with Dempsey, suggesting that he wasn’t altogether pleased with his team-mate’s spirited insubordination.  He probably has a point, but Dempsey deserved the goal, and took the penalty with great conviction.

It was over at that point.  Etuhu, who had another good game, made way for Steve Sidwell, who became only the second Fulham player on the field with his shirt tucked in (the other was Duff).  Sidwell looked instantly at home, tackling well and passing competently and surely.   He struck a fine drive just wide and will have been pleased to get his first game in under such straightforward circumstances.   Gera and Halliche were also given a run-out with 15 minutes left (we had a pretty good bench today, featuring Gera, Davies, Kamara, Sidwell, Halliche and presumably Etherington – you can change a lot of games with players like that available).

And so it goes, and so it goes.  We were better than them and we beat them good and proper.

Paul Konchesky is not walking through that door

(For reference on the saying, go here then here).

I saw this little diddy in the Daily Mail and it made me sigh deeply.

A return to his old club is the 29-year-old’s only option in the Barclays Premier League because he made one appearance for Fulham in August before joining Liverpool, and the rules state that players cannot represent three top-flight teams in the same season.

No, it’s not entirely because of the Javier Mascherano rule. (Sure, Konchesky could be loaned back as the author suggests in the lede, but what sense would that make?) It’s because of Premier League Rule L19 (page 146):

A Club which transfers or cancels the registration of a Player may not apply to register that Player within a year except with the prior written consent of the Board.

In layman’s terms, a team cannot sell a player to another club and then buy him back within a one year span.

Some may recall this rule coming to the surface in January 2009 when Robbie Keane wanted to transfer from Liverpool back to Spurs, Pascal Chimbonda from Sunderland back to Spurs, and Jermain Defoe wanted to transfer from Portsmouth back to Spurs.

But for whatever reason, the almighty Board allowed all to go through. Hmm, probably because the home, erm, clubwrecker and future England manager Harry Redknapp was behind it all.

So even if Mark Hughes wanted to bring Konchesky back on a full time basis, the probability of the Board (meaning the board of directors for the time being of the Company; the Company meaning The Football Association Premier League Limited) agreeing to its passing is completely nil. Why? Oh, probably because we’re still taking the EPL chairman’s ass to court over Peter Crouch’s transfer from Portsmouth to (*SHOCK*) Spurs.

So, yeah, Paul Konchesky is not walking through that door.

Zoltan wants to leave

It says here.

Shame.   Gera has that lovely ability to find space in the penalty area.   His winner against Hamburg in the semi-final was a great example:  what looked like a simple tap-in came about because Gera legged it across the six yard box as the corner came over.  As the ball dropped there he was to score, but these tap-ins don’t fall to everyone, and Gera deserved all the credit for being in the right place.

All this goes to underscore how important Europe was to us last season.    Gera’s Fulham record:

League:  79 games, 5 goals

Europe:  18 games, 6 goals

Had we not made it into Europe he’d be just another wide man who hadn’t quite met expectations.

(Bobby Zamora:  66 league games, 11 league goals;  17 European games, 8 goals)

(Chris Smalling).

So I don’t know.  He’s a good player and one who it’s good to have around, but hasn’t really had a look in this season.   Must be hard for him, going from Player of the Year to substitute, but that’s football I guess.

Mark Hughes has to tweak the squad a bit, make it younger and perhaps more physical.   He has a core of players:  Schwarzer, Hughes, Hangeland, Murphy, Dempsey, Duff, Dembele and Zamora who will remain untouchable if in form, and a few more like Davies, Baird, Paintsil, Etuhu and perhaps Salcido, Sidwell and Johnson who are good to have around, but ideally you’d want some younger, more vibrant talent to supplement the core.      It’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with in the next two weeks.

 

Looking for a narrative

One facet of this season I’ve found to be a bit peculiar is the seeming lack of narrative. Usually by this point in the season the pieces of the puzzle are coming together.

For me, last year was all about Europe. The year before, we watched and wondered about what Roy could do with his first full season at the helm. Three years ago it was about how Sanchez’s reign would fare, and then how can we rectify all the mistakes. 2006-07 seemed fairly anonymous until around when Cookie got sacked. (I wasn’t a fan in 2005-06, so what was your legacy?)

On the surface, this year it seems its been a rebuilding year in everything but label. Roy left, but soon into our season so too (to the IR at least) did our talismanic striker Bobby Zamora . We’re in the relegation scrap, but so is a third of the league. A cup run seems on the table, but a tricky 4th Round draw to Spurs is keeping my optimism down.

Looking at the stats though, one big legacy is our drop in home form, while our away form has conversely improved. See below:

Now, things can obviously go pear-shaped. We still have trips to Anfield, St. Andrews, Old Trafford, and Goodison on the cards. But as things currently stand we’re getting more out of our away games than last year and 2006-07; and only marginally worse than the Great Escape. We’re also practically tied for our best defensive away year yet. It’s a smaller sample size, but we’re scoring more and conceding less under Hughes than Hodgson while away from SW6.

On the flip side, despite the fact we’re not getting much at home, not scoring a lot, and conceding a bit more (most since Sanchez — how much of that comes from the City and Boxing Day nightmares?) we still have matches against Newcastle, Blackpool, Blackburn, and Stoke to hopefully boost those percentages (or ratio? or whatever? I’m bad at math). Oh, and we’ve been without an actual or fit striker for a bit.

[After all, AJ's goal on Saturday was his first since August 20 2009, in that Europa League qualifier against Perm. You know, the same match where he got cross-checked and subsequently started his long spell on the IR, and hasn't really been the same since.]

Lastly, the overall scoring rate is about the same it’s always been, and our overall defensive rate is pretty good — buoyed by our away form.

So maybe that’s the narrative?

Wigan 1-1 Fulham

There’s nothing to get the pulse slumping like Wigan away, and the first half was suitably dire.    Chris Baird, revelling in his ‘long range specialist’ role, had our first two shots, the first a daisy cutter that Ali Al Habsi saved easily, the second flying into the crowd.    Wigan bounced back with a relatively exhilerating break down the right flank, Stam’s crossed at full-speed, Rodellega got on the end of it but hit the post with a good header.    Then Fulham should have gone ahead, Dempsey sent Duff clear but Duff hesitated and shot against the ‘keeper.     Bah.   He should have scored.

The caginess of the first half continued into the second.  Wigan are prone to implosion but were resolute today, and we were really struggling to find a way through.    Every Fulham player was having a 6.5/10 game, which will do the job at home but which probably isn’t enough away.

Then we fell behind, something of a shock.   Al Habsi boomed a goal kick into space and when it came down there was Rodellega racing Hughes towards the area.    Rodellega won, Stockdale came out, went back, then realised he too was out of contention, and Rodellega gently lobbed the ball into the net.

What now?  Moussa Dembele, on for Kamara, started to dart hither and thither, a thorn in Wigan’s side from the off.   How we’ve missed him.   He was joined by Andrew Johnson, who hadn’t scored in the league since 2009, and Johnson it was who had the next big chance: the ball in, Johnson six yards out, air shot!   Dempsey was behind him though, and he managed to control the ball and bundle it home.    Unfortunately he’d used his arm in so doing, so the goal was rightly disallowed.   Shame.

On we went.  All Fulham now, Murphy and Etuhu continuing to control the game.  Still few chances though, until Dempsey cut infield and reversed the ball to Johnson, who, despite the angle, drilled the shot goalwards.  It deflected wickedly and Al Habsi could only paw it into the air and over the line.   Johnson threw himself over the hoardings and into the crowd, a sign of how much the whole thing meant to him.   He got a yellow card, of course, but won’t mind that.

1-1, which is how it stayed.   We deserved three points really, and when we do start winning these games we’ll know that the team really is progressing.   As it is, another point and another decent performance, so yeah, great.

Transfer Silliness

Three names that we were “linked” with have all fallen through. And probably for the best.

Roque Santa Cruz:

In total, Santa Cruz started eight games, with another 16 substitute appearances. The Paraguay international has earned around £6m in wages. (via guardian)

City have hardened their stance on the issue of wages for loan players since agreeing to subsidise Craig Bellamy’s move to Cardiff earlier this season and Blackburn will pay the majority of Santa Cruz’s salary. (via soccernet)

Robbie Keane:

Personal terms have not yet been discussed and Keane’s £65,000-a-week wages would make him Birmingham’s highest-paid player by some distance (via guardian)

David Bentley:

United target David Bentley is likely to join Birmingham City after having a “must play every game” clause sanctioned by Alex McLeish, with the second city side also prepared to shell out over £70,000 per week to meet his wage demands. (via chronicle)

Oh, and not that he was “targeted” by us, but West Ham are paying Wayne Bridge £90,000 a week.

I don’t have any proof that these figures are exact, but my lord are they ridiculous. And I am glad we aren’t paying these bit-part players’ ridiculous salaries. (What is AJ’s salary again?)

So far this season, Santa Cruz has played 34 league minutes and 80 minutes in the Carling Cup. Bentley has played 102 minutes in the league and one entire Carling Cup match — that 4-1 loss to Arsenal. Keane has played in most of Spurs’ competitions, but still only 2 starts and 10 substitution appearances. For context, Eddie Johnson has the same amount of total appearances: 1 start and 11 subs.

Obviously, players are loaned out in January because they aren’t playing enough for their clubs. But, not to sound like a broken record, for the loan recipient team to still pay these wages in full is absurd, and explains why they aren’t at SW6.

In other transfer news, Robert Milsom and Fredrik Stoor have both left. I’m not surprised about Stoor (why didn’t it happen over the summer?), but am about Milsom. Sure, the lad is 24, but he was touted as a blue chip. Now, he’ll be playing in Aberdeen.

Sidwell

Steve Sidwell, eh?

Positives

A good pedigree:  Arsenal youth player, fine stint at Reading (under Steve Coppell), signed for Mourinho’s Chelsea, then on to Martin O’Neill’s Villa.   A lot of good managers have signed him.
Wandsworth lad:  will be happy in the area, which must count for something.  He left Wolves in the lurch to come here so must be keen
The first midfielder we’ve signed who could conceivably replace Murphy:  we’ve had quantity for a while, but not always quality
Roy Hodgson wanted him, and in some ways he’s not dissimilar to the Zamora/Murphy/Duff type, the talented player fallen on hard times
Someone, sometime (I’m thinking Clough or Revie) said something about no team being complete without a ginger haired midfielder.  I can’t find the quote but it seems relevant

Negatives

He’s hardly played!   Didn’t cut it at Arsenal (which is no crime), excellent at Reading but no impact at Chelsea or Villa

A good signing but the proof will be in the pudding.

Football Supporter Map of London

Following the logic of the internet and social media, I spotted this map on Andy Brassel’s twitter feed. Turns out the fine fellows at bigthink.com reposted the map from a QPR board. It really is all about collaboration, no?

Anyway, I guess it goes to show just how much of a little club by the Thames we are.

And while we’re on the topic of maps — my favorite! — here’s a map of 176 caricatures of Baltimoreans past and present, as well as 40 landmark buildings. (Click here for more info/larger image)

The obligatory Roy Hodgson post

Roy Hodgson probably felt he couldn’t turn the Liverpool job down.  If his success at Fulham brought him the respect in England he had long craved, success at Liverpool would finally establish his credentials as one of the game’s top managers.   He couldn’t say no.

Have you ever gone into the cubicle at work and found that someone before you has left an almighty stench?   You need to go, and in time your nose deadens the stench, but when you leave the cubicle someone – perhaps a senior director – is waiting to go in, and when they go in they smell it too and assume it was you.    In their eyes you will always be the person who made the almighty stench.    You weren’t – it was like that before you got there – but this is not how your successor will view things.

So it was, to an extent, with Hodgson.  I’ve talked to some very clued up Liverpool fans about the situation and they have just about persuaded me that Hodgson was the wrong man for the job, but it is still my belief that the club was in a terrible way before he arrived, and that success was always (in retrospect) unlikely.    Rafa Benitez was a top manager, but I’m starting to come round to the view that his best side was built on Mascherano, Alonso and Hyppia, as well as Torres, Reina and Gerrard.    Hodgson had a disinterested/knackered/injured Torres, a strangely vulnerable Reina (how different might things have been without Reina’s mistake against Arsenal?) and a Gerrard who, try as he might, can’t always do it alone.

He had to supplement this core with bit parts, ordinary players that he had to improve upon as quickly as he could.  Joe Cole seemed like a good idea but now his lack of action at Chelsea has been explained.   Mereiles looks to have been a shrewd pickup, but Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulson have been poor performers (in a short period of time Hodgson saw he would need a left-back and a holding midfielder:  he knew these two players very well and thought they’d make good stop-gaps.)

He should have had a half-decent side.  I always thought that Fulham, with a Gerrard type up top, could have been contenders.  We were so tight at the back, surely adding that bit of class up front would make us very hard to stop?   So Liverpool, with better players all over the pitch, ought to have been okay.  Didn’t happen.  He was saddled with £18m England right back Glen Johnson, a player about as far from the Hodgson ideal as you might get, and tried to make Krygiakos and Skrtl into a new Hangeland and Hughes (which didn’t really work).   With no Zamora to act as a focal point and no Danny Murphy to run the game from the middle, his teams looked thoroughly ragged, to the point where they were messy in defence and messier in attack.   The disappointment for Hodgson will be that in time much of this could have been resolved (it took a while for his system to ‘kick in’ at Fulham, after all).

But it would never have been enough.  Liverpool’s fans didn’t take to him, and seemed to take exception almost every time he opened his mouth to the media.  This too was unusual – at Fulham he was admirable in front of the cameras – but as Dave Kidd of The People pointed out in a recent TOOFIF, once the Great Escape had been pulled off he was hardly asked a difficult question.  At Anfield things were different.   Here he was talking up his previous achievements while his new team struggled, and fans took the view that Hodgson was interested in Hodgson first and Liverpool second.   I find this sort of accusation confusing in that it’s presumably the way 99.9% of managers view their jobs.   Under this kind of pressure, this kind of criticism, why wouldn’t Hodgson defend himself with the best tools available to him (his previous achievements; his recent award)?    But this was taken as a negative as well.    Hodgson didn’t ‘get’ the supporters.

What is there to ‘get’ about supporters anyway?   It has been suggested that Hodgson didn’t thank Fulham fans enough when he left, and while this is perhaps the case, I suspect that Hodgson honestly felt Fulham’s achievements were down to his and the players’ hard work, and that the fans were all well and good but a distant third in this hierarchy.    In this he’s almost certainly correct (I appreciate that fans are vital in bringing money to the club, but at the stadium?  Presumably park teams and reserve teams, playing in front of one man and his dog, are still able to make stirring comebacks every so often?), but as we all find out as we move through life, certain concessions need to be made along the way.  All politicians must become adept at managing their reputation, and this will mean spending time with people you don’t really like, people you actively dislike, always saying “the right thing” in the name of reputation.   It’s true in the workplace to a lesser extent as well.   We must all work with ‘stakeholders’ (customers, suppliers, and so on) and talk bland nonsense in the name of affability.  It’s how the world works.    When Hodgson said “I haven’t seen much of the famous Anfield support” he was speaking the truth as he saw it (and he’s right: their support is pretty ordinary), but this was of course a terrible mistake.    He might very reasonably have felt that the fans didn’t understand him or the game of football, but he needed to better appreciate where the power lay in the relationship and communicate accordingly (but even then, the press will only highlight what it wants to highlight).

So why didn’t it work out?  I think Mark Lawrenson suggested that Hodgson was the wrong manager at the wrong time, and surely there’s something to that.  Hodgson’s a good football manager but perhaps not a good enough manager, and certainly not for these particular circumstances.   Tim Sherwood, who fell out with Hodgson at Blackburn and arguably caused a good thing to go pear-shaped in so doing, said that Hodgson was the best coach he’d worked with, but not the best manager.   It seems to me that a modern football manager, particularly one at a big club, needs all kinds of non-coaching skills to get by, particularly if he hasn’t won anything (at that club).  While I believe the results on the pitch would have improved in time (although possibly not to the point where they became acceptable to success hungry supporters), I’m not sure that everything else would have sorted itself out.   Hodgson, one way or another, was perfect for Fulham, but just as many fine but unphotogenic singers end up doing backing vocals for the likes of Danii Minogue (and even if they did get a record deal, they probably wouldn’t sell anything because the public would rather buy crap from a face they like than something worthwhile from a face they don’t), so too do many good coaches not get the chances they might feel they deserve.  Hodgson, after 35 years, got his chance and – to stretch an already weak metaphor to breaking point – ended up singing like Danii Minogue anyway.

Where was I?  The big job: he couldn’t say no, but he should have.

Fulham 6-2 Peterborough; Kamara scores three

Great fun at the Cottage today, with Fulham belting six past an impressive but wide open Peterborough side.

Games like these allow all of our players to show off their skills; against weaker opponents they all become supersized versions of themselves.   So Danny Murphy was very much the playmaker, firing balls over the top and through the middle like a quarterback; Dickson Etuhu was the overgrown spoiler, too strong for his league 1 challengers;  Diomansy Kamara was the thoroughbread raider, picking his moments and scorching through the defence onto Murphy’s bombs; Hangeland and Hughes were impregnable; Damian Duff was a lightning quick winger with dangerous ideas.   It wasn’t all plain sailing, but you don’t win 6-2 by accident.

The visitors dominated the first few minutes, forcing a succession of corners that Fulham just about dealt with.    Then we took charge.

The first goal was a beauty, Murphy placed the ball wide to Baird on the right wing, Baird pinged a superb cross to the far post, where Kamara headed home.   Important to get underway, nice for Kamara too.

Meanwhile, the real value was coming from Duff on the right wing.  The second came when he slipped free and squared across the area.  The ball was behind Kamara but was deflected back to the edge of the area, from where Dickson Etuhu smashed it back and into the net.  2-0, the game pretty much up.  Duff had been threatening to get on the end of the through balls all half, and Peterborough should probably have solved this problem before it hurt them.

In the second half the probing passes continued and started to pay off.  Murphy (dominating) with the pass, there went Kamara again, clear and slotting home from the inside left channel.

On came Jon Greening for Dempsey.  One of his first acts was to send a cross deep into the area, at which point Zoltan Gera rose high and headed home.  4-0.

Then came the downside.  Peterborough launched an attack at Baird, who was beaten by Lee Tomlin, who scored with a hard, low shot.  (Our full-backs didn’t have an A1 game today; Baird wasn’t quite at his best, Paintsil got skinned a couple of times.)

Fulham bounced back with another, Kamara sent a Beckhamesque ball to Greening on the left wing, Greening gave it back and Kamara scored again, a hat-trick for the unstoppable enigma whose future must surely now be at Craven Cottage.   When he plays like this there are none better.

Peterborough reacted with a second, Halliche (on for Hangeland) committing a foul in the area, the penalty banged home.  5-2.   Halliche had earlier been turned to set up a one-on-one with Stockdale; he showed impressive form in the air, but may need a bit more seasoning before he’s ready for regular action.

Then Greening himself broke clear (!) and made it six.   Happy days.   This is why you play full strength sides in the cup.

FA Cup Third Round: Name that lineup!

Ah, the FA Cup Third Round. Where there’s usually more talk about the proposed lineup than the actual game.

When I played FIFA 07 and 08, I would often throw out a silly lineup that would include Lee Cook or Ahmad Ehrlich, and then win 1-0 on a penalty or something like that.

This year, with the 25-man rosters, we can only see more youth than Seol Ki-Hyeon types. That and Hughes didn’t appear to experiment in the Carling Cup. And evidently won’t be tomorrow. Which is sad, because lest we forget, Julian Gray got a start at this stage two years ago!

So, dearest CCN readers, if you were Sparky, and as crazy as I, what lineup would you put out there? Here’s mine:

GK:Stockdale
RB: Kelly
CB: Halliche; Hughes
LB: Briggs [according to physioroom he's injured until 1/15. So, Salcido?]
RM: Gera (sub with Kacaniklic)
CM: Greening; Etuhu (sub with Saunders)
LM: Milsom
ST: EJ [shut up]
ST: Elm (sub with Dalla Valle)

Right, this is probably why I’m not a football manager…

Cole on Hughes

Andrew Cole on Mark Hughes.  Interesting.

I didn’t know how my new team mates would take to me. I was absolutely buzzing playing with them, but they might have viewed me differently. Ryan Giggs was especially friendly with me socially and invited me out a lot, while Mark Hughes, the man who should have felt the most threatened, was ultra professional.

In one of my first games for United, a player caught me with a bad challenge. I could look after myself, but Hughes came over.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll sort that out.” Minutes later he took revenge the lad who had done it. I was impressed and came to realise that great teams have players who look after each other, but there was no respite. Later in the same game, Hughes looked at me and said: “Any chance?”

“Of what?” I replied, unsure what he meant.

“Of working harder?” I got the point. There was also talk of Hughes leaving because I had arrived. I did not want him to go, but wanted to learn from him.

The next six weeks

On yesterday’s Sky telecast, before the feed got shut down, Andy Gray mentioned that the next 5-6 weeks are critical for every club in the league.

Now, this isn’t a revelation on a E=MC2 or Kristin Shepard-shooting-J.R. scale. But there is a large element of truth to it.

The winter transfer window will have come and gone. Nearly two thirds the season will have been played. The third and fourth round of the FA Cup will have been played, with the 6th round — the quarter finals — just around the corner. For the few clubs left in the Carling Cup, there’s the semi-finals and finals. And those still in Europe, the knockout stages begin in mid-February. That’s quite a bit on the table.

After seeing Fulham and Wolves labor to a 0-0 draw last April, I wrote on my former blog about how come spring the quality of play tends to deteriorate for five different reasons. Well, 6 weeks from yesterday sees us halfway through February. So although it’s not quite spring, many a team can find themselves in one, if not more, of those categories by then.

Here’s our schedule for the next 6 weeks, as of yesterday:

1/4      West Brom W 3-0
1/8      Peterborough United (FA Cup 3rd Round)
1/15     at Wigan Athletic
1/22     Stoke City
1/26     at Liverpool
1/29*   TBD (FA Cup 4th Round)
2/2       Newcastle United
2/5       at Aston Villa
2/14     Chelsea

There are some pretty key games there. Going out in the FA Cup to Posh in the 3rd round probably won’t help morale. Nor would a defeat at the DW, or at home to Stoke. The trip to Liverpool and home match against Chelsea are an emotional toss-up. A loss? Eh. A win? Ecstasy.

If we can get at least 7 points from those league games and make it to the FA Cup 5th round, I’ll be pleased. And it should bode well for our season. I’d much rather see us in the ‘exhaustion’ or ‘cruise control’ category than ‘survival’ or, gasp, ‘relegation’.

I’ll post the two teams that are above and below us after today’s fixtures later today. The bottom half of the table is currently a morass with some teams having several games in hand over others, and I’d rather not have a post be dated within a few hours.

Update: okay, after tonight’s wacky results that leave only two points separating 14th from 20th, I’m not going to post each team’s schedule. But nonetheless, what are your thoughts?

Fulham 3-0 West Brom

Let’s not get too excited -  West Brom are a bad team in worse form – but you can’t beat a good 3-0 home win to boost morale, can you?

A strange game in the end.   Fulham bossed the first 20 minutes without looking threatening, and when West Brom grew into the game it felt like West Ham all over again.    David Stockdale, covering for the far away Mark Schwarzer, was perhaps the busier of the two keepers, and had to make a couple of smart saves to keep us level.    As with so many of these games, it all came down to a moment, and this time the big moment was ours.

Dickson Etuhu – whose resurgence continued tonight in a hungry, bullying performance – knocked his man off the ball with a judo trip and Simon Davies arrived to crack a swerving drive at but through Scott Carson.  The ball came fast at the keeper and certainly moved a great deal in the air, but you have to save those.   A somewhat fortunate lead then, but fortune usually favours the better team and the goal was more or less deserved.

Fulham proved this to be the case with a strutting second half, Clint Dempsey rising high in trademark fashion to head home a second from a corner, Brede Hangeland doing the same later on to add a third.    (For the latter goal our determined centre-back brought to mind the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man stomping around New York in Ghostbusters, so large and dominant was he amid West Brom’s small and timid defence.)

Ultimately this (like many games) proves nothing, but we’ve messed up a number of games like this under Hughes so everyone concerned will have been grateful for the win, and the surge up the table the associated points bring.

Zoltan Gera — is it the shoes?

Zoltan Gera has scored one goal this season. Okay, 3 if you include the Port Vale Carling Cup massacre.

Last year he scored 7 total. Two years ago it was 3 — and a majority of each season’s goals were huge.

So, it’s worth asking — is it the shoes? Those old-school adidas cleats were pretty damn amazing — much, much better than whatever brand white cleats he as now. And the stats show.

(photos after jump)

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CCN Man of the year: Chris Baird

Chris Baird must be a manager’s dream.    Europa League Final right back; Europa League group stage centre back (remember his work with Chris Smalling?); left back of last resort; centre midfielder of some ability (remember Juventus?).  He does whatever the club needs him to do, and does it well.

Those two goals at Stoke were a nice reward for his efforts in 2010 (and that raking long ball to Damien Duff at Spurs a nice reminder that the lad can’t half pass, too).

Jamie’s report: Tottenham 1 Fulham 0

Jamie R was at White Hart Lane today:

No luck at White Hart Lane and another frustrating afternoon for Mark Hughes’ toiling troops. Perhaps you could say this was an encouraging performance – we kept one of the league’s in-form teams impressively in check and on another day could easily have sneaked a better result. On the other hand, Spurs beat us almost without turning up and created far better openings on the odd occasion that they strung a move together than we managed over an entire 90 minutes of careful, considered, neat possession.

The first half was the most stymied as we passed the ball with relentless lack of threat, eventually lumping it from defence to Johnson’s meagre 5-foot-something frame up front. Spurs dealt with it in their sleep, and then went 1-0 up when Gareth Bale’s head deflected a Van Der Vaart free kick past a flat-footed Schwarzer.

The second half was better and we had our best and only real chance when Johnson found himself half a yard clear of Spurs’ backline and struck a decent effort across Gomes. The goalkeeper saved well, and Dawson cleared just before Dempsey was able to bundle in the rebound.

Simon Davies on current form is painful to watch, his first instinct always to turn away from his opponent when in possession, protecting the ball, then inevitably sending it sideways or backwards. Indeed, only Dickson Etuhu of our midfield is still showing signs of the Hughes ‘tweak’ we saw at the beginning of the season: breaking into the box on a number of occasions, getting big tackles in and generally having a storming performance – his best in weeks.

Everyone else has either been told by Hughes to stick to what they’re used to, upon his realisation that they’re not physically up to a more direct, dynamic approach, or they’ve just reverted naturally to the old Hodgson style. It’s made us better again defensively but without Zamora we offer nothing going forward unless Chris Baird decides he’s going to have the game of his life.

The upside was that the effort was clear for all to see and at the final whistle some of the players looked genuinely gutted. Hughes has them playing for him. He now needs to find some help from somewhere in January.