Usually when I find an episode of Inspector Morse on television it’s about halfway through. I don’t mind though – I quite like to just see what they’re all doing, John Thaw’s character being particularly intriguing to me. Hade doesn’t like this – if we’ve missed the start we won’t know what’s happened, will we? – but that’s not really what I’m watching for. I don’t really care about plot in this sort of thing. The same applies to a degree to the films of Humphrey Bogart. You can just get involved for 10 minutes in a vacuum and come away perfectly happy. When you walk along the South Bank in London and see the kids skateboarding, you stop and watch for a bit. It doesn’t matter who’s who or what they’re doing it for, you just enjoy the spectacle. There’s a busker in Waterloo Station who does one evening a week. Sets up with a guitar, one effects pedal and a PA system. He just stands there, er, shredding. Again, you watch, you admire, you enjoy. With some people it’s just like that. It’s just good to see them do their thing.
Which is why I was never that bothered by Mousa Dembele’s supposed lack of what we now call ‘end product’. That upright body position, arms thrown around for balance and perhaps deception, still, still, nudge with the outside of the foot, burst of speed, gone. Dembele is the closest thing Fulham will ever come to John Barnes in his pomp, and that’s saying something.
If you’re not aware of John Barnes look up some of his goals, especially the one he scored for England against Brazil. Barnes had that ability to see the field from above, to know where everyone was standing and therefore to where he should take the ball next. Around he danced, in, out, forward to glory. When he was on his game he was about as good as it got. His early Liverpool career was a bonanza of genius, with him, Beardsley et al playing football from heaven. It was brilliant.
Despite that there is a sense that Barnes underachieved, given his talent. Partly this is unfair, when you consider what he did do. But there’s something to it, too, especially in England games where he and Chris Waddle were routinely something less than themselves. People expected genius every game, and the players couldn’t be geniuses all the time. It didn’t help that they were stationed on the left wing and requested to track back, either, but you’d have hoped that the players could still rise above these things. Generally they didn’t, or not to the degree they could have.
This might have been Dembele’s lot, too, until Martin Jol realised that he had a player who could do more than people realised. By moving Dembele into the centre of midfield, Jol created a player who could still do the flash stuff, but who could also retain possession with good, relevant passing, and, crucially, tackle. When you think about it, tackling is about anticipation and balance as much as raw aggression, so it figures that Dembele should be good at it. There aren’t many players who are sufficiently nimble to keep the ball away from him, so game after game he wades in and extracts the ball with that big stride, spins, and off he goes again. Other teams’ attacks become our attacks. It’s important stuff.
So the Barnes comparisons don’t really work. Dembele has become the complete midfielder, and while he doesn’t have the goals in him just yet there’s no reason to think that he can’t score. If he does you’re looking at a legitimately elite player (if you aren’t already).
Fulham had one of these 50 years ago. He wanted to leave at times, too. Sometimes quite desperately. Spurs were interested, so were AC Milan, so were other probably. But back then the club held all the cards and said no, and Johnny Haynes played for Fulham for all of his relevant career (and was paid handsomely to do so, it must be said). It’s not like that now. If you happen upon an elite talent you can’t keep him unless you’re an elite club. Everton had Wayne Rooney, Jack Rodwell seems to be good, too. Both left, simply because that’s what happens.
(The suspicion seems to be that Dembele had a £15m buyout clause in his contract, in which case we had even less chance of hanging onto him.)
Had he been born in Brooklyn instead of in Belgium, Dembele would surely have been a basketball superstar by now. Those feet, that balance – it’s otherworldly; we’ll never see that again. You can moan all you like about Fulham lacking ambition, but this seems a) very wrong-headed (how were we supposed to keep him?) and b) to miss the point anyway: we saw genius in Mousa Dembele. That’s what we’ll remember in 50 years, not that Fulham finished 13th instead of 11th.
Richard Allen founded this website in 2006.