The board’s tentativeness has meant that most of us have already said much of what there is to say on the subject. We have searched for blame, answers, inspiration, but have found ourselves every bit as clueless as the players we have been watching. Oh, we all have ideas about what’s wrong, it’s just that most seem too simplistic or misjudged. The team has become a deep fog in which nobody, management, fans, or players, can see. Are all of our players good enough or none of our players good enough? A persuasive argument could be made either way. It’s that confusing.
The riddles are everywhere. Dimitar Berbatov was recently the league’s top goalscorer. Scott Parker was recently England’s player of the year. Those two facts alone ought to have given us some hope. But maybe Berbatov needs better teammates (does that mean you blame Berbatov or the teammates?) and maybe Parker is not really what we need either.
Certainly when you compare him to our previous midfield maestro there is no comparison. Danny Murphy was a great passer who was a lot better than people realised defensively. Parker is good at a lot of things but arguably not in Murphy’s league in any of them. And he’s 33.
Bryan Ruiz is Fulham’s Graeme Hick: is he our best player or our worst? Like Hick, it feels entirely likely that this gifted young man has simply walked into the wrong team at the wrong time; in parallel universes other versions of himself are starring in better circumstances; in this one he’s battling himself, football fans’ prejudices, a back injury and a group of teammates who are not capable of playing the sort of game he needs to play. (Go and watch Clint Dempsey’s 20 goal season and marvel at how much Ruiz was orchestrating.)
And this is as much the issue as anything: Dempsey had become a very fine footballer and we couldn’t replace him. We lost others, and were stuck with imposters who occasionally look alright but really aren’t.
It makes a mockery of fans’ annual “time to push on” moans. In this league you don’t push on, you survive. Previous incarnations of Fulham in the top flight had come and gone by now, and this version arguably ought to have dropped at least twice since the millenium. There have been a number of curious moans on social media: “We want our team back” said one. This is your team. It has always been your team. What on earth are you expecting? Every season every Fulham fan should know that there is a non-zero chance that things might not quite go right and relegation could happen. Like the financial crisis of 2008, the extended boom that preceded it shouldn’t necessarily mean that history can be ignored. Fulham have profited handsomely from the game’s Sky money but so have most teams, and if that money stops moving into new, better players’ pockets for any time the team, curiously, will start to slow down and to struggle.
In this way the Jol team compares interestingly not with the Sanchez team, but with latter day Coleman. Coleman, like Jol, once stalked across the Craven Cottage pitch with that alpha male swagger, then became belittled by his inability to patch together a working football team.
The more you think about it, the closer the parallels. Coleman in the end couldn’t find a coherent pair of centre-backs, was cursed with iffy full-backs, had to make do in the centre of midfield and was prone to putting players on the wing who might have been better used elsewhere. He even had two good but almost identical attackers (McBride and Helguson) that he never quite managed to harness into the partnership it might have been. He had a good eye for players (his Davies and Dempsey moves in his last January were fabulous for the club, if not for him) but couldn’t get them achieving anything worthwhile. In the end Coleman’s team was all about coincidence football, in which anything good that occurred would do so through chance, not through planning.
Jol’s lot are the same. We haven’t got many goals this year, but three have been absolute belters and perhaps none as the result of a coherent passing move. Jol dropped Ruiz for the West Ham game to improve the team’s tempo, but surely the way to get tempo would be to have them know where each other are, rather than always having to have a look (then always having to try something else, as nobody was anywhere helpful). Ruiz looked ponderous but part of this was probably because – unlike many in this team – he likes to pass forwards. And there were generally no options forwards in this side. We would have been better off with a McBride/Helguson combination. At least then we could have ‘hit them early’ and work from there.
This team has no ethos, no identity, or at least not in a good way. What is this Fulham team about? What do they do? There are elements of the playground here, of players receiving the ball and then weighing up options, rather than playing in a coherent setup in which everyone knows their options always. We saw elements of this early in Jol’s reign, when the team could be brilliant or awful depending on variables we couldn’t really know.
In the end it settled on awful. This season it has been far the easiest in the league to play against, allowing north of 20 shots per game while taking less than half of that number. You can’t win like that. Paraphrasing James Grayson on twitter, Fulham simply had no control over what happened on the pitch.
It’s true. At times we resembled a counter attacking team that didn’t counter attack. We loaded up on forward players but saw no attacking payoff whatsoever (but of course suffered – how we suffered – in defence). That fog we talked about at the start: it affected Jol, too. He didn’t know what he was doing. He tried everything, tried to find answers in new combinations and approaches every week. He genuinely thought he had brought in players who would be good enough to do a job for Fulham, but he was wrong.
It has been suggested that Jol himself was surprised how long it took Fulham to fire him and the team’s performances in the end reflected this. As Simon Peach noted on Twitter, of the squad, only Ruiz has commented on the dismissal, thanking Jol for sticking by him. It says much about Ruiz that he did this, but also about the rest of the squad’s state of mind. They needed to move on.
Now they, and we, finally can. This team is either too bad to recover or too bad to keep playing like this, I can’t decide which, but in either case, the season is not over yet and there are other bad teams in operation. We may or may not make a fist of staying up, but at least there is now some hope.
And even if there isn’t, there will be again. This morning I was reading the 1971-72 Rothman’s book in which Fulham are in Division Two (which really was the second division back then), having got there via two straight relegations and a couple of years in Division Three. The team is a mixture of players we still hear talked about and others we don’t, some on the downswing in relatively interesting careers, others still making their way. It looks like a time of transition, of bedding down, of taking stock. This Fulham team won its opening game of the season then went six matches without so much as scoring a goal. It went seven games without a win over winter, and ended the season with a six game winless run. Somehow it survived. There would be years and years in football’s wilderness after that but the club is well resourced now and it would take management of gross incompetence for another such barren run to happen now. Fulham timed its latest ascent well, and is rich beyond most global football clubs’ wildest imaginations. It has a thriving, genuinely thriving, youth setup. It has a fabulous stadium. It has money, lots of money. If there’s an upside to the club’s lack of investment in players recently it’s that the team isn’t saddled with any ridiculous contracts, doesn’t have a bloated squad of players that will weight it down should the worst happen in May. Those fabulous youngsters, with decent coaching and astute purchases, could make the next good Fulham team. It’s an exciting prospect. For whatever reason, football fans love young players, and particularly young players who have come up through the youth system. It’s a great opportunity for the club to build something, not to piece something together, but to grow a proper football team.
That fog we talked about has blinded us to all that is good with the club, but if the fog lifts now, next year, whenever – and it will – there’s plenty to be happy about.
So goodbye, Martin Jol. Thanks for the good times. So it goes.