Football: Wilkins revels in the winning game

The fulcrum of Fulham's footballing renaissance is bonding both old and new at the Cottage, he tells Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
IT IS a crisp morning in south-west London. A minute ago Ray Wilkins had grabbed hold of the base of a cast-iron goal and helped lug it into position on the dewy grass. Now he is standing chatting to an expensively dressed Brazilian, an agent seeking a trial for a promising teenage compatriot.

Welcome to Fulham, not yet a Premiership side, but not your average Nationwide League Second Division club either. Six months after Mohamed Al Fayed took over, and five months after he brought in Kevin Keegan and Wilkins, the club is still suffering from schizophrenia.

It is not just the incongruous scene at the training ground which, being hired from and shared with the BBC Sports Club, has a hockey pitch and a cafeteria in which players lunch alongside twin-set-and-pearls ladies. It is also the oddity of the division's most expensive team, playing in a dilapidated ground, watched by a support still struggling to let go of the cosy "we're crap and we don't mind" image.

"There is a lot of that about," admitted Wilkins after training. "Well, I mind and I think everybody else on my staff minds," he added, his brown eyes and smooth voice taking on an edge that is otherwise absent from the conversation. "We want to be a friendly club but we don't want anyone to beat us. We are in the results game and I won't be here if we don't win. I love being here, so I want us to win."

Wilkins and Keegan were also greeted warily when they arrived because of the sudden axing of the previous manager, Micky Adams. Have the fans now warmed to Wilkins? "I don't really know. As far as I'm concerned I'm here to do a job. Not everybody likes you - we would all like people to love us but that isn't the case. They will have their preference. That part of it doesn't really bother me. All I'm concerned about is making sure we function as a side and give them enjoyment.

"Winning helps but playing a bit of attractive football goes a long way as well. The club has a tradition of playing football, therefore it is important that we try and play along the floor.

"People say you can't pass your way out of this division but you can, Crewe did it. Before losing at Oldham last Saturday we went nine games undefeated by playing football. We have worked as hard as the opposition, then our football has come into it and we have won comfortably at times - sometimes away from home. It took a while to convince the players, it always does - there are so many people putting negatives in their heads."

That was merely one of the problems with the players. A glance around the car park shows up the disparity in dressing-room income. Last season's Third Division promotion-winning team was largely built on free transfers. Now Fulham are spending pounds 2m on one player (Chris Coleman from Blackburn). Saturday's team had just three players inherited by Wilkins of whom only one, Matty Lawrence, was in the promotion team.

Many others remain, playing reserve team football, and Wilkins admitted bonding new and old had been "tough". To help the process, first team and reserves train together, either in the entire 31-man squad or as defenders, midfielders and forwards. Group lunches have helped as have the day-to- day trappings of Al Fayed's investment, such as more luxurious accommodation and travel for away games. However, Wilkins admits that some would prefer to be playing in the first team than having a trouser press in their hotel room.

Training did suggest a happy club, however, and Wilkins added: "We've tried to treat everybody with the same respect and give everybody a chance. We still have players who were here when we arrived. They are all very happy, they work their socks off and it is nice to know if someone is injured I have no qualms whatsoever putting someone in. I have seen some improvement in every player at the club and that is down to them being prepared to work hard."

The coaching aspect of the job is what drew Wilkins, sacked by Queen's Park Rangers after they were relegated, back to management when he could have settled for television punditry, advertising and suchlike. "The bit I enjoy is getting out there with the lads. You still think you can play [he won 84 England caps and his clubs included Manchester United, Chelsea, Milan and Rangers]. I can't, but it is nice to get out there and pitch yourself against them.

"We are in the winning game and I want to win but I get an enormous kick out of seeing people improve, seeing them do something on a Saturday that you might have done on the training ground with them. It shows that what you say is being taken on board."

Wilkins does more coaching than he did at QPR but does little else differently. "The hardest thing there was that I was working with a group of mates - they were team-mates a few months before. I sincerely hope Gianluca Vialli handles that side of it at Chelsea because I found it a problem. They were my friends and suddenly you have to go in and boss them. I very seldom bollock people. I prefer to talk to them but even that was difficult. However, judging by last [Wednesday] night he'll do very well."

Wilkins and Keegan are doing well themselves, too. Fulham, who host Wigan today, have risen to the play-off places which are being keenly contested behind the leaders, Watford, and Bristol City. That pair look certain for automatic promotion but have stumbled recently and Wilkins insists they can be caught. "We have to be ready. It has been a problem getting players to drop down to this division but it does give them extra impetus to make sure we get out. That has been a real plus in the dressing-room. Before games, they really are quite hyped up."

Given that Fulham have spent the vast sum, at this level, of pounds 5m on players few Second Division fans want to see Fulham succeed. "There is a lot of resentment on opposition terraces but they only have to look around at the stadiums they are playing in: there are a lot of pounds 6m stands in this division. We have put the money on the field. Our stadium is an old stadium but supporters don't mind getting wet through if the team is winning. If we get where we want to - and Fulham can be a Premiership club - we will probably build a new stadium [on the same site] but initially we will invest on the field."

This argument ignores the economics of stand-building, heavily financed by Football Trust grants, against team-building but Al Fayed's investment is not just short-term. Fulham are searching for their own training ground and expanding their youth system to, ideally, include an academy.

This, and the proposed new ground, is all part of Kevin Keegan's mandate as chief operating officer but he still gets involved on the training ground. Earlier, he had taken Paul Peschisolido aside for an intensive session and Wilkins said: "He does a lot of individual bits with players and they have benefited from it.

"Kevin has an overall look on the club. Obviously we discuss the transfer situation, players coming in and going out, but I pick the side and, with [former QPR manager] Frank Sibley, deal with the first team."

Wilkins' contact with Al Fayed has been limited to a handful of meetings but he noted: "He comes to the home games, he's starting to enjoy himself and that is important for him. He's had a very, very difficult period: there has been a lot on his mind. Now he's enjoying his football, it's a break for him, and that's a bit of a bonus."