Football: Laurel for Stan as the smile returns

Alex Hayes sees Bracewell's risky business pay early dividends
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The Independent Online
PERHAPS THE most significant cameo of Fulham's otherwise predictably dominant win over Plymouth Argyle in their friendly on Wednesday was the sight of Stan Collymore enjoying himself and, more importantly, the company of his new team-mates. Stan was, for want of a better phrase, mucking in. Love him or probably not, it remains that much of the west Londoners' chances of success this season will hinge on his frame of mind. The early signs are good.

While the former Liverpool and England striker - who is on a three-month loan from Aston Villa - is naturally keen to impress his prospective employers, his performance off, as much as on, the pitch was encouraging. Added to the exquisite dummy which led to Paul Peschisolido's 22nd-minute score, and his goal two minutes later courtesy of a thunderous right-foot shot from 25 yards, Collymore seemed at ease in his new surroundings.

After being substituted in the 54th minute to a partisan mixture of applause and boos, he disappeared for a while before returning from the changing room to watch the end of the match from the dug-out. Whether the entente remains cordiale is debatable, but his manager, Paul Bracewell, appears to be getting the most out of his bold signing. Asked later how Collymore was settling in, Bracewell paused for a second before declaring: "Fine." Never one for long speeches, the Cottagers' latest guardian simply added: "Yeah, he scored a goal and worked very hard. But we're not about individuals, we have great strength in depth."

Much of the present squad was assembled by his predecessor, but Bracewell has shown that he can survive without Kevin Keegan by attracting top-class players of his own. "The signings [of Collymore and Arsenal's Stephen Hughes on loan, as well as Lee Clark from Sunderland for pounds 3m] prove the ambition of the chairman and the board. They've given me the chance to go out there and add the quality I'm looking for."

Bracewell added: "We are still trying to fulfil our ambition of getting to the Premiership in five years." King Kev may have gone, but the framework of his masterplan is firmly in place. "Yeah, definitely. I am a very ambitious manager, and my staff and players are too. Most of the players were with us last year when we won promotion - and Fulham's first trophy for 50 years - by lifting the Second Division title. They want more. Success breeds success."

A glance at Wednesday's team sheet was evidence enough that Fulham have the personnel to secure a top-flight berth. On the bench alone were internationals Kit Symons and John Salako, as well as the former Derby County player Paul Trollope. The ingredients seem right, so can the team do a Watford and achieve back-to-back promotions? "I don't see why not," said Bracewell. "We intend to reach the Premiership as quickly as possible. We've got good players and a fantastic team spirit. That combination should see us through the bad times and the good.

"The players aren't just comfortable on the ball, they play hard off it as well. People talk about our entertaining football, but they tend to forget that we can defend too. Last year, we kept 24 clean sheets."

How does PB's Fulham differ from KK's? "Kevin was manager last year and we got promoted. He's now with England, and we wish him well. But at Fulham, Paul Bracewell is manager now. I'm the one who attracted the players to the club, so what you see is Paul Bracewell's team."

Fulham's summer has been one of continuity and strengthening rather than wholesale changes, but Bracewell wants to impose his own methods on the club. Not least in terms of playing style. "Score goals and keep clean sheets," he said with a wry smile. His choice of players may be questionable but at least his tactics can't be faulted.