Fulham get run for their money

Al Fayed's millions may be smoothing the Cottagers' path to the Premiership, but Graham Taylor's Watford are taking a more traditional route
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The Independent Football

There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to reach the Premier League.

There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to reach the Premier League.

In recent years, Blackburn and Newcastle have done so by making money no object and hiring the finest practitioners they could find. Bradford, Barnsley, Charlton and Ipswich have relied on industry and team-work, attracting greater sympathy for doing so.

These are early days, or, as Ron Atkinson would say, early doors, but so far this season the signs are that the two Nationwide League clubs knocking hardest on the Premiership door next spring will again reflect the two different approaches. Fulham and Watford, though they may once have been cast in the same happy-go-lucky mould, now have contrasting cultures, values and styles of play. What they share is a problem caused by progressing faster on the pitch than off it and, of course, remarkable playing records this season. When combined these produce 20 wins and two draws from 22 matches, with 56 goals scored and 15 conceded.

At the moment, the consensus is that, as the League table confirms, Mohamed Al Fayed's fat cats have a slight edge over Sir Elton John's pussy cats.

On Wednesday night Crystal Palace's manager Alan Smith, on the wrong end of Fulham's 11th successive victory, said of his former employers: "They're in a different class in this league. They've got Premiership players earning Premiership wages and although money doesn't maketh man, it doesn't half help. It doesn't just happen overnight, it's taken five managers, two managing directors, about 84 staff and so on, and that ruthless streak has been carried onto the pitch."

The fifth of those managers, Jean Tigana, has taken the passing game developed by Kevin Keegan and other predecessors onto another plane by introducing John Collins, who played under him at Monaco, and the slight but clever Fabrice Fernandes into a midfield already benefiting from the direct running of Lee Clark and Bjarne Goldbaek. Two strikers who once failed to cut the Dijon mustard in the Premiership, Louis Saha and Luis Boa Morte, have found the lower division greatly to their taste, and together with Barry Hayles have scored 26 goals between them in 27 starts.

If there is a chink optimistic opponents could hope to open up it could only be the defence, where Steve Finnan and Paul Trollope are converted wing-backs rather than the natural full-backs required by Tigana's preferred 4-4-2 formation, and the central defenders can be caught out playing too much football.

"He never tells us to just kick it anywhere," said one of them, Fulham's captain and Welsh international Chris Coleman, who has found the Frenchman a revelation after years of working under traditional British managers.

"Pre-season, we were often up at half past six for runs before breakfast, and training three times a day, though never pushed flat out. Two or three times a week, we still train twice a day, with lots of ball-work and lots of stretching. Once a month we have a fat test and a blood test and alcohol test, so you have to look after yourself. You'd be amazed if you saw what we did, but obviously it's working."

The one area in which the club is still deficient is its stadium and this time next season travelling supporters of Premiership clubs could be reacquainting themselves with such old-fashioned delights as standing behind the goal in pouring rain for two hours. After being promoted to the First Division in 1999, Fulham were given three years' grace to replace the terracing on three sides of their ground with seats, which takes them to the end of next season. A £70m redevelopment plan has been held up by objections from the local council, who received Fulham's responses yesterday, but are unlikely to make a final decision much before the end of the year. Similar tensions with local authorities are one of the few things disturbing Watford's sense of well-being. Unable to find a location for a new stadium acceptable to all parties, they have reluctantly decided to stay at Vicarage Road, where main stand access is along the back of a row of garages and potential is strictly limited.

"Even if we get back to the Premiership, it will be extremely difficult for Watford to compete with the big clubs, which is what people expect us to do," said their manager, Graham Taylor. "In the Premiership last season, we were a million miles behind, off the pitch."

Some expected them to be that far behind on it as well, with Sir Elton, unlike Fayed, unwilling these days to plough in any more of his fortune.

Like Charlton the year before them, Watford went up before they were ready, but reinforced the squad as best they could, kept it together after relegation and, with extra television money available, strengthened in the summer by buying Tottenham's Espen Baardsen and Allan Nielsen. The results would look even more spectacular if another team had not surpassed them.

"Fulham's start has been superb, but we've not won nine games and drawn two without playing very well ourselves," said Taylor. "There's been some stability and now we're seeing the benefit. We're also spending £500,000 on an indoor youth academy, and we've had a massive boost by taking over Arsenal's training facilities at London Colney. All in all, since I came back in 1996, when we were 10 points adrift at the bottom of Division One, I think this club's done itself proud. But it's far too early to be talking about promotion being between just two teams."

The division's 22 other clubs would love to believe him.

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