The Tigana way

Collins pulls the strings as French puppeteer applies simple science
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The Independent Football

It gives you a fair idea of how far Fulham have come in a short space of time when the club's main preoccupation seems to be unearthing a new anthem. "Thanks to all of you who have written in with suggestions for the new 'Song for Fulham'," says the official website. "To date, the most popular choice by far is 'Moon River' but we think you can do better." If their early season form is anything to go by, why not settle for Queen's "We Are The Champions" now?

It gives you a fair idea of how far Fulham have come in a short space of time when the club's main preoccupation seems to be unearthing a new anthem. "Thanks to all of you who have written in with suggestions for the new 'Song for Fulham'," says the official website. "To date, the most popular choice by far is 'Moon River' but we think you can do better." If their early season form is anything to go by, why not settle for Queen's "We Are The Champions" now?

On the pitch, Fulham have unquestionably found their voice. Four wins out of four; 10 goals scored for only two conceded; and a brand of enterprising football rarely seen Nationwide, let alone at Craven Cottage. Although he only took over the managerial reins in the summer, Jean Tigana has already persuadedhis players to sing from the same hymn-sheet.

Pinpointing the reason for the Frenchman's instant success is difficult. Before the season kicked off, many felt that Tigana's lack of experience of English football and his timid transfer dealings (Fulham bought only three new players, one of whom is on a year's loan) might doom them to failure. Three weeks on and the gambling fraternity have closed the books. With title odds of 11-8, French croupiers are unanimous: Les jeux sont faits.

If the game really is up - in betting terms , at least - John Collins can take much of the credit. The "other Jean" has been inspirational since the start of the campaign, both on and off the pitch. Not only has the Scot been pulling the strings in the heart of midfield, he has also become a vital cog in the workings of the unstoppable Fulham machine. No wonder, then, Tigana calls him "my special player".

"I don't know if you can call me special," Collins said at the training ground last week. "It's simply that I know what Jean expects. I'm familiar with his methods and, most importantly, I know they work. That's why I decided to leave Everton and the Premiership to join Fulham. I was moving down a division, but I just felt this was a case of taking one step back to take two steps forward. To be honest, I wouldn't have come had it not been for Jean."

Tigana signed Collins once before, in the summer of 1996, when the Frenchman was in charge of Monaco. Collins says he learned more in those two years than he had in the previous 13 of his professional career. "What Jean has done here is what he's always advocated," Collins explained. "He asks the players to play simple football. What we're doing is not complicated. We're passing the ball quickly and moving. Of course, in order to do that well you have to be fit and sharp, and that's why we work very hard on the training ground. It's all precision training; nothing is left to chance."

Collins added: "A lot of coaches in this country think that if you train lots then the players will be fit, but that's not necessarily the case. What we do at Fulham is not too much, but not too little. It's a science. Players have been taught how to stretch properly, what dieting really means, what they should drink, how their muscles work. Everything is done for a reason, it's not just done to kill time. I've seen both sides [British and French] and I'm in no doubt as to which is the better system.

"I feel fitter at 34 than I ever have. I'm better now, both physically and mentally, than I can remember. There's no doubt that the things I learned from Jean have extended my career."

Tigana's rapid revolution has been aided by two other experienced Frenchmen. Roger Propos, who worked at Marseille during their golden era of the late Eighties and early Nineties, is responsible for fitness, while Christian Damiano, once of the respected French Football Federation, focuses on technique. This leaves Tigana to concentrate on tactics and Collins to work on his translation skills. "I've been acting as an interpreter," said the Scot, who speaks fluent French and has helped Tigana settle in. "If players aren't sure what one of the coaches meant, I can help.

"There's undoubtedly been a massive change in the way things are done here. It can be a bit of a culture shock, but I'm in no doubt that all the players have got the opportunity of a lifetime to learn everything they will ever need. I've told them. That's why if one of them has a moan I am here to say, 'Try it, it will benefit you like it has me and others.'"

Damiano was France's assistant coach last season, chief scout for the former French manager Aimé Jacquet, and has been one of the key figures in the Federation's youthdevelopment over the past decade. During his time at the national training centre at Clairefontaine, Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, David Trézé-guet and Lilian Thuram all passed through his hands.

"We took Anelka and Henry when they were 13 and they already had good balance and co-ordination," Damiano said. "But they were with us before they had bad habits. That's the key. The way we improved them was by concentrating on technique and repeating exercises many times. Here, at Fulham, Jean and I are applying exactly the same philosophy and methods of work."

Collins has been pleased, rather than astonished, by Fulham's performances. The confidence which Tigana enjoys from the players has helped, but the club's success has firm roots as well. "It's gone better than I could have hoped," he said. "But it doesn't surprise me. Jean wants everyone to participate in the game. He never tells defenders, 'Clear your lines' or 'Don't take chances'. Jean expects everybody to take responsibility but enjoy themselves at the same time. That's the way it should be. I wish all coaches thought like that, but too few of them have that football education."

Tigana's message has been well received at Craven Cottage. Defenders have looked comfortable in possession and the movement of the front men has, at times, been exceptional. "People who suggested that you could not play good, attractive football and survive in the First Division didn't know what they were talking about. The majority of teams that have been promoted to the Premiership in recent years, are the passing ones like Ipswich, or Charlton. No doubt some teams will try to knock us off our stride by playing a rougher game but we're determined not to change our ways."

One such team are today's visitors, Barnsley. No club managed by Dave Basset is ever a soft touch and they will be a serious test of Tigana's new methods. "Last season, Barnsley came to Fulham and won 3-1," Collins said.

"The team never really recovered from that defeat. This year, though, we are totally prepared. We're confident we can beat any team by playing our brand of football."

Tigana's Fulham are now just two wins away from equalling the club record of six straight League victories, which Bedford Jezzard's team achieved in the 1958-59 season. That campaign also culminated in Fulham's last promotion to the top flight. "It's about time we updated the records," Collins said.

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