Fulham decided to dispense with the usual introductory fanfare for Felix Magath. Since managers at Craven Cottage tend to be as disposable as plastic cutlery, there seemed little point in making a fuss about his first home match in charge. For Fulham fans, the outcome was then tiresomely familiar.
Germany’s first Premier League manager, who resembles a bespectacled and faintly bemused version of Bob Hoskins, was recognised by a minority in the Riverside Stand, who were rewarded by a bashful wave as he walked across the pitch from the dressing room.
The response when Magath returned, at the end of an attritional match in which both teams conformed to stereotype, was muted. The fact he had been overshadowed by a compatriot, Andre Schürrle, was merely fate playing a typically unkind trick. This is football’s forgotten derby, the Premier League’s equivalent of a bake-off between rival women’s institutes. It is all a little polite and prosaic and none the worse for that. Theatrical conflict has long since lost its novelty value.
The walk through the park and along the towpath to the old ground is a timeless ritual. Schoolgirls were selling cupcakes for charity in the spring sunshine; skateboaders represented the biggest threat to life and limb. The closest we got to a confrontational attitude was the playing of Elvis Costello’s “I don’t want to go to Chelsea” over the public address system.
If Jose Mourinho was sleepless in suburbia, Magath had to be wide awake and fully functioning. He has only 10 more matches in which to save Fulham and protect the remnants of his reputation.
Mourinho hailed him as “The Man” but the lack of respect he has encountered here is puzzling, given his pedigree as a player and as a coach who has won three Bundesliga titles.
He has a history of getting results quickly, largely through his faith in a work ethic which would be more recognisable on the opposite bank of the Thames from Craven Cottage, in the boathouses from which elite rowers emerge to do battle on the tideway.
Das Boot camp has yet to turn his players into hollow-cheeked, dead-eyed automatons, but the remorseless of Magath’s training regime is having an effect. Fulham pressed frantically, but once they fell behind they were too functional to respond effectively. The loss of their captain, Brede Hangeland, concussed in a collision with Kieran Richardson, served to expose Dan Burn, the young substitute.
“Magath has big experience,” said Mourinho, whose silence in the dressing room at half-time was uniquely eloquent. “He has no fear of the big situation. I imagine it will not be easy for him, but he has a lot to give his players.” The German has been scathing about his inheritance, a familiar ploy for any new manager, but one not without its merits. The decision to spend a fee of £12 million on Kostas Mitroglou, the Olympiakos striker, was compromised by his omission from yesterday’s squad because he is unprepared for the intensity of the English game.
Magath has no duty of care to young or homegrown players. It remains to be seen whether, in the longer term, he uses the products of a well-regarded Academy, but his decision summarily to discard the former Manchester United youngsters, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Larnell Cole, after a solitary training session does not augur well.
Magath has only an 18-month contract, is a firefighter by instinct and seems unconcerned by the human wreckage which lies in his wake. Desperate situations call for desperate measures. Fulham last won on New Year’s Day and they have collected just two points in the intervening eight games. That is relegation form by any reckoning.
Shahid Khan, the owner, writing in the programme, admitted he is aware that his decision to dismiss Rene Meulensteen after only 75 days appears “unconventional, unpopular or both”. He added: “I expected the scrutiny and know there will be more ahead. I accept this and welcome the responsibility, because the alternative was risking a non-stop slide in the table, in the hope that better results would occur in time to save our season.”
There are no overbearing cultural issues with a German manager. Fulham have, after all, used players of 21 different nationalities this season. They can run all day but their failure to defend adequately after the interval promises another arduous week on the training ground, before what looks like a pivotal visit to Cardiff next Saturday.
“I will remind them about defending every day,” said Magath. “I have seldom seen a goal like Chelsea’s first one. Schürrle was allowed to run without any contact. After we lost that goal we did not have the morale to come back. Our leader was not there.”
As he spoke, he played with his tea. The message on the label of his tea bag was rather poetic: “Everybody is alright really.” If only that was the case.