Five points separate the bottom half of the Premier League. The fear spreads, from the East Riding to South Wales and the North East, and settles across the compass in the capital. Fulham are among those preoccupied by the eternal pursuit of positives.
An inoffensive club, friendly and reassuringly old fashioned, lies on the edge of the relegation zone after a predictably honourable defeat. They conceded only two goals and prompted new manager Rene Meulensteen to speak confidently of survival.
“This will be the most exciting League for many years,” he predicted. “There are so many teams involved. One win can get you up the table, but not necessarily out of problems. Our spirit is very good, and there is plenty of quality there. We can stay up, without a shadow of a doubt.”
Fulham would be missed if such optimism is misplaced. Their heroes are homespun, endearingly eccentric. This is an institution defined by the legendary Tosh Chamberlain, a late-vintage George Best and an unlamented statue of Michael Jackson.
New owner Shahid Khan, possessor of a comedy moustache and an NFL franchise which is the butt of jokes from Alabama to Wyoming, should fit right in. But, as a refugee from a world without relegation, he is in uncharted territory.
His concerns about the need for sustainability and assumptions of his generosity are ominous. Fulham are in Chelsea’s shadow, but QPR, gambling on Premier League football filling a new ground, and Brentford, progressive and promotion-chasing, are emerging forces in West London.
For all his theatrical benevolence, Mohamed Al-Fayed oversaw an era of cosy stagnation at Craven Cottage. The result is an ageing squad and a club at odds with itself. Internal murmuring about the failure to integrate Academy products reflects underlying problems.
Emerging players, like Moussa Dembélé and Lasse Vigen Christensen, were not even risked on the bench yesterday. Meulensteen picked a team of old lags, notable for the ineffectiveness of Clint Dempsey, whose busman’s holiday from Major League Soccer has been underwhelming.
Meulensteen’s pedigree as a coach may have gained the respect of pivotal players like Scott Parker, but the influence of the newly employed Alan Curbishley and Ray Wilkins remains indistinct.
Wilkins intermittently left his seat to join Meulensteen in a technical area two-step. The Dutchman did not move from the right-hand side of his box, but occasionally dipped a shoulder to listen to his assistant.
They were understandably satisfied with the way the match idled, after a dominant start by the home side prompted the more fatalistic Fulham fans to chant “ole” whenever their side enjoyed a spasm of possession.
Fulham funnelled nine men behind the ball and profited from Arsenal’s reluctance to move it at a telling tempo. They were kept in contention by the reactions of goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, until he was beaten twice in five minutes by Santi Cazorla. With goal difference likely to prove important in the scramble for survival, they were grateful for another stunning save, which turned a Lukas Podolski drive against the upright.
Fulham must look beyond a routine loss and use this window to buy time to enable them to complete a shift in philosophy. The focus of their recruitment strategy has changed, from loans and experienced free transfers to young players with sell-on potential.
In the short term, they are unlikely to realise much equity. Dimitar Berbatov, their most obvious asset, had the haughty air of a dowager, disgusted at being denied due deference. His solitary effective contribution, a cameo of perfect control, set up a chance wasted by the heavy second touch of Alexander Kacaniklic.
The team lacked the dynamism and creativity Meulensteen has identified in Ravel Morrison, much to West Ham’s disgust. Whatever the merits of that all-too-familiar argument about alleged tapping up, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Lilywhites to get their hands a little dirty.
They have increased their offer for Liam Moore, the young Leicester defender, to £3million, but Meulensteen was heartened by Dan Burn’s promising Premier League debut. “It was a massive test of his ability and character,” he said. “The boy has a bright future in the game.”
Whether Fulham’s future is as bright, remains to be seen. Fear underpins a definitive test of nerve in which the consequences of failure do not bear thinking about.