Coleman's manic month: 'I'll be a better manager'

FA Cup fourth round: Fulham's fledgling leader must lift himself and his players after his star striker's departure
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The Independent Football

Leeds, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Newcastle; Fulham and their travelling supporters are becoming used to some long, dispiriting journeys home with another defeat to mull over. Returning from Tyneside after a 3-1 reverse last Monday was made more miserable by the knowledge that on the same day Manchester United ("there'll be no increase in the offer") had upped the ante by 50 per cent and got their man in Louis Saha.

Suddenly Fulham, deep in debt and needing funds to return to Craven Cottage, began to have the feel of a selling club again, rather than one whose followers were apt to drive away from places like Grimsby waving tenners out of the window and chanting: "You'll never play us again".

There was a certain amount of gloom around the place, which Chris Coleman, the Premiership's least experienced manager, knew he had to dispel quickly ahead of the FA Cup tie this afternoon at Everton, another venue where his team have tasted defeat this season. "Our away form is poor and we need to get that back to what it was," he said. "We've got a very poor record at Everton too, and this is a good chance to go there and turn it round. I've got a good bunch of professional players and they'll get on with the job. We'll close ranks and prove we're not a one-man team, go to Everton and put up a better show than we did at Newcastle."

Having seen the way the wind was blowing, he moved quickly to spend £600,000 on a replacement for Saha in the American international Brian McBride, who played eight games for today's opponents at this time last year, scoring four times and impressing as a quick and lively striker.

McBride's work permit has not come through yet - Fulham clearly needed one of those agents who facilitated Tim Howard's for United - so Barry Hayles may bear the burden of being the lone central attacker, required to hold the ball up before being supported by two wide players. Coleman believes in the system and will be reluctant to abandon it just because Saha has gone: "People have called it a defensive formation, but we've scored a lot of goals and conceded a lot. If we start to struggle, I'll change it, but at the minute it's the best one for us."

He is right to be more concerned about a defence that against Newcastle looked petrified at set-pieces and has now conceded more goals (32) than almost anyone except the relegation candidates. The strapping Ian Pearce has been recruited from West Ham in exchange for veteran Andy Melville, but is unavailable to counter the threat of a marauding Duncan Ferguson, whose qualities Coleman knows about at first hand.

A physical battle is expected, not least because of bad feeling left over from a brawl between the teams two seasons ago, when Luis Boa Morte had a red card rescinded after being sent off along with David Weir. The Portuguese winger has not been forgiven, as Everton supporters made clear by throwing a cigarette lighter and coins at him during their team's 2-1 defeat at Loftus Road a fortnight ago.

"It doesn't bother me," Boa Morte insists, with the smile and insouciant air of a man rarely bothered by anything. The loss of the club's leading goalscorer? "Louis Saha has gone, this happens. Every club loses a player. We'll have to do without him and not think about him until 28 February [when United visit Fulham]". But isn't English football becoming like his native Portugal, with three teams dominating the rest? "I don't think so. There are massive clubs, much bigger than Fulham, but they have different targets. You have Charlton and Fulham, who are not that big, plus Newcastle and Liverpool. The FA Cup is a different story. The top clubs have dominated but Southampton reached the final last year."

Fulham were semi-finalists the year before that, eliminated by John Terry's scrambled goal at Villa Park, and Coleman believes: "Although the Premiership and staying in it is the priority for us, the further you go in the Cup instils confidence." It is a quality the west London side may just be a little short of at present, though what many may not know is that statistically this could be described as the most successful season in the history of a club who began life as a Sunday-school team in 1879. Astonishingly, Fulham have only once in the ensuing 125 years managed to finish in the top half of the top division. That occurred in 1959-60, when the great Johnny Haynes was for once spared a relegation struggle and the team staggered up to 10th place, despite conceding 80 goals.

This time, they have touched the heights of a Champions' League position after winning at Old Trafford and drawing at Highbury in quick succession, and still hold seventh place despite a run of five defeats in seven Premiership matches. It is a testing time none the less for Coleman, a fledgling manager more at home on the training ground than dealing with agents, contracts and the hurly-burly of the transfer window. "I've only been a manager this season and I don't know what it was like when there wasn't a window," he says, "but I hope it wasn't as manic as this. Once it kicks off it really is manic, and I'm not going to lie to you, this has been a hard period. But after this month is over, I think I'll be a better manager for the experience - just being in that situation, fighting to hang on to one of your players, waking up to something different being said in the newspaper every morning, whoever it's by.

"You get sick of it in the end. A lot of agents I don't enjoy dealing with, they're not my favourite people. They're not all bad, there are one or two good ones." (That many?) "But that's all part and parcel of the job."

Nine months after he was asked to take over from the disenchanted Jean Tigana, it is an achievement still to be in it.