Fulham ready to take another leap

The New Clubs: Recent history suggests Jean Tigana's men have the best chance of making a significant impact
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Outwardly Craven Cottage has not changed much since the club was last in the top flight; when a young Bobby Robson sat in the manager's dug-out, Tommy Trinder was chairman and the club was in the hands of Sir Eric Miller, a millionaire businessmen of dubious reputation.

The Cottage itself, where the exiled French emperor, Napoleon III spent his time fantasising about restoring past glories is still there, and so for football nostalgists is the terracing. Those Manchester United fans who have long campaigned for the return of 'safe standing areas' will look forward to their visit on 29 December, when it will be a surprise if Fulham are desperate for the points. The terracing will remain for one season only after which the club will have to ground share until the new Craven Cottage – minus Napoleon's old house – is complete.

Inwardly, however, Fulham are unrecognisable; Alan Smith, who was the club's chief scout before returning to manage Crystal Palace last season, said it was "run like a department of Harrods. If you are considered to be doing a good job, you will be well rewarded, but there is another side and it can be ruthless. On or off the field you have to perform or you will be out."

Jean Tigana, who manages his own vineyard in Cassis as well as this new force in English football, has seen to that. The discipline instilled by Tigana and allied to Mohammed Al Fayed's money should keep them safe. The general rule is that if you win promotion to the Premiership by a streak, you should survive. Newcastle, Sunderland and Charlton finished third, seventh and ninth, after romping into the top-flight. Yes, Bolton were relegated a year after collecting 98 points but on goal difference.

Tigana's signing of goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar from Juventus and full-back Jon Harley from Chelsea at a combined cost of £10.5m demonstrated he knew the defence had to be shored up, especially with captain Chris Coleman unlikely to play until April if he requires a further operation on a foot shattered in a car crash.

There are fewer worries about goalscoring, since they found the net 90 times in the First Division and Louis Saha and Luis Boa Morte scored precisely half of them. Both have tasted the Premiership before but without conspicuous success; Boa Morte's 22 league appearances for Arsenal and Southampton brought him one goal, and that against Watford. Saha briefly shone under Ruud Gullit at Newcastle, where they remember his dazzling individual effort to knock Blackburn out of the FA Cup, but in 11 league games there was just one goal and that against Coventry in a game they won 4-1. In any event there is always Al Fayed's money for a replacement.

They used to say that about Blackburn until the myth was exploded by relegation. Jack Walker is dead if not forgotten and Blackburn return to the Premiership an older, wiser club. When Graeme Souness took over from Brian Kidd, a man who had accused his players of heading for the lifeboats at the first sign of trouble, he talked of ending illusions of grandeur. The new faces he brought in; Henning Berg, Stig-Inge Bjornebye and Craig Hignett, were grafters and all had solid Premiership experience.

However, it is Blackburn's youngsters, like John Curtis, bought from Manchester United, and David Dunn, a product of the youth system, who are the club's greatest strength. Matt Jansen, who last season was voted the most talented player outside the Premiership, will now have the chance to show what he is capable of inside it.

"He can frustrate team-mates, managers and supporters because of the way he plays but all great players are like that," Souness remarked before adding with a note of seasoned caution: "I am not saying he is a great player but he has the potential to be." Souness believes his squad is of "reasonable quality" for the struggles to come and says that the aim is to make the club financially self-sufficient, which would be quite an achievement for an organisation that lost £15m last year. Somehow Jack's trust fund is not ready to be shut down just yet.

Bolton's losses were half of Fulham's and a quarter of Blackburn's but since the club has no benefactor, they have been hit hard. The historical statistics are equally grim. Bolton have not survived a season in the top flight since 1979, and since the Premiership came into being only Leicester and Ipswich of the teams that have come through the play-offs have lasted a season.

As Bolton were overhauled by Blackburn, their manager, Sam Allardyce, confessed to having sleepless nights: "I spend every moment wondering if I've done everything I can," he said. His track record at Blackpool, Notts County and now the Reebok stands up to close scrutiny and given his comparative lack of resources, few could argue he has not done his best. Allardyce is 13-8 to be sacked, although the board will be reluctant to let him go, partly because of his great services to the club but mainly because they will have to pay up a 10-year contract.

Last season he was forced to sell £11m worth of talent, including Eidur Gudjohnsen, Claus Jensen and Mark Fish and managed to steer the club through the notoriously difficult waters of the play-offs. In their place he has taken players from Silkeborg (Henrik Pedersen), Gillingham (Nicky Southall), Torino (Djibril Diawara) and Osaka (Akinori Nishizawa). The total cost is £650,000.

That, gentlemen, is how to wheel and deal.

Comments