Fulham – too French to conquer England

Tigana needs to adapt to thrive, but Alex Hayes says he may be looking past the Premiership
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Say it quietly, but there are signs that the French football revolution is reaching its natural conclusion. For years we have been preached the virtues of France's training and playing methods, believing that our Gallic friends were perfect specimens who could do no wrong. Yet recent events, both on and off the field, suggest otherwise. Leaving aside the news that Luton Town's winger Jean-Louis Valois spent a night behind bars following a nightclub brawl (yes, young Frenchmen can be thugs too), it is the rapid demise of Jean Tigana's Fulham side that is raising most eyebrows.

Back in August, the Premiership new boys were being touted as potential Uefa Cup qualifiers – and the latest incarnation of the masterful French system. Today, they stand with one foot on the relegation trap-door facing a tough, but crucial, visit to Newcastle tomorrow night. These last nine months have seen the slick and sophisticated Cottagers turn into an anxious and ordinary team. Gone are the simple yet devastating passes; and gone, too, are the goals from all angles and players.

Perhaps the single most worrying aspect of their current plight is that Fulham look not only out of their depth but also out of their natural habitat. As the season has progressed, it has become increasingly apparent that they are, for all intents and purposes, a French League side operating in England. By the same token, it is now clear that such a team can have only limited success in the Premiership. Even the club's assistant manager, Christian Damiano, admitted as much after Fulham's 1-0 home defeat by West Ham on Easter Monday. "We have arrived in the top level of football, perhaps in the world," the Frenchman said, "and every week there are big and tricky matches for our players. It is possible for us to remain in the Premier League, but we have players who are less experienced than their opponents."

The French system was the brainchild of George Boulogne, who believed that young players needed to be given a complete football education at an early age. Today, the INF (Institut National de Football) is run by Claude Dusseau. He believes that Boulogne sought to create footballers, not a style that was applicable to any domestic league. "The whole point of our plan," the 61-year-old says, "was to bring France up to date and then, in the long term, perhaps help us lead the way. The idea was to draw up a playing and coaching charter that all players could adhere to. We have produced many players who can travel well, but not necessarily a versatile style of play."

In other words, Fulham can expect to make progress in the Premiership by buying good French players, not by trying to play à la Francaise. And herein lies their problem. Whereas Arsène Wenger has bought top-quality French internationals to supplement his English base, Tigana has signed mainly average Frenchmen to form the basis of his side. How many of his compatriots has Gérard Houllier brought to Liverpool? Two, if you ignore the juniors he has picked for the future. One is the World Cup winner Bernard Diomede, a left-winger who has never managed to establish himself; the other is Nicolas Anelka, a proven striker who is a wonderful luxury to have on loan until the end of the season.

Tigana, meanwhile, has filled the Fulham changing-room with relative unknowns. Only Lyon's young dynamo, Steed Malbranque, has been a resounding success. The same cannot be said of the other transfers, which include Alain Goma, Sylvain Legwinski, Louis Saha, as well as one of the Premiership's most expensive signings, Steve Marlet. The£11 million striker's return has been poor, nine goals in 27 appearances this season.

So far as the former Fulham and Newcastle striker Malcolm Macdonald is concerned, weak attacking play has been the key to the Cottagers' problems. "They've got to the stage where the goals have dried up," he says, "and people are falling over each other without even getting a shot in. It's a very difficult quandary to resolve."

Macdonald adds: "You can see that no one has any confidence in the front men. This means that the midfield over-elaborate and tend to pass the ball sideways a lot. They either fail to give it to the strikers or, when they do feed the forwards, they don't then support them. It's a vicious circle."

In periods of crisis, players tend to turn to their leader for inspiration and guidance. Tigana, though, appears to be as confused as his troops. Could the man being hailed as a managerial phenomenon just 12 months ago really be lost for options? His refusal to change his team's style of play would suggest he either genuinely believes that the system which has yielded one point from a possible 24 is right, in which case he is seeing something that few others are; or Tigana does not know how to alter the tactics, in which case he fooled everyone; or, and perhaps this is the most worrying suggestion, the former French international is too proud to admit he has got it wrong, in which case his mind may already be elsewhere.

Roger Lemerre, the French manager, is likely to retire after the World Cup this summer, and Tigana, who was offered the job when Aimé Jacquet stepped down four years ago but could not break his contract with Monaco at the time, is seen as the ideal candidate to rebuild an ageing team. But why, then, did he accept the Fulham challenge? As Michel Platini once told this journalist, Tigana simply could not turn down the financial deal offered to him by Mohamed Al Fayed.

For the next four weeks, starting at Newcastle tomorrow night, Tigana and his staff need to focus on the increasingly difficult job in hand. With Leicester and Derby where they are, there is one more seat left on the train to obscurity. Having spent more than £40m on players last summer, and with a new stadium in the pipeline, Fulham cannot afford to be aboard. Nor can Tigana. He is too proud for that.