Fulham will give muddling Rene Meulensteen longer to deliver on his Premier League saviour act
Manager keeps his job despite FA Cup defeat to League One side Sheffield United. Next up, a Premier League clash with Manchester United
It feels like a long time since the Fulham manager, Rene Meulensteen, was dishing out advice to David Moyes on how best to approach the task of succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. He said that he told the former Everton manager that he had gone "from a yacht to a cruise ship" and while the season has hardly been plain sailing for Moyes, it has been dreadful at times for Meulensteen.
The one-time United coach faces his former club on Sunday in the Premier League, with both in desperate need of a victory as they tackle their respective crises. Meulensteen has lost eight of the 11 Premier League games for which he has been in charge of Fulham since taking over in late November and the club are bottom of the table, with their 13-year stay in the top flight in peril.
The defeat at home to League One Sheffield United in the FA Cup fourth round on Tuesday night was a new low for the Dutch manager. Yet, as of this evening, Fulham were sanguine about their position. They say they are focused on the league and have been prepared to let the Cup result go. More importantly, the support from their American owner Shahid Khan has been unstinting despite the poor results.
When the daily call came in from Jacksonville, Florida, the centre of Khan's sports operations with his NFL franchise, the Jaguars, the Americans were reassured that the club believe they are ready to see off relegation.
The billionaire, who bought the club in July, is doubtless being told the story of the 2007-08 season, which is being recounted at Fulham as a means of reassurance as the club prepares itself for a relegation battle. That season they went into March with just 19 points, the same total they have now, and come the end of season survived – albeit taking 17th place on goal difference.
The management at Fulham believe that, critically, the run-in over the last two months of the season favours them. Before the end of next month they must play United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton, but the fixture list does look a lot kinder after that. In spite of Meulensteen's alarming record so far there appears to be no wavering of the faith placed in him.
Rene Meulensteen's side served up yet another poor performance on Tuesday (Getty)
The club are adamant that the appointments of Alan Curbishley as technical director and Ray Wilkins as assistant were made on Meulensteen's initiative. Curbishley gives the manager, he believes, a different perspective watching games from the stands and has the facility to communicate with the bench during the match. But he does not come into the dressing room at half-time and is not regarded as a potential replacement for Meulensteen.
There were some big decisions made in the transfer window, during which seven new players came in, although £12m record signing Kostas Mitroglou is yet to play for the club, as is Johnny Heitinga. Lewis Holtby has figured just in the defeat to Southampton. Dimitar Berbatov had scored more goals under Meulensteen than any other player save Steve Sidwell, but with no prospect of a new contract for the Bulgarian in the summer, he was allowed to leave for Monaco.
It was a big call, given what Berbatov is capable of on his best days and much expectation is now upon Mitroglou, who is not certain to make his debut at Old Trafford. The hope is that the Greece international, who has been injured, will have an immediate effect on Fulham's fortunes. It is worth noting that, by Sunday, Mitroglou will not have started a game for three weeks. His last goal for Olympiakos was on 10 November.
The margins are always fine when it comes to changing managers amid a relegation battle. Before appointing Meulensteen, first as Martin Jol's assistant, and then as Jol's replacement, Fulham did consider whether the then out-of-work Gus Poyet might be a better option. While they have fallen, Poyet's Sunderland are up to 14th and their recent 4-1 win at Craven Cottage was a major part of their revival.
When he was appointed, Meulensteen retained much of the sheen that one would expect of a man who had sat alongside Ferguson in the Old Trafford dugout for the previous six seasons. Like most of Ferguson's staff over the years, he had given precious few interviews beyond MUTV, which only added to the aura of the astute behind-the-scenes coach.
Yet the hard truth is that he took over with Fulham 18th in the table and has overseen a slip two places further down the league. He is at a club that has had a tradition of buying wisely and, in recent years, making huge strides with its academy. But the key to Fulham since they returned to the Premier League in 2001 has been their ability to survive without risking the house.
The club and their American owner have shown great faith in their largely unproven manager, with a January transfer window in which they believe they landed all their targets. Now it is up to Meulensteen to demonstrate that he is a capable manager in his own right. Since he left the security of life at United, the evidence for that has been rather thin.
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