Wayne Bridge has a simple message to his Chelsea team-mates who will visit Craven Cottage tomorrow: they do not need the three points. At Fulham, the club he joined on loan in January, the situation is very different - eight points above the relegation zone, they need every last point they can get. "Chelsea have won the Premiership already. I don't think anyone will catch them," Bridge says. "So one slip-up won't mean much."
It is a theory he explains with a grin and he knows that there will be some stick in store for him when he pops in to visit the away dressing-room after the match, whatever the result. Bridge's good humour has had to be in plentiful supply over the past 12 months in which his career with Chelsea and England has stalled over a serious injury and complications in his comeback. He is fit now and his mood is defiant: he intends to keep Fulham in the Premiership and join England in the World Cup finals in June.
After six games at Fulham, however, he will be put on hold for this weekend. The loan agreement with Chelsea means that Fulham cannot play their first-choice left-back tomorrow but the meeting between his new team-mates and the Jose Mourinho project he has temporarily left behind is the perfect opportunity to reflect on a year spent in the shadow of an injury sustained at Newcastle on 20 February 2005. When Bridge was examined in the aftermath of his collision with Alan Shearer he was told that it was possible he would never play again.
That would explain why, despite the frustration of being unable to play tomorrow, he is chirpy and positive now that he is fit at last. How do you beat Chelsea? "Buy the Barcelona team," Bridge fires back. He knows just how good Mourinho's team has become - he was an integral part of it up until February last year - but he has great respect for the Fulham side he has joined - a club where, despite the failure to win away all season, he says there an enduring support among the players for the manager, Chris Coleman.
"It's hard to play Chelsea because they have so many players who can create things one-on-one, beat players, shoot from distance - they can do everything," he says. "It's a matter of being on your game from the whistle to the end. It will be difficult but I have seen Fulham play Chelsea the last few times and even at Stamford Bridge this season Fulham did really well and deserved something.
"Away from home maybe we need to change the way we play. Cookie [Coleman] tries everything - it must be so frustrating for him to see his team lose away from home. It's got to change. You can't go all season without winning away from home. It's a difficult period coming up but I am sure the lads can get some points out of the games. They need to for Cookie.
"Chelsea are definitely not unbeatable but they are an amazing team. Fulham won't be thinking, 'We're going to lose'; the lads have got to be positive and think, 'We've got to get amongst them and try to get something'. I like to play every game and I would like to play this game now because I have been injured [for England on 1 March] and I have only started to get my sharpness back. I was starting to feel at my peak again so to miss out is even more disappointing."
At 25, Bridge has spent so much of the past year out that missing a single game hurts. The injury sustained against Newcastle was desperate: a broken fibula bone beneath the knee in his left leg, ripped knee ligament, a break to his ankle and some dislocation. The surgeon told him that he would have to wait a few days for the swelling to calm before he could operate - and his prognosis was bad. Bridge smiles at the memory of the surgeon's next line. "He said I might struggle to return to football but on the positive side he said he thought he was a really good surgeon and he could get me back."
Even Bridge is prepared to admit that "the first couple of days were quite dark" but after the operation there were a steady stream of visitors to the hospital. Not just his parents and girlfriend, his team-mates came with the Carling Cup, the back-room staff visited and Mourinho, too. When he was well enough to return home, Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich, even came round to check on his progress.
Before he sustained the injury, Mourinho had told him that he was in the team to play Barcelona in the first leg of last season's Champions' League tie, and the irony is that had he not gone on loan to Fulham in January he may well have played this season's second leg at the Nou Camp. But life at Chelsea changes very quickly, even for an England international, and by mid-January Bridge had played just twice, in the FA Cup and Carling Cup, all season. A virus prevented him making a Premiership return over new year and by the time he was fit again his chances seemed to have vanished.
"The first half of the season I was having a lot of problems with my ankle and my foot so it was difficult for the gaffer to play me but even when I started to feel good towards December and January it didn't look like I was going to play," Bridge says. "I went to see him [Mourinho] a few times and he wouldn't let me go. He said he wanted me here. Eventually, I told him how I felt and he was willing to let me go - which was very good of him.
"I went to speak to him and I felt I needed to get it off my chest that I wanted to play every week. I said I needed to do it for myself because I found it so hard training every day and not getting to play. I needed to do it to get my fitness back. He's always said to me, 'It's for a loan spell and we want you back in the summer for next season'. We will have to see what happens when I go back."
There is clearly a great deal of gratitude from Bridge to Mourinho for allowing him to leave on loan - the Chelsea manager could not have expected to have recently found himself so short of cover in the left-back position. Bridge is philosophical about the future. He says that he was "sad" to leave but has enjoyed life at Fulham more than he expected. "If I have to leave Chelsea I have to leave," he adds. "It's one of those things as a footballer that you have to accept and hopefully there will be someone out there who wants me."
That Chelsea paid Athletic Bilbao £8m in the summer for Asier Del Horno does not deter Bridge and the Spanish international has had to learn that a big transfer fee does not guarantee a regular first-team place. "I just feel if I didn't have the injury I would still be there playing but I have the ability to come back and play there again," Bridge says. "It's for them to make the decision at the end of the season.
"I feel I can make it [left-back] my own, but I don't know what is going to happen. I might go back at the end of the season and they might not want me. They have said that they want me but things can always change. Willy [Gallas] has been playing there, he can play anywhere. Del [Horno] did well when he first came in. He's not playing a lot now, not getting a look in."
In the meantime there has been one more injury to contend with, and when it came there were those who feared the worst. Bridge was flipped upside-down when he and the goalkeeper Paul Robinson collided after 30 minutes of England's friendly against Uruguay on 1 March and it was the left-back who failed to get up. Carried off little more than a year since his previous injury he was diagnosed with, he says, "just a little tweak to the ligaments" of his right ankle that ruled him out of two Fulham games.
"I knew I hadn't broken it because I had known immediately that something was broken the year before," he says. "We watched the landing on freeze frame the next day and it looked quite bad [a backwards somersault] but it was actually the first contact. I was hoping it would settle down and three days later I was walking fine."
Bridge was recalled into Sven Goran Eriksson's squad for the Argentina match in November almost as soon as he had made his comeback for Chelsea and he retains a great loyalty to the England manager who leaves after the World Cup finals this summer. Bridge says that he has been touched by the faith placed in him by the Swede - who, with Ashley Cole out virtually all season, has been woefully short of left-backs. "I will be sad to see him go," Bridge says. "Especially because the next one might not like me!"
It was, Bridge says, a surprise to be called back for the game in November - so much so that he had to cut short a holiday with his girlfriend in Italy. Eriksson gave him his debut against the Netherlands in February 2002 and even now there is a touch of wonder about Bridge at how those 30 minutes in the Amsterdam ArenA was the launch pad for a place in the World Cup finals squad later that year.
"He's done well for England, he has given me my chance and I owe him for that," Bridge says. "It has been fantastic of him to stick with me through these difficult times. He spoke to me when I was injured and asked me how I was. He told me to keep my head up and that I would be back soon enough. I do owe him a lot and I admire him."
If Eriksson can play his first-choice XI in Germany this summer then Bridge, if selected for the squad, knows that he will spend his time in England's Black Forest hotel contemplating life as reserve. He is generous about Cole - "fantastic at Euro 2004, one of our best players" - given that he almost lost his Chelsea place to the same man and says that to "keep myself sane [at the World Cup] I won't think about playing too much".
"If it comes, it comes. I went to the World Cup and I played about 20 minutes, went to the Euros and didn't play at all," he says. "It is frustrating but you can't allow yourself to think about it too much. Just accept that if you have 10 minutes you do the best you can. Not to play is frustrating, and I don't accept it, but I do the best I can to try to play. There's no point screaming and shouting at the manager. Ashley did so well at the Euros and the World Cup.
"There's always a chance if he [Cole] picks up more injuries - and touch wood he doesn't - I might play. It's a bit difficult and frustrating. If he plays in the last few games then he will be going. Hopefully, we can both do well out there. I don't know if I am going to go, I would hope to. It's difficult when you have both left-backs out but now I shouldn't have any more problems."
The priority now, Bridge says, is moving Fulham away from danger. The spirit there, he says, is impressive and the clash between the team-mates Moritz Volz and Zat Knight during the 4-0 defeat to Arsenal at Craven Cottage was just a sign that they cared. "When you are losing it is frustrating for every player so it is good for them to get it off their chest rather than just keep it locked in," Bridge says. "I think the gaffer spoke to them next day and said, 'Go for it, get the boxing gloves on'.
"Obviously they never did but the manager just broke the ice, everything is fine now. The manager is amazing. He's great with the lads and everyone likes him. The team spirit has been great ever since I have been here. From the first day they have made it easy for me to settle in. Everyone gets on so well, there is no bitchiness. I didn't expect the team spirit to be so good. I was amazed by the way everyone got on."
Some might argue that Bridge is at last due some luck, and a Fulham win tomorrow followed by Premiership survival and an injury-free run to June would suit him perfectly. It might also be enough to persuade Mourinho to bring his loyal English left-back in from the cold once the summer is over.Reuse content