Tigana remains a resolute free spirit

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The Independent Football

For Fulham's fans, today's high-profile match against Manchester United marks the happy end of a 33-year exile from the top flight. For Jean Tigana, however, this is just another game. Rather than put too much emphasis on the Old Trafford fixture, the Frenchman has instead earmarked two other dates which he believes will be key to Fulham's season. The first is their 10th Premiership match, against Southampton at Craven Cottage, by which time the manager feels he will know whether he needs to add any new players. The second is the 15th game, at home to Everton, when Tigana says he will have a clear idea of Fulham's Premiership fate.

Tigana's willingness to wait until deep into the season before drawing any conclusions, let alone sounding any alarm signals, goes some way to showing how much confidence he has in his players. He does not read the papers, but perhaps someone has told him that there are nine teams with shorter relegation odds – a first for a club making their Premiership debut. The Frenchman refuses to make any wild predictions about Fulham's chances, but neither will he settle for the favourite resting place of newly promoted teams, fourth from bottom.

"If you aim low, you can end up finishing even lower," Tigana says. "That's why you have to set reasonable targets. I don't expect miracles, but I do believe we can be challenging for a top 10 place. After that, anything is possible." One thing that is inconceivable, however, is for Tigana to let his players wallow in the success of the previous campaign. "We had a good season last year," he says, "when we dominated the First Division and made a lot of positive headlines, but that does not give us any advantage now. All that means nothing as soon as we kick off this afternoon."

While this season's venues will be different, the Fulham approach will be just the same. Despite the step up to the Premiership, Tigana is keen to employ the same methods which served the club so well in the Nationwide League. As a result, nutrition, fitness and coaching will continue to be monitored rigorously. "From very early on," says Tigana, who will again be assisted by his compatriots Roger Propos and Christian Damiano, "my players realised the need to be professional. Last season they followed the coaching staff's advice and saw what could be achieved, so I am sure everyone will have the same determination to progress."

Exactly how far Fulham have improved in the last 12 months will be evident by six o'clock this afternoon and Tigana insists that his players will not be daunted by the Old Trafford test. "We go there to play our usual attacking game," he says. "I have always encouraged my teams to play positive football and I'm not going to change just because we are facing the champions. We have absolutely nothing to lose against them so we might as well go out and express ourselves."

The last time one of Tigana's teams went to Old Trafford as underdogs, they returned with a victory which sent them into the Champions' League semi-finals. Playing for Monaco that day was John Collins, who rejoined his mentor at Fulham at the start of last season. Not surprisingly, the Scottish midfielder has fond memories of the match. "One of my most pleasurable nights in football," the 34-year-old says. "It was special."

Collins adds: "Today's match will be a different matter. It will tell us exactly where we are and how far we have to go. Some people say it's better playing them early in the season, but I don't think it matters. We're going to have to be at our best. A good performance won't do it; it will have to be a very, very good one."

Rather than sit on his First Division laurels, Tigana has sought to improve last year's winning squad. The capture of the Holland goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar, as well as the signing of the former Newcastle centre-back, Alain Goma, at the end of last season, have added much-needed solidity to the defence; particularly in light of Chris Coleman's season-long absence. In midfield, two of France's most promising youngsters, Steed Malbranque and Abdeslam Ouaddou, have been joined by the England Under-21 player Jon Harley. All three will add pace and options to the settled midfield quartet of Bjarne Goldbaek, Sean Davis, Lee Clark and Collins.

Significant, though, may be Tigana's so far unsuccessful attempts to find a top striker to play alongside the country's most prolific scorer, Louis Saha. Even the man who found the net on 32 occasions last season agrees he will need help against high-class Premiership defences. "I think it is very important for us to sign another striker," he says. "It's a long season and we're going to need as much experience as possible."

As ever, though, Tigana refuses to make any rushed buys. History suggests the Frenchman knows what he is doing. "Last season," he says, "most people said we did not have the right players to make it to the Premiership. We were told we could not pass our way out of the division. But we're here today and I can tell you we're here to stay."