Gloom in the east, doom in the west. Or, to put it another way, a couple of ‘hams’ in a pickle. This afternoon Fulham cross the capital to take on West Ham at Upton Park in what has become a time of anxious uncertainty for both. There is one sure thing about Saturday, though: by tea-time one side will have been booed off.
The mood among the supporters of both London clubs is not one of sweetness and light, and one set, possibly even both, will be glummer by full time. Fulham begin the day below the relegation line, West Ham above it only by dint of a superior goal difference. The loser will be in the bottom three. Last time out Fulham were jeered off amid calls for the head of manager Martin Jol, after losing at home to Swansea. Later that day West Ham were run horribly ragged on their own turf by Chelsea.
Their manager Sam Allardyce is secure, at least for the moment. Jol on the other hand accepts that if he does not conjure up points from somewhere, and quickly, his future at Fulham is grim. Last weekend was a particularly dire one for the Dutchman. Swansea scored 10 minutes from the end and the catcalls made for painful listening as he headed for the dressing room.
“It’s unpleasant but it is part of our job, a big part,” said Jol. “You can be in heaven one moment and two weeks later you get all the criticism. You have to get used to it.”
At first on Friday Jol shrugged off talk of the personal pressure on him, pointing to his years of experience in top-flight football, “600-700 games”, he said, as a player and a manager. He spoke about respecting supporters’ views and how “after 12 hours” he became determined to bounce back. But it still hurts for those first 12 hours? Jol sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. “Yes,” he said.
Once, when under pressure at Tottenham, Jol gave a colourful interview to Match of the Day in which he described how a cornered cat can produce a leap of surprise. In his time in English football, three years at Tottenham and now in his third season at Fulham, the Dutchman has garnered a reputation for being one of the more cheery presences on the touchline. Before taking the week’s final training session yesterday, it was put to him that he does not seem so jolly these days. “There is no reason to be jolly, OK,” he replied. “Maybe in a couple of weeks I will be ‘jolly good’ again but first we need wins. If you don’t win I am not very jolly. Jolly? Is that the right word?”
He was assured it was. Five straight defeats and discord in the stands is not a recipe for jollity – especially when watched over by a new owner, and it does not usually take much for a new owner to want a new man in the dugout.
Shahid Khan, the US-based, Pakistani-born car-parts tycoon, bought Fulham in the summer. With his long hair and impresario-esque moustache, Khan exudes flamboyance but his early months at the club have been anything but. He has spoken of respecting the club’s history, has backed Jol’s limited spending, and there will be more spent in January. There are plans to expand the ground to 30,000 and, says Khan, become a top-10 club. It may appear a modest aim but right now anyone at Craven Cottage would settle for that.
Khan speaks daily to the club’s chief executive, Alistair Mackintosh, and regularly to Jol. The manager accepts his future is at immediate risk. “If I were on the board now I would be worrying,” said Jol.
One piece of good news is the probable return of defender Brede Hangeland, who failed to reappear for the second half of Fulham’s last win, at Crystal Palace in October, and has not been seen since. Less certain to appear this afternoon is Dimitar Berbatov who has been ill. His goal return has been sickly this season; he has more yellow cards than league goals. On Friday the lack of goals and the number conceded from set pieces were a regular theme for Jol.
Rene Meulensteen’s arrival to assist Jol a couple of weeks ago is designed to address that, and some say provide a house-trained replacement for the incumbent. That Khan has long promised his manager more coaching help and that Jol himself was crucial in persuading his compatriot to take on another assistant’s role might suggest otherwise. Jol insists it is going “very, very well” with Meulensteen. But ask Allardyce how quickly things can change.
It was this time three years ago that Allardyce parted company with Blackburn out of the blue. He is safe for the moment at Upton Park, although the need for West Ham to be in the Premier League come moving day to the Olympic Stadium is paramount.
It is a big day, a big week for both men and one that needs a capital return for both – in midweek Fulham face Tottenham, West Ham take on Palace. “None of us expected to be where we are at this stage, but the league table tells the story,” said Allardyce. “Performances are OK, but it’s all about results. It’s the precious three points you’re searching for, that’s what makes the difference.”
It could make a very big difference for Jol. “It’s nothing about me, it’s about us,” he insisted. “I always talk about us. It is a big week because if we win two games we will be fine.”