In west London's theatre of the absurd, the curtain has risen once more. The scene-shifters have done their work, a new director has been appointed, and he has transformed the cast list once again. But thus far, no apparent alteration to a familiar storyline at Craven Cottage. Nor the anticipated denouement of despair.
To begin with the negatives. No Premier League away victory since 9 September 2006; that triumph against Newcastle their sole success last season, when they finished in 17th place, a point above relegated Sheffield United. Two victories in total this season; and neither under Roy Hodgson, the third manager Fulham followers have witnessed in charge of their club in nine months, in which a total of 22 players have been recruited.
With Fulham required to win at least half of their remaining 14 games to secure the trad-itional survival total of 38 points, there are few positives. Except the magnitude of Hodgson's experience, and even he is scarcely overburdened with faith. "I'm still confident we can work hard enough to take ourselves out of it," he says, after training on Friday at Fulham's Motspur Park base. "But I'm not making promises, and I don't want to say anything that will have people walking away from here saying, 'He's dreaming'. We know the enormity of the task in front of us."
Hodgson's transfer-window trading has added seven players to the squad bequeathed by his predecessor, Lawrie Sanchez, though you could add a further two "new" players to that tally. Jimmy Bullard has just returned from long-term injury and Brian McBride is due to follow him back into contention. "You have two choices if you're confrontedwith a difficult job," reflects Hodgson. "You can walk away from it because you're frightened you might fail and accept another option that on paper looks more comfortable – or take the job on, and risk failure. I chose the latter option.
"When a club changes manager midway through a season, it's because they feel something is not going right at the club," he adds. "The manager always shoulders the blame, but it could be that the reasons go a bit deeper than that. You come in knowing that your task is not going to be an easy one."
Still, it was put to him, at least a man of his broad spectrum of experience won't be touched by the pressures of football management? "Of course you've seen a lot more than the guy just starting out," says the 60-year-old. "But when you're still involved at the top of the game after reaching the age that I, and some of my more famous colleagues, have, I don't think any of us would say that, no, you don't feel the stress, and you don't have problems any more, or that you don't worry quite so much about bad performances and bad results. I think we do. It's the nature of the job. It's highs and lows. One would think that age and experience would help you – but I'm not so certain that it does to a great extent."
His problems would be eased if he manages to persuade Fifa that Daniel Cousin can join the club from Rangers. A £3 million deal for the 30-year-old Gabon striker had been concluded with the Glasgow club, but rules say players cannot appear for three different clubs in the same season, and Cousin played 20 minutes of a French league match before joining Rangers from Lens in August. Hodgson hopes that, in these circumstances, the ruling can be overturned.
It is expected a decision will be made by Fifa next week. "It would help us, and the player," says Hodgson. "It's not going to be an easy ride for him if he's sent back to Rangers. I believe there is a meeting about player status in 10 days' time, at the end of the African Nations Cup. If we get him, our transfer campaign in this window would have been a good one. Cousin would be a very good addition to our group of players. With him, we'll have an even better chance. Without him, we'll just get on with it."
Sanchez persuaded Fulham's chairman, Mohamed al-Fayed to spend £24m in the summer (albeit with some money recouped from sales) after taking over from Chris Coleman in May. The spending of Hodgson, the former Blackburn manager and nomad of world football, on what he describes diplomat-ically as "changing the profile of the squad" – he refuses to criticise Sanchez's buys – has been more modest, at £8.6m.
He has looked particularly towards Scandinavia, lands with which he is highly familiar. His acquisitions include the former Liverpool and Barcelona strikerJari Litmanen. The 36-year-old was Hodgson's captain of the Finland side who narrowly failed to qualify for Euro 2008.
But Litmanen is not yet match-fit. Even when he is, there is no certainty that he and the other new faces, who include Leon Andreasen, Brede Hangeland, Erik Nevland, Eddie Johnson and Paul Stalteri, can be assimilated swiftly enough.
"Whether we can be sure they'll all gel and be a unit by mid-February, I can't say," concedes Hodgson. "But we've got to make the best of what we've got. Time is against us."
Hibernian v Rangers: Scottish Cup, 12pm, Sky Sports 2
Newcastle v Middlesbrough: Premier League, 1.30pm, Sky Sports 1
Fulham v Aston Villa: Premier League, 4pm, Sky Sports 1
Ghana v Nigeria: African Nations Cup, 5pm, Eurosport 1
Ivory Coast v Guinea: African Nations Cup, 8.30pm, Eurosport 1
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