Premiership Preview–16. Fulham
Fulham’s “Great Escape” was one of the best stories of the ’07-’08 Premiership season. The Cottagers looked down and out so many times, so close to the end of the year, but a shocking 3-2 come-from-behind victory at Manchester City was the first of three consecutive triumphs and the second of four in five games that vaulted Fulham from certain relegation to safety for another year. Master midfield playmaker and set-piece taker extraordinare Jimmy Bullard, American target man Brian McBride, and manager Roy Hodgson worked their magic in West London, and while McBride has come home to Chicago to play in MLS, the other two remain.
No Premiership club has been as active this summer as Fulham. Eight players have come to Craven Cottage so far while 14 others have packed their bags and headed elsewhere, either through release or transfer. The player movement has been overwhelmingly positive for Fulham; they’ve acquired no fewer than three starters — goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer from Middlesbrough and striker Bobby Zamora will certainly feature, and either John Paintsil (West Ham) or Fredrik Stoor (Rosenborg) will play right back — and lost just one in McBride. They’ve also added some quality midfield depth in Andranik Teymourian from Bolton and Zoltán Gera from West Brom just in case the injury-prone Bullard goes down again. When I say no one of importance or Premiership ability has left (except McBride and perhaps Kasey Keller), I mean no one. Hodgson has gotten rid of the dead weight to make this a more complete, sturdy team.
The midfield group carried Fulham to safety on its collective back. The previously-mentioned Bullard is the team’s on and off-field leader, even though center back Brede Hangeland wears the captain’s armband, as well as a terrific player right in the center of the pitch. Clint Dempsey has the highest work rate on the team and can run all day from any midfield position or up front, Simon Davies brings much-needed pace and crossing ability to the right wing, and Danny Murphy’s high-level experience from his days at Liverpool, cool demeanor, and propensity for clutch play can’t be undervalued. There is solid depth here now too; not just Andranik and Gera, but Leon Andreasen and Alexey Smertin when the latter is healthy. The only thing lacking is an out-and-out left winger, and the group as a whole doesn’t have much speed.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
CB: Hangeland (captain)
CB: Aaron Hughes
LB: Paul Konchesky
ST: Andy Johnson
Last year was a disppointing one for Fulham at home, where they went just 5-5-9 after a 7-7-5 campaign in ’06-’07 and an impressive 13-2-4 the year before. Craven Cottage is a more difficult environment to play in for visitors than that 5-5-9 shows, so especially with a better team this go-around, expect Fulham to be closer to somewhere in between those other two records. Even if they don’t play well at all on the road, a better mark at home will keep Fulham in the Premiership for another year.
The first month of the season brings back-to-back games against Arsenal and at Manchester United, but before those fixtures lies opening day at Hull City. We saw lowly Derby outplay Portsmouth and be unfortunate to only get a draw when those two squared off at Pride Park to kickoff the ’07-’08 season, so Fulham will need to be wary against Hull.
October is a manageable month; the Cottagers should take six points against Sunderland and Wigan at home and possibly steal another victory at West Brom or Portsouth.
November brings the most difficult run of games of the season with Everton, Liverpool, and Aston Villa all away, with Newcastle and Spurs at home after the Everton match.
Christmas and New Year’s will be celebrated in style in London as Fulham hosts Chelsea in the West London Derby on December 28, just two days after a trip to North London rivals Tottenham.
To finish out the year, Fulham has four difficult games and would love to have secured safety already. They’re not going to get much, if anything, at Chelsea or Newcastle, and it’ll be just as tough against Villa and Everton at home.
Bottom Line: It’s no secret that Roy Hodgson is not a master tactician or specialist with the X’s and O’s, but he’s a good motivator and the players love working for him. He should be able to coax enough out of this roster, one that he’s clearly strengthened this summer, to stay in the Premiership, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Fulham was able to sneak up a spot or two in the table. After the way they finished last year, nothing is impossible.