Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Hodgson’s Choice: Fulham’s Season 2008-09

Life is all about endings and beginnings; this is about two endings with a beginning in between.

In 2007-08, Fulham ended the season 17th in the Premier League with 36 points. They escaped 18th position via goal difference.
In 2008-09, Fulham ended the season 7th in the Premier League with 53 points. A number of club records were surpassed.

So, what spawned this revision? What elusive alchemy transpired?

Was it a squad of ringers? Were referees being bribed with chintzy timeshares in Magaluf? Had Paul McKenna and Derren Brown been deployed in a mind-bending double-whammy to bewitch Fulham's’ opponents?

To the casual onlooker this transformation must have appeared curious indeed.

It’s true that, furnished with hindsight, few ‘experts’ were slow in flipping their coins of praise into Fulham’s fountain. Admittedly, much of the credit emanated from the sheer unexpectedness of the feat but, nevertheless, the team were lauded, and Roy Hodgson was nominated by many as managerial head boy. Pre-season predictions were strangely misplaced.

These are, naturally, reductive views. Views that compress an entire season into a congenial “Roy done good” sound-bite, but do little to untangle the intrigues underlying such a beguiling outcome.

In retrospect, seasons make their own kind of sense. The journey complete, one can look back down to the base of the mountain and idly pick out the route taken; or gaze up at the summit and marvel at how swiftly gravity managed to undo the efforts of one’s team.

Fear not, Fulham supporters were not eyeing up any distant peaks at August time. For them, another season of cartoonish mid-air scrambling above an open trap-door was a perfectly realistic proposition.

For, despite having been able to savour a summer illuminated from within by the previous season’s still, frankly, unfathomable escape from relegation, the margin had been negligible, and the season itself had been largely wretched and depressing. Consequently, a sense of foreboding still clouded the collective outlook.

True, the football had improved under Hodgson following his installation the preceding January. The team was looking more organised, less flaky certainly, but surely such a slender reprieve could not withstand the vicissitudes of another season? Significant improvement was going to be required or the psychiatric institutions of South West London would be appealing to Mr. Al Fayed’s largesse to fund additional wings before too long.

With the talismanic Brian McBride returning home to the U.S., a fresh strike-pairing of Andrew Johnson and Bobby Zamora were recruited, the latter as part of a package with right-back John Paintsil. Goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer arrived, astonishingly, without an invoice to settle.

Burdened by such uncertainties then, an opening match away against a newly-promoted side was not ideal. In the past few years Fulham sides have virtually arrived gift-wrapped, bedecked in broad white ribbons of surrender, for encounters such as these. Always obliging, always happy to help a rival side break a run or set a club record.

Unsurprisingly, the heavenly clouds that, I believe, generally congregate over Hull did not part to admit shafts of celestial light upon the pitch, neither did the players perform to an accompaniment of ethereal choirs of awestruck angels. It was merely a continuation from the end of last season. But we’d take that. For now.

The crisp, simple passing revived by Hodgson was in evidence. Comfortable with the notion, the players executed it intuitively and, for the most part, successfully, even when angles were tight and space was limited. Fall-guy Seol Ki-Hyeon scored after 8 minutes and the first 20 minutes were embarrassingly one-sided.

Alas, failing to close down a player like Geovanni deserves punishment and Hull equalised. They then became a team that dared to believe, and what is more, they possessed a manager prepared to roll the tactical dice. It was passion against precision, and with Fulham’s future steeliness yet to be forged, passion prevailed. Hodgson declined to counter with his own substitutes and the day was lost.

This (over) reliance on the starting eleven, a reluctance to force the issue with a strategic re-invention constituted the primary criticism of the manager during this time.

Despite following this display with a tenacious, stubborn victory against Arsenal, for so long a team for whom Fulham appeared to have been tailor-made, together with an elegant dismantling of Bolton that almost dissipated at the end, the Hull opener was to provide something of a template for the opening months of the season.

Themes emerged: a prevailing defensive infirmity and the conceding of late goals; Hodgson’s tactical intransigence and refusal to deploy substitutes swiftly enough to influence the game; and doubts whether Murphy and Bullard could co-exist within the same team.

The previous season’s woe resumed with predictable away losses to Blackburn and Burnley (terminating our Carling Cup aspirations). All-too-familiar scenes of self-destruction were witnessed against a mediocre West Ham side with a Johnson sending-off in the first-half.

There were drab displays against WBA (A), Sunderland (H) and Portsmouth (A). Europe could have only been spoken of in the fevered dilations of one whose medication had been mislaid.

Although aesthetically Fulham’s football now comfortably transcended the lumpen scramble served up by Lawrie Sanchez, it could sometimes appear to be artistry for it’s own sake. Players seemed to lull themselves into an almost obsessive-compulsive pattern of passing. There was little urgency, and forward motion was tentative. It was like a comfort blanket of possession.

The team was undoubtedly becoming more organised, more comfortable on the ball, but confidence was porcelain-thin and an offensive edge elusive.

The latter days of Tigana’s reign were often evoked: exquisite passing undermined by an unhurried build-up; time granted to the opposition to re-assemble about their box and nullify all attempts at penetration; Fulham players increasingly static as the ball is passed back and forth 20 yards out.

So, despite careful progress, there was still plenty to irritate the faithful, and the message boards prickled as naysayers locked horns with the increasing numbers of Hodgson converts prepared to walk the long road with him. To them, it was becoming clear that Hodgson’s scheme was, at minimum, a season-long one, and he wasn’t about to become radicalised overnight. However, while he admitted to not “turning cartwheels” when the team wins, and not “getting the shroud out” when they lose, supporters regularly stalked by relegation grow twitchy very quickly, and were understandably craving on-pitch epiphanies to assuage their fears.

Without doubt, Hodgson’s measured manner and equanimity through good times and bad was a critical factor towards the end of the previous season. His refusal to over-react neither to dull-witted defeat, nor thrilling comeback, enabled a calm self-belief to flourish. Such virtues, however, cannot co-exist with a swashbuckling, devil-may-care approach. They are not compatible. Hodgson is, in this respect, the anti-Mourinho. He maintains a stubborn faith that the right choice has been made and that the players and the tactics will come good. Given time.

It was becoming clear that he was aiming to cultivate a standard of play, and then to achieve a consistency in that standard. Improvements should arise naturally as inter-player familiarity develops, and tactics and routines become habituated. This belief was clearly beginning to work, but what it might deliver beyond mere survival, if that, was still uncertain.

Fitness restored, Andrew Johnson had by now teamed up with his intended, Bobby Zamora. Although Johnson’s pace differed from that promised by the brochure, his intelligent runs remained and were now accessorised with a willing work ethic.

A home win against Wigan at the end of October suggested a subtle shifting through the gears. There was a sense of a ship being steadied as instructions became embedded.

November confirmed it. Although the month began with a 1-0 defeat at Everton, it had been a draw-deserving performance at a ground where Fulham are usually chastened. It was followed by a 10-game unbeaten run that took the team through to the third week of January. Steady, indeed.

It was not illusory: the team were becoming more robust, more stoical. The inclusion of four goal-less draws in that sequence revealed even more: the defence, unchanging and increasingly synchronised, was as miserly as it had been for years, and the readiness to initiate defending with the strikers was heartening. It also revealed a team-deep commitment to the system. However, fully-extended, this approach was compromising attacking flair and strike-rate. With survival still paramount, away draws had clearly been earmarked as adequate and saw risk-taking subordinated to a safety-first policy.

Meanwhile, Mark Schwarzer’s careful governance of the Fulham goal was making a mockery of Middlesbrough’s profligacy; John Paintsil, an exuberant, electrified sprite was cultivating cult status whilst making a mockery of the negative reputation that preceded him. Brede Hangeland (who?) was completing his Premiership learning curve at speed and acquiring kudos and stature by the game, and how could Aaron Hughes make such a huge improvement between seasons, at the age of 28?

Two of Hodgson’s talents were becoming manifest: whilst most managers buy what they know, his extensive international education had granted him far greater reach when searching for players adaptable to the Premier League, amenable to his philosophy, and respectful of his limited budget; it was also becoming apparent that players, whatever their age or reputation, could improve under him.

November also saw the fitful and frustrating Gera finally yield his starting place to another improving player: the energetic and pleasingly combative Dempsey, who would retain it for the remainder of the season and make a sterling contribution.

Being so severely injured after playing only 3 games undoubtedly enhanced Jimmy Bullard’s cult status, fuelled expectations, and granted him an initial immunity to criticism. His commitment and irrepressible persona made him popular beyond the club, too. However, amongst those scrutinising his every game, there was a growing discord. Many began to feel that Bullard, the unrepentant maverick, with his refusal, or simple inability, to comply with Hodsgon’s disciplined regimen was causing an imbalance in the team. Hodgson, too, was perturbed, and expressed his displeasure (albeit cryptically) a few times. For one so dignified, polite, and resolutely uncritical, privately he must have been incensed.

Despite bearing the responsibility for covering Bullard’s insatiable roaming, Danny Murphy had been making a fine fist of his holding role - a veritable Merseyside Makélélé - but many felt that his influence was being diluted. Nevertheless, Bullard’s stock remained high via his flickering creativity, fleeting success with a free-kick, and that enduring affection.

Hodgson, the arch-pragmatist, was of course impervious to such sentimentality and come Christmas, amid rumours of contractual spats, and with Bullard’s crown tarnished and sitting somewhat askew, he did what at the start of the season would have been utterly unthinkable: he sold him to Hull for £5m. In the light of Bullard and Fulham’s respective fates, this is now widely regarded as one of the best pieces of business ever conducted by the club.

Furthermore, the Murphy/Bullard curate’s egg was well and truly cooked.

In came Dickson Etuhu, a scapegoat-in-waiting burdened with the baggage of a reputation based on Chinese Whispers, and aggravated by message board tittle-tattle. Chris Baird was presumably only too happy to pass on his coat of many curses, and accept relegation to public enemy number two. It’s true, in his first few games Etuhu looked about as incongruous as it’s possible to look on a football pitch. He appeared as disorientated as if he’d gone to bed in a Peckham high-rise and woken up in a Moroccan souk. Perhaps he’d fallen onto the pitch from an orbiting spaceship?

Ultimately, however, the message boards did a roaring trade in humble pie as, once again, Hodgson’s player assessment proved unerringly astute, and gradually the player began performing in accord with his physique and athleticism. More significantly, the Bullard/Etuhu switch liberated Danny Murphy. Released at last, he began to orchestrate the play around him, and followed a robust first-half of the season with a glorious second-half of defensive interceptions spiced liberally with visionary passing.

From here until the end of the season the team continued to consolidate the best home record outside the top four, despite two inexplicable consecutive lapses to Blackburn and Hull.

Bobby Zamora evolved into an unfathomable conundrum. He delivered some visceral displays, bullying and pulling defences out of shape, leaving them battered and battle-weary. He did this most notably at home to Spurs in mid-November when he helped to derail the ‘Redknapp The Messiah’ media roadshow. His brief extended way beyond goal-scoring: he knew that, we knew that. Yet still his impotence in front of goal was bewildering. And bewildered he increasingly seemed. On a few occasions his psyche appeared to splinter before us, and he would depart the scene crestfallen and despondent.

In contrast, the nimble, intelligent Nevland, despite being entitled to a grievance, played as though carefree, and prospered from Zamora’s misery by appearing to score almost every time he replaced him from the bench. The popular Norwegian was under-used but, with Johnson injured for the final few games, the season ended with he and Diomansy Kamara up front. Nevertheless, the team continued to function as before, just as it had done when the vilified Baird had filled-in for the seemingly irreplaceable Hangeland at White Hart Lane on Boxing day. Further evidence of a squad aligning itself seamlessly to a system.

March was madness.

The team’s extraordinary 18-month away win duck, which had eventually been broken with wins in the last 3 games of the previous season appeared to be reassembling itself. Supreme home form was keeping the team mid-table, until a breakthrough at Bolton in the middle of the month.

The following week delivered a stirring triumph over Manchester United despite them losing the previous week, and Fulham receiving a 4-0 F.A. Cup thumping from them only 14 days earlier. In the words of Daniel Taylor (The Guardian), “…Fulham outpassed, outscored and, for long spells, outplayed their opponents.“ Scholes was sent off, Rooney was sent off, and Ronaldo had a nappy tantrum and was mocked by the referee. We had reached 40 points with 8 games to spare and were safe. Yes, that was a good day.

At last, relief could be breathed and this very quickly ceded to celebration. The spectre of previous precarious seasons had been exorcised, and the remaining games could be anticipated with a carefree air.

Admirably, the team continued to play with the resolve and application that they’d demonstrated all season. Some supporters began to ponder Europe, but by then most were too giddy with relief, with Roy, and with the football the team were playing, to realistically consider it without grinning stupidly. So, when the Europa League bonus/booby prize did actually materialise on the final day, it was like finding the satsuma that slips unnoticed to the bottom of your Christmas Day pillowcase.

Club records aside, it’s been a pleasure to have such a humane, dignified human being as the leader, spokesman, and ambassador for our club.

Without being ungrateful, it would have been intriguing to see what this team could achieve with another season under Hodgson’s influence, bolstered by a few more players, but without the burden of the additional games to come. It’s entirely possible that they, and he, have peaked already. Whatever, if he could somehow match this league performance next season, despite having the Europa League to contend with, he will surely be anointed in SW6: he could dispute the laws of physics, moon at the Queen, or start an incestuous death cult in the Brazilian Rainforest, but he would still have no shortage of disciples around here.

This piece was written for, and appears at, Goalfood.Com


Mike Hopkins said...

Well written and entertaining summary of the season. Well done.

Bad Andy said...

Fascinating reading and a good summation of 'The Zamora problem'. One of his best games was against United in the league, where he bullied Jonny Evans and won the penalty and red card with his bullishness in front of goal. Had Scholes not handled on the line. Bobby would have been on the scoresheet against the European Champions and people might have a different view of him. His sense of self is a bit too fragile for the premier league though.