18 May 2014

Fulham Football Club - Season Review

I'm not looking forward to writing this, although I feel that I have to. It's Fulham's first relegation for as long as I can remember, and the good times of 7th place and the Europa League final less than five years ago are no more. Anyway, here we go.

The season starts in dramatic fashion as we secure a fantastic win against Sunderland. Now, Sunderland did quite well at the end of last season under the flamboyant Paolo di Canio. I've never liked Martin Jol but securing a win against Sunderland made me think we would be looking at the top 10 or maybe even top five this season. Off-season, Martin Jol had signed quality players (on paper, anyway) with ex-England player Darren Bent coming to the club and Adel Taarabt coming too. Brilliant, I thought: Surely a 4-2-3-1 formation, Martin? Surely Stecko; Riether, Hangeland, Senderos, Riise; Sidwell, Parker; Bent, Ruiz, Taarabt; Berbatov?

As it turns out, the answer is a resounding no. Martin Jol steadfastly sticks to his preferred 4-4-1-1 formation, with a variety of players looking for the "1" behind Dimitar Berbatov playing up front. Namely Darren Bent, Bryan Ruiz, and Adel Taarabt. Martin Jol, as a result, makes some rather baffling decisions, choosing to play Kieran Richardson - who's a midfielder by day - in place of regular (and natural) left back John Arne Riise. So, with four players looking for two places, what does Martin Jol do? Yes, play central players Darren Bent and Bryan Ruiz on the wide midfield, and then Taarabt gets the special place behind Berbatov. Sometimes, Bent and Taarabt swap, but it's not often.

Fair enough, we were never going to beat Arsenal, but after losing late on against Newcastle United (credit to Newcastle, however, who deserved to win that match) and conceding a late goal and dropping two points against West Bromwich Albion, Martin Jol should have been walking out the door (or, at the very least, dragged out the door) at this point, with Fulham in 16th place. Unfortunately, Shahid Khan is too tentative as the new chairman and is being led by Alistair MacKintosh at this point. MacKintosh says to keep Jol, and after an embarrassing derby loss to Chelsea (OK, we weren't going to win that either, were we?) but then conceding yet another goal late on against Cardiff City - and several points with it - Shahid Khan really out to have got his axe out now. 

A key moment for me came in the Cardiff game when Martin Jol, looking less secure at Craven Cottage by the day, made a managerial gamble which paid off in the short term but not for the rest of the game. He subbed on somebody - namely Bryan Ruiz - in the first half, which is usually managerial suicide. Yes, Ruiz scored a free kick, but we were a much weaker team after that in the second half, culminating in the late goal.

After our talisman Dimitar Berbatov gets injured halfway through the match against Stoke City, on comes Darren Bent who manages to score - yes, score - a late goal to beat Stoke City, things are surely looking up. Then we go to Crystal Palace on a Monday night. What follows is, well, a great game, and one of the best of the season for Fulham.

We go a goal down, but things start to turn around for us with, in my view, the goal of the season from Pajtim Kasami. Sprinting at full speed, he chests down Sascha Riether's long ball and with a sublime volley from a ridiculous angle, it's 1-1 all of a sudden. Steve Sidwell scores another ridiculous volley and suddenly we're 2-1 up! Berbatov and Senderos complete the rout and we win 4-1. Well done lads.

That proved to be Martin Jol's final victory to date in any match he's managed. Ever. A woeful display against in-form Southampton where Dimitar Berbatov is baffled at being asked to man-mark in corners, with the result that they score as Ricky Lambert loses Berbatov, his marker.

A home defeat to Manchester United, where Dimitar Berbatov is unlucky to be given offside on a number of occasions, a dreadful performance against Liverpool where Maarten Stekelenburg does well to only concede four, and the club appoint former Head Coach at Manchester United, who had been cleared out by incoming David Moyes, René Meulensteen, as assistant manager to Martin Jol. Meulensteen knocks some sense into Martin Jol who finally shakes from his 4-4-1-1 formation against Swansea City, but we still lose 2-1. Martin Jol starts to ignore René Meulensteen, the club play dreadfully against West Ham, and the axe finally comes down on Martin Jol.

Why did it take so long for the axe to come down on Martin Jol? After all, he was in second place in the 'sack race' pre-season. His cup run, possibly? If so, the team must have been drunk. After all, it had taken penalties to beat Burton Albion, and despite a great win against Everton, who, at that point, were threatening to win the league title, an embarrassing defeat to Leicester City should have been enough.

The assistant manager is promoted to manager, less than three weeks after he joined Fulham. René Meulensteen leads his team out against Tottenham Hotspur, and Fulham play brilliantly and are very unlucky to lose 2-1. René Meulensteen then leads the team out against Aston Villa at home - and thanks to a virtuosic performance from Dimitar Berbatov, who seems to have rediscovered his mojo, Fulham complete a rousing 2-0 victory, the other goal coming from Steve Sidwell.

With a prolonged run of suffering coming up, as the 'top' sides were queueing up to have a go at us, we knew that results were key. Unfortunately, the second half collapses of old began to occur. After being 1-1 away to Everton thanks to Dimitar Berbatov, we collapse within the final 20 minutes and lose 4-1. After holding Manchester City to 2-2 by the 70th minute we collapse again and end up losing 4-2.

René Meulensteen is alarmed, quite rightly, by this defensive horror show, and appoints Alan Curbishley as "Technical Director" on 24 December. What on earth does a "technical director" do anyway? Well, by the looks of things, nothing. Alan Curbishley sat in the director's box and that was it.

After a brilliant goal from Scott Parker to win 2-1 away at Norwich, the team come down from this high  in the most dramatic way. René Meulensteen, quite rightly, has to rest some players owing to fixture congestion, with the computer forcing Fulham to travel, over the Christmas period, a minimum of 457 miles - and more likely approaching 500. The result? Well, after being 0-0 at half time against Hull City at the KC Stadium, things are going well. Then the inevitable happens and Fulham collapse. But it's not the usual three or four. The final result? Hull City 6 - 0 Fulham.

René Meulensteen, quite rightly, that he needs an assistant manager. He therefore appoints Ray Wilkins and it immediately shows as Fulham come from behind to beat West Ham 2-1. Yes, the same West Ham which Martin Jol made a pig's ear of. Unfortunately, that was Dimitar Berbatov's last ever goal for Fulham.

Another collapse against in-form Sunderland (1-2 down after 65 minutes, finishing 1-4) is not really the best of moods to go to Arsenal in. But René Meulensteen fights bravely. In a game of clumsy tackles, Arsenal break through after 60 minutes and score two quickly. Although I still maintain that Dimitar Berbatov and Darren Bent should have been awarded penalties that day.

René Meulensteen uses the first half of the January transfer window to sort out the mess Martin Jol put us in. He loans out Bryan Ruiz to PSV (who doesn't like Meulensteen anyway), with Bent usually coming on as a substitute or rotating with Taarabt. But with Dimitar Berbatov looking for the exit door under Martin Jol, would he stay or would he go? René Meulensteen makes a gamble, managing to secure former Fulham favourite Clint Dempsey for a second bite at the cherry. He recalls Dan Burn on loan, desperate to do something with this defence's shortcomings.

After Fulham collapse again in the final 30 minutes against Swansea City (with Jonjo Shelvey scoring for Swansea and Dimitar Berbatov scoring an own goal), Fulham desperately require a win. A glance at the fixture list, however, and Fulham fans start to prepare themselves. Realistically, we'll be waiting four weeks for a win against West Bromwich Albion, as we've got to play Southampton, Manchester United, and Liverpool before then.

Securing William Kvist on loan, there is a disaster on deadline day as Adel Taarabt is recalled by QPR and then loaned out to AC Milan, and Dimitar Berbatov is loaned out to Monaco. The underperforming Darren Bent can't lead the team up front, surely, so René Meulensteen splashes out on £11,000,000 to sign Kostas Mitroglou - a club record. He also secures the signature of Tottenham's Lewis Holtby on loan. He finally manages to get rid of the deadwood at the club - Philippe Senderos - and secures Johnny Heitinga in place. The underperforming Aaron Hughes is given to QPR for free. René Meulensteen has a flashback to when he was head coach under Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, and signs Ryan Tunnicliffe and Larnell Cole, who were amazing for the Manchester United youth teams.

Annoyingly, due to administrative errors at the FA, only Holtby and Kvist are allowed to play against Southampton. Fulham get caught on the counter-attack, Brede Hangeland makes a pig's ear of the defending, and Southampton win 3-0.

Then, as René Meulensteen put it himself, "rock bottom". After a great cup run so far, seeing off Norwich 3-0 despite having to use a replay, Fulham have to field weakened sides against Sheffield United so we can concentrate on the league. Refereeing errors meant we should have won the original fixture, and the replay, which I had the misfortune of seeing, was awful. Clint Dempsey was given the task of standing on the far post in a corner one minute away from penalties. Dempsey wonders away, Stockdale has no chance, and Sheffield United win 1-0.

The deadline day signings weren't eligible for that match either. But they're all eligible for the big match, away to Manchester United at Old Trafford, aside from Kostas Mitroglou, who has a lack of match fitness. Arguably looking to youth, René Meulensteen starts Muamer Tankovic, Ryan Tunnicliffe, and Dan Burn, and Lewis Holtby, all of whom are under 25. This is, in my opinion, Fulham's game of the season. Steve Sidwell scores on the break and Fulham go 1-0 up. Manchester United bombard Fulham with crosses, but the immensely tall Dan Burn deals with them easily. René Meulensteen chose to drop captain Brede Hangeland for Johnny Heitinga, not dropping Dan Burn. It's a decision which looked to have paid off. Kieran Richardson missed a golden opportunity to put Fulham 2-0 up, but at half time, with Fulham 1-0 up, Tankovic comes off and on comes Darren Bent. Manchester United, even after half time, still try out-height-ing Dan Burn. But eventually, Manchester United manage to score two in quick succession owing to poor marking by Sascha Riether. With both sides looking to score again, Kieran Richardson fires one straight at David De Gea. The rebound falls to Darren Bent. He can't miss, he can't miss... and he doesn't miss! It's 2-2! And that was the last kick of the match! Fulham secure a brilliant point against Manchester United at Old Trafford!

Now, we have to play Liverpool at Craven Cottage three days later. René Meulensteen only makes one change from that match, with Bent coming in for Tankovic. What follows is surely one of the games of the season for all clubs. It begins with Fulham and Liverpool about even, until Richardson scuffs his cross and Kolo Touré goes to clear it... but it his the wrong part of his boot, it goes past Simon Mignolet, and Fulham are 1-0 up! Kolo Touré then bundles into referee Phil Dowd, tripping up Darren Bent in the process. The resulting video goes viral.

Ryan Tunnicliffe slips and Steven Gerrard steals the ball. A brilliant ball from Gerrard through to fellow England international Daniel Sturridge. A great finish from Sturridge gives Maarten Stekelenburg no chance, and it's 1-1. In the second half, Liverpool's defending is atrocious. Steve Sidwell shoots from his own half. It's going in, it's going in... until Mignolet tips it over the bar. That would have been goal of the season. Nonetheless, Bent and Richardson are both looking to score. The cross flies over the top of Bent, Skrtl, and Touré, leaving Richardson unmarked, tap it in, 2-1! A brilliant long range effort from outside the box from Coutinho makes it 2-2. With the game going into hyper-mode, Luis Suárez chases the ball, as does Maarten Stekelenburg. They collide and Maarten Stekelenburg is knocked out unconscious. It's purely accidental (amazingly for Suárez), but that leaves second choice keeper David Stockdale in goal. A stupid foul from Sascha Riether in the final minute gives a penalty to Liverpool. Stockdale goes the right way but Gerrard is, amazingly for an Englishmen, too good. Fulham lose 3-2.

Then the biggest mistake of the season. Two days later, René Meulensteen is sacked. The board says that it was not taking the Manchester United and Liverpool games into consideration. I'm presuming he'd been given a points target somewhere around the Sunderland match, presumably something around the lines of 8 points from the next 5 matches: Arsenal, Swansea, Southampton, United, and Liverpool, when the biggest, realistically, would have been 3.

Another source said that he had sacked him straight after the Sheffield United match and broken the news to René after the Liverpool match. But we know this was Alistair MacKintosh's decision and not Shahid Khan's. Why? Khan even said that "Alistair recommended Felix to me on Thursday morning".

The promising and exciting youth is cleared out of the team for Felix Magath's first match, as the "Fulham trio" of Meulensteen, Wilkins, and Curbishley are cleared out by Magath. In comes Thomas Oral, who's, well, useless, frankly.

The ageing plodders return for Magath's first match, against West Brom. We draw 1-1 after a howling Stekelenburg error. Then we have the SW6 derby against Chelsea. We get hammered within 14 minutes, from 0-0 at half time to 3-0 down thanks to Schurrle. Oh dear. A consolation from Heitinga is no good. Things get even worse as we lose to Cardiff City 3-1. Magath apportions all the blame to Stekelenburg and Stockdale is promoted for the match against Newcastle. Magath, at this point, is now worse than both Jol and René, having only won one point from three matches, whereas Jol and Rene had three points each.

Against Newcastle, however, Fulham are lucky to escape with a 1-0 victory, mostly down to the troubles with Alan Pardew. Felix Magath has reinstalled Fernando Amorebieta to the team, who really is an ageing plodder, and he performs dreadfully against Manchester City, conceding two free kicks and getting sent off, and Fulham get hammered 5-0.

With relegation looming, a good performance against Everton is key. Unfortunately, the second half collapse occurs and we lose 3-1, after being 1-1 in the 75th minute. At this point, Felix Magath is looking to the U21 and U18 squads, after rejecting Tunnicliffe, Cole, Burn, and Tankovic, who all played under René Meulensteen, and rejecting Bent as well. He instead picks Moussa Dembélé (two Ss in this one), Cauley Woodrow, and Patrick Roberts. But who should step up against Aston Villa but Hugo Rodallega? He comes on as a substitute for Cauley Woodrow, the cross comes in from Holtby - and who can forget Matt Le Tissier's commentary on Soccer Saturday?

Thankfully, we don't concede and Fulham win 2-1. The next week and David Stockdale, against Norwich, is in the form of his life, making one of the saves of the season against Ricky Van Wolfswinkel. Hugo Rodallega scores (again) and Fulham escape with a 1-0 victory.

A piece of Steve Sidwell magic draws Fulham level at Tottenham - until he misses a penalty and Tottenham score a couple more to win 3-1. Three games remain - and the results not only for Fulham but for others are crucial. Against Hull City, Fulham are leading 2-0 through Ashkan Dejagah and Fernando Amorebieta (yes, really), until a piece of bad luck makes it 2-1, then Fernando Amorebieta forgets that he's a defender, forgets how to mark, and Hull deprive Fulham of two points. Two crucial points. This puts Fulham in a spot of bother, as we need for Sunderland to stop their run of form and to pick up, at the very least, two more points from the last two games (assuming Norwich can't do anything against the sides they've got).

Fulham, however, are relegated with a whimper and one of the worst performances I've ever seen against Stoke City. Even a Kieran Richardson consolation can't address the fundamental management issues that we had in this match. Dan Burn at right back, Felix? Really? A position he's never played in? So much so he asked Assaidi if he could swap positions! Then when Dan Burn went off, Scott Parker went to right back.

At least fielding some youngsters (Tunnicliffe, David, Woodrow) against Crystal Palace earnt us a 2-2 draw. But that wasn't a good season for Fulham. Felix Magath really has to have a look at himself in the transfer window. Seeing as the club won't #BringBackMeulensteen (can we get this trending?), Malky MacKay ought to knock on our door.

We'll be back. Hopefully.

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