3 September 2016

In Defence of René Meulensteen

On 14 February 2014, a statement came out of Fulham Football Club. It said that Felix Magath had been appointed as First Team manager with immediate effect. No mention at all was made of existing Head Coach René Meulensteen. As the press started speculating on what that actually meant, René Meulensteen rang the BBC and Sky Sports to confirm what Fulham had not told the paying public: René Meulensteen had been fired from Fulham Football Club after just 76 days in charge.

The club lay at the bottom of the Premier League at the time but just four points away from safety in what was turning into one of the tightest relegation battles ever seen. Anybody from tenth place downwards could very easily have gone down. Maybe I'm just making excuses for him. But this was not a decision the club should have made at that point in time. Most of these viewpoints I expressed at the time and are not hindsight-related.

But to look at why Meulensteen should not have been sacked, we need to turn the clock back to Martin Jol's overdue departure. After five consecutive losses, the club had finally decided enough was enough. Jol managed to delay the inevitable with a last-ditch win over Stoke City, followed up immediately by a 4-1 win at the (then) hapless Crystal Palace. Fulham's commentator, "Gentleman" Jim McGullion, said in 2016 that "I thought they were one of the worst Premier League sides ever when we played them". 4-1, therefore, was flattering to Martin Jol. But as will be shown again later, the board, owned by Shahid Khan but led by Alistair Mackintosh, were only focused on results. That granted Jol a stay of execution and he was finally released after a horror show at West Ham in which Fulham failed to have a single shot on target all game. And both Carlton Cole and Joe Cole made the scoresheet.

After another car crash interview Martin Jol was sacked from Fulham. Jol himself claims he resigned. But the board chose to promote internally and appointed René Meulensteen, Martin Jol's recently-appointed number two, as head coach. Martin Jol's "I'll-fit-all-the-players-into-this-formation-even-though-they-don't-play-there" mentality certainly didn't inspire confidence. Scott Parker ended up playing on the wing in that match against West Ham, for example. Meulensteen made seven changes for his first match in charge, but one would certainly not want to have Tottenham Hotspur at home to be playing against in that scenario.

Dimitar Berbatov's commitment to Fulham was questionable at the best of times, but in this match he showed that he was supporting the team, not just himself. As he pinged a ball out to Ashkan Dejagah, who was bursting down the right hand side and into the penalty area, Berbatov became excited. He jumped up and down, willing Ashkan Dejagah to slot it home past Hugo Lloris. And he did. Fulham in front. As it turned out, one piece of sheer luck for Vlad Ciriches and a piece of sheer brilliance from Lewis Holtby led Tottenham to get a late winner. So if we could run a Tottenham team close, it was no surprise that Aston Villa did not show up at all. Desperately needing to beat them in a relegation six-pointer, Dimitar Berbatov produced his finest game in a Fulham shirt and the whites never looked like losing, even if the goals were a bit fortunate. Firstly, Steve Sidwell squeezed in something impossible from a tight angle, and then a foul on Alex Kacaniklic following a beautiful counter-attack from Karagounis, Berbatov, and Kacaniklic from a corner resulted in a penalty, which Berbatov slotted home. Berbatov produced more magic that night, including "that" touch and was my man of the match. He than slotted another penalty home against Everton, before injury ruled him out of the next three matches.

However, for the renaissance of Berbatov and Sidwell, one player's performances had taken a downward spiral. David Stockdale was having an absolutely dreadful time of it, making costly errors resulting in silly goals that caused the goals against column to climb at an alarming rate. With Maarten Stekelenburg out over the Christmas period, Stockdale deputised in goal. Dreadfully. After conceding a tame Gary Hooper shot from 25 yards out on Boxing Day, he then went to sleep in the second half at the KC Stadium as Hull City smacked six past him, most of which can be attributed down to Stockdale keeping errors. A trademark Sam Allardyce long ball also embarrassed Stockdale four days later. He then made a hash of an Adam Johnson free kick a few days later, for which he was berated on Match of the Day, and by the time Maarten Stekelenburg was able to return for the trip to the Emirates, it was not a moment too soon.

Berbatov may have scored a penalty in the game at Goodison Park, but as it was Fulham went home 20 minutes early, as they collapsed from 1-1 to 4-1 - a result that flattered the Toffees. A similar sort of thing happened at the Cottage against Manchester City, where, despite not having any out-and-out strikers available aside from the hapless Darren Bent and Hugo Rodallega (neither of which were selected as a result), an unbelievable Vincent Kompany own goal and good work from Kieran Richardson meant Fulham were 2-2 against the eventual league champions with 20 minutes to go. However, Jesus Navas scored once, before wrapping the game up with a wonderful assist which embarrassed Aaron Hughes, pinging it across with the outside of his left foot, and City wrapped the game up with 7 minutes to go.

Three top-ten sides out of four is not how you want to start your tenure, but Match of the Day predicted that of Fulham's next four games, they needed to win two of them. Scott Parker pinged a "22-yard shit" (as described by Sky Sports) to take three points away from Carrow Road. And then the KC Stadium.

I said this post may turn out to be a page of excuses. So here goes.

To start with, Fulham were playing two away games in the space of three days. Even if they didn't return to London in the interim, it's still a round trip of over 500 miles over the Christmas period (Motspur Park to Carrow Road to the KC Stadium to Craven Cottage). Meulensteen therefore fielded a much weaker team for this match. And on reflection, that doesn't look like a bad idea when you consider the logistical factors. The team he had gone for featured just five of the team that had won two days beforehand, and featured Bryan Ruiz and Hugo Rodallega up front. 

At first it looked as though it may pay off; Phil Thompson at half time described it as the most boring game he'd seen all season. Hull had started well but Fulham had come back into the game at half time. Hangeland and Senderos were both injured at the time - Senderos recently, Hangeland for a long time. But this meant that Aaron Hughes and Fernando Amorebieta were being asked to play 180 minutes in the space of three days. And so, after 45 minutes at the KC, they cried enough, and, along with a woeful showing from David Stockdale, Fulham capitulated.

Nonetheless, moving back to a full-strength side for the visit of West Ham at Craven Cottage, Fulham delivered another beautiful performance that showed that they did not deserve to be lying in the drop zone. And with some appalling fixtures coming up, this and the next match was very much Fulham's last chance to obtain any realistic points for a while. A defensive howler from Joey O'Brien maybe, but with Berbatov back from injury, when the ball fell to his feet, you just knew he was going to score. But cool as a whistle, his foot moved all of three inches and the ball rolled into the back of the net to send the fans into ruptures as Fulham rounded out 2-1 winners. And that's not forgetting Steve Sidwell's incredible header from the corner to level it.

By this point Alan Curbishley and Ray Wilkins had been appointed in various roles, Curbishley as "technical director" and Wilkins as assistant manager. You cannot blame Meulensteen for wanting an assistant manager just because Magath didn't have one. Curbishley's role was never fully explained but it is thought he was brought in by the board, not by Meulensteen.

A Carrow Road rematch had been thrown up by the FA Cup and so Fulham and Norwich, both fighting relegation, played weak sides. But in many ways, it showed us the future. And if you want a man who can work with youth, I would go so far as to say that René Meulensteen's record is unimpeachable in that department, having been in the Alex Ferguson setup for many years. In the four FA Cup matches, he played a lot of young talent: Chris David, Dan Burn, Ange-Freddy Plumain, Lasse Vigen Christensen, Muamer Tankovic, Moussa Dembele, and Josh Passley. David, Burn, Christensen, Tankovic, and Dembele would go on to make league appearances for the club in the future - in fact, of those five, only Christensen was not featured in the 2013-14 season. As it was, the game was drawn 1-1, meaning a replay neither side really wanted. As it was, however, the replay occurred at a good time, punctuating the horror show of upcoming fixtures. It turned out to be my all-time favourite Fulham match, mainly for sentimental reasons, but Fulham, despite showing up 10 minutes late, dominated Norwich to win 3-0.

The horror show of fixtures was now underway. Fulham had only beaten Sunderland once in the previous four years at Craven Cottage, so it was no surprise Sunderland ran out the winners 4-1. The record against Arsenal was even worse - Fulham had never beaten Arsenal away, and despite a resilient performance, Santi Cazorla found a way through in the 59th minute as Fulham lost 2-0. Fulham's record against Swansea away wasn't much better, only winning there once since 1996, and a Senderos howler and a Berbatov own goal in what proved to be his final game for the club ensured the record stayed that way. As for Southampton at home, Fulham had only won at the Cottage once in the previous ten years, and an in-form Sunderland team ran the sword over the whites in the second half.

One of the worst ever memories as a Fulham fan will be as a result of the appalling run of form Sascha Riether was going through. Having been applauded by Match of the Day for his tactical positioning against Aston Villa, this time he was too high compared to John Arne Riise on the other side of the pitch (thereby exonerating Meulensteen from blame, and placing this as a fault with the player). As it was, the sight of watching Brede Hangeland and Dan Burn running around like headless chickens whilst trying to defend against four Southampton attackers will live with me forever. They didn't do too badly - they forced two passes - before the inevitable happened.

The one good bit in this horrible run was the MOTD-approved tactical work being done in the midfield. Whether it was a duo or a trio, whoever played there (aside from Pajtim Kasami) linked up beautifully with the other and they would put in tenacious performances all afternoon. Until, of course, fatigue set in. Initially Sidwell, Parker, and Karagounis, then just Sidwell and Parker, then Sidwell and Kvist, the centre of midfield was certainly performing very well.

Fulham left all their transfer business to the very last minute in the January transfer window. As it was they made six signings in the last two days. How much of this is down to the manager and how much was down to Alistair Mackintosh is still debated. Shahid Khan, in the statement appointing Magath, claimed the January transfer window work was solely down to Mackintosh. But if that were true, why were two Manchester United youth players signed who Rene had worked with before? Why did Johnny Heitinga explicity cite René Meulensteen as the deciding factor between Fulham and West Ham?

And then there's Kostas Mitroglou. Swansea City avoided relegation because Wilfred Bony fired them out of danger. None of the other relegation-fighting sides, Fulham included, had a permanent striker in form. Dimitar Berbatov fitted that bill, with 3 goals in 7 games since Meulensteen's arrival, but left to Monaco despite Meulensteen saying in press conferences that he was staying. So Kostas Mitroglou was bought in at £12m to cover the Berbatov shortfall - a deal which is thought to be mostly down to Alistair Mackintosh. Something Meulensteen did that would not have won him favours with the board, but is something that I sorely miss since his departure, is an openness in pressers with who the club has bid for, who is staying, and who is going. Fulham had bid for Ravel Morrison, for example. In all future windows, we have not had this level of detail from the manager. And I miss that dearly, for the sake of transparency.

The transfers of Ryan Tunnicliffe and Larnell Cole to Fulham sent one message to me: Meulensteen was clearly a "long haul" option. We were not expecting Tunnicliffe or, in particular, Cole to be playing regularly. They were clearly youth options for René to use next season, whether we stayed up or went down. Tunnicliffe did play Meulensteen's remaining matches, but only 8 minutes after that for another 11 months.

The deadline day signings were not eligible for another youth run out in the FA Cup fourth round replay, after the original had been a 1-1 draw with both sides claiming they should have had an extra penalty. On a day when the RMT went on strike, I was one of a tiny crowd who watched a horror show of a game from both sides. Looking back at the highlights, it doesn't look quite as bad as it felt, but 120 minutes of boredom was ended when Clint Dempsey (who was having a torrid time on loan) dozed off and allowed a late winner. In hindsight, I don't blame Meulensteen. Granted, he got the subs wrong, but so did Slavisa Jokanovic against Bristol City. Additionally, many managers have "thrown" the FA Cup in the past - and we lost to a side that went on to get into the semi finals. Indeed, Slavisa Jokanovic's similar plan against similarly-placed side Leyton Orient nearly went tits up too.

The signings were finally eligible against Manchester United at Old Trafford - Fulham's horrible fixture list continuing. David Moyes, himself under fire, aimed to use Manchester United's army of wingers to cross the ball in over and over again. René Meulensteen gave us a game where he showed, perfectly, how to counter-attack in a game of football. After Steve Sidwell had fired Fulham in front early on, Fulham withstood the onslaught well - and then, just before half time, Tankovic broke. He could have gone right to Ryan Tunnicliffe or left to Kieran Richardson. He went left, and it was now Richardson versus David De Gea, who wasn't having a great year. Richardson could have played it across the face of goal to Tankovic or Tunnicliffe. But he shot. High and wide. Fulham's next counter attack was well-defended, and it was half time with Fulham 1-0 up. At Old Trafford.

Manchester United found their act in the second half and hauled it back to 2-1 - David Moyes roaring louder than the 75,000 fans at Old Trafford combined - before Kieran Richardson finally tested David De Gea in injury time - who really didn't do very well with it - and Darren Bent was there to head it in for Fulham. 2-2. A point no one expected. Not even before a ball had been kicked in the season. Lucky? Perhaps. But a good defensive performance? Definitely.

Yet another woeful fixture, against Liverpool, was next up - and again, Fulham ran Liverpool close. It was actually my favourite game of the season as Liverpool snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, helped, in part, by Luis Suarez rendering Maarten Stekelenburg unconscious with 13 minutes to go. It's not difficult to suggest that if an out-of-form David Stockdale could get one hand to Steven Gerrard's penalty, then an in-form Maarten Stekelenburg could well have saved it. But in reality, Sascha Riether should never have hauled down Daniel Sturridge in that manner in the first place.

The board only looked at results, though. No league win in six? Out the door. It doesn't matter that Fulham would probably never have won those matches anyway. Interestingly, in the statement appointing Magath, Shahid Khan lays it all at Alistair Mackintosh's door - "Alistair recommended Felix...".

With West Bromwich Albion away coming up and Pepe Mel having never won at home until then, Fulham's awful fixture list was nearly over - and so we are left with the thoughts of what might have been. Maybe we would have lost it and the crucial matches later on in the season Magath did so-so at (losing to Cardiff, for example), then René would have deserved to go and then I wouldn't have been writing this. Maybe we would have won those matches like West Brom and Cardiff away and taken a big step forwards with Meulensteen leading the charge forwards into the future. And with Fulham finishing just 4 points from safety, those extra 5 points could have made all the difference. Also, West Brom would have lost a point, meaning safety by 4 points. Certainly we wouldn't have had Magath, who, in the opinion of Brede Hangeland, Danny Murphy, and myself, led us into relegation.

Jamie Carragher of Sky Sports felt that Meulensteen should have been given the rest of the season come what may, as in his opinion any more than two managers in a season is a disaster waiting to happen. BT Sport also made similar sentiments. The BBC were quiet about it, until Murphy lambasted Magath after the relegation.

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I made this years ago if you want a video expression of the above. It doesn't particularly stress this point of view, but it's still a decent watch. In my opinion.


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