Despite a fortnight of Champions League drama, the most intriguing spectacle over the past few weeks has come from Craven Cottage.
Whilst the world was watching the glamorous prospect of Wayne Rooney tearing apart an aging AC Milan backline, the more studious characters of Roy Hodgson and Bobby Zamora displayed once more the art of how to keep a club overachieving. One of the everlasting beauties of football is that at times it isn’t a game of numbers, unlike the financial world where in every set of circumstances the more muscle you have more successful you will be, football has a human element to it which allows small and relatively unsuccessful clubs like Fulham to overcome the likes of Newcastle who’s stadium is more akin to something out of Star Trek.
How do Fulham do it? How does a club that was close to falling out of the football league altogether just 15 years ago all of a sudden beat Shaktar Donesk, to possibly land the most glamorous of ties against Juventus? Like all successful ventures there is a simple formula behind it, the chairman appoints a manager who signs good honest players that aren’t superstars and then complements them with artists who can create something out of nothing, whilst essentially sticking to the game plan of playing simple football and always putting the safety of your own goal first.
Mark Schwarzer, Andy Johnson, Bobby Zamora, Brede Hangeland, and Dickson Etuhu were all signed by Hodgson and have been essential to the continuation of the Craven Cottage revolution leading them to the dizzy heights of the Europa League, something which would have been beyond the wildest dreams of even the most romantic Fulham fan just two years ago. None of these players had ever set the world alight before arriving at Craven Cottage, they have been reliable performers their whole careers but that’s about it. However the genius of Roy Hodgson is that he knows what he wants and develops a game plan and a formation in which players of modest talents, such as Bobby Zamora, can blossom. Due to Hodgson’s clarity of vision, it is no coincidence that he has made very few bad signings he took over on December 28th 2007.
Compare this on the other hand to the way Charlton were relegated when Alan Curbishley left. Curbishley is a manager cut from the same cloth as Hodgson; a composed and intelligent man who never seemed to make many bad signings. After 15 years of constant achievement against the odds, Curbishley felt he had taken the club as far as it could go and decided that it needed a new lease of life. Enter Iain Dowie, a manager whose record for talking a good game is significantly better than his record of securing points on the board, bar one Andy Johnson inspired miracle with Crystal Palace. Dowie was the new style. A young, apparently sophisticated manager who was fully up to date with the latest training methods, instead of shooting practice Dowie took his team swimming. Boxing was preferred to ball control drills and Dowie looked the real deal with his fancy headset and his fancy ideas. This was the route to go if Charlton were to continue to achieve success with the departure of the man who masterminded their rise from first division strugglers, to contending for European football every season.
However it didn’t quite happen that way. Instead of signing established Premiership or Championship players who fitted with Charlton’s ethos, something Curbishley had down to an art, Dowie signed Souleymane Diawara, “the best defender you’ve never heard of,” from Sochaux. Players like Simon Walton from Swindon followed, “a talented boy who might surprise a few people,” and Dowie was out of a job by November with Charlton lying rock bottom. Now Charlton find themselves in England’s third tier and struggling to get out, I wonder if they would rip up the Curbishley manual today?
Similar things are happening in the Premiership today. Compare the meticulous and calculated methods of Birmingham manager Alex Mcleish with the somewhat bullish Phil Brown. Mcleish’s side have enjoyed an incredible season basing their success on consistent team selection and a system to get the most out their players. Calculated signings such as Lee Bowyer, Barry Ferguson and Steven Carr, who have been solid yet unspectacular professionals their whole careers, have been the basis to their challenge for European football this season.
Hull on the other hand have chosen to place their bet on the ultimate three legged rocking horse. Spending a club record 5 million on the talented yet hugely injury prone Jimmy Bullard, whilst putting him on 50,000 a week, is nothing short of suicidal. It is errors of judgment like this, as well as choosing to conduct a half time dressing down in front of millions, that separates highly successful managers such as Roy Hodgson from young upstarts like Phil Brown.
If moderately sized clubs such as Hull, West Brom, Burnley, Wolves and Nottingham Forest want to become established Premier League clubs, there is a formula that has been proved to work more often than not. You appoint a smart manager who can get the most out of his players, but more importantly is shown to be calm and calculated when it comes to managing the transfer market and who isn’t prepared to risk it all on the best player you have never heard of. When you reach the Premiership most players are already at the top of their games. Therefore it doesn’t matter who the best coach or the best motivator is; it is simply about what manager is the best at judging whether or not a player will be a good fit for the club and the for the team.
It sounds simple and it is, if a small club like Fulham can achieve European football then it can’t be that complicated. But as the midfield general of the great Leeds side of the 1970’s, Johnny Giles, once so eloquently put it to his teammates: “Football is a simple game; it’s just hard work to make it that way.”
Written By Kieran Lovelock