Soccer

2010 English Premier League Preview: Fulham

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Our team-by-team (English) Premier League countdown heads to West London today with a club familiar to most American fans -- Fulham. Our organizational depth is coming up trumps again, as we call on commenter extraordinaire, 30f to break down the action at Craven Cottage for the coming year. Follow him on Twitter.

Glass Half Empty, Glass Half Fulham

By 30f

It was just in May, only a month before the start of the World Cup in South Africa, that the Europa League Final started in Hamburg with a wild ceremony parading flags and blasting bombastic music. That was a massive moment for Fulham Football Club – and the glare of the world-wide (humor me) TV lights were so bright …

That the team was a bit blinded. Diego Forlan, the ugly ab-monster that the world loved so much as he killed it for Uruguay in the World Cup scored twice in that Europa League final. His second goal, deep in extra time, was a crusher and the Fulham bright lights kept dimming from there.

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Fulham’s ultra-organized and capable manager, Roy Hodgson, seemed destined to move on to something bigger and better. Uncle Roy did get bigger, and if Liverpool gets new ownership – it might actually turn out to be better for him. I’ll always have great things to say about Hodgson and will wish him all the best, even if I think he’s better managing hard-working guys rather than the collection of divas often found at bigger clubs.

But now, after finishing the 2009-10 Premier League season in 12th on 46 points (two spots and four points behind my prediction at this point last year)– and minus a manager, Fulham was adrift. No European games for the next season and the manager that had saved the team from relegation is gone. How much darker could things get?

Would Martin Jol come from Ajax? What about Dave Jones from Cardiff City? Would Sven give his (alleged) $2 million yearly gig with Ivory Coast to manage at the Cottage? Jol seemed a good choice but (shocker!) decided to stay at Ajax. Jones and Svennis didn’t seem quite right. I was nervous and then …

Mark Hughes was hired. Whew! Hughes is not a genius that is going to drive Fulham to a Champions League spot. The team won’t have the money for the kind of players needed for that. What Hughes does bring is stability and a plan. I had been worried that Fulham might struggle so badly they’d risk going down to the Npower Championship. Hughes calmed those fears and made me more optimistic about this upcoming 10/11 season.

On a side note -- how lame is that Npower sponsorship? England’s second division trading from Coke to that seems weak. As does Fulham losing an established German TV manufacturer (LG) as their shirt sponsor and picking up a currency gambling website (FX Pro) instead. If you want an indication of the state of the economy (or the Prem’s place as an advertising force) those sponsor changes seem informative.

PLAYER MOVEMENT -- Hodgson’s departure left Fulham in neutral for a while – neither buying nor selling. Jonathan Greening and his tattoo collection have come in while Chris Smalling was sold off last season to Man United. Erik Nevland, a useful piece, went home to captain his original team Viking of Norway. There is the rumor that Hughes is going to try and bring some guys who played for him at both Blackburn and Manchester City. Roque Santa Cruz and his massive salary demands I could do without.

While a Craig Bellamy arrival seems less likely to happen, he could become a scrappy Cottage hero along the likes of Jimmy Bullard and Danny Murphy. That’s not much movement and here’s hoping more transfers come in as things progress.

BEST ASSET -- Fulham’s biggest asset this year is that they won’t be distracted by playing in Europe. I know, I know – saying ‘Now we can focus on the league’ is a lame excuse that many teams make after getting knocked out of some cup and they don’t really mean that they’re happy to focus on the league. It’s usually like politicians claiming to want to ‘spend more time with their family’ after resigning in disgrace.

Fulham is NOT a rich club and the demands of those extra (and important) games weighed more heavily on the Cottagers than it does on some of the big boys. Obviously, making it to the Europa Final was wonderful and the best moment (other than some relegation escape) in the history of the team. At the same time, I can see Fulham doing better in the league this year and slowly building their way back up the table and towards another shot to make it into Europe.

BIGGEST DRAWBACK -- It’s a toss-up and both choices revolve around the beloved stadium the team plays in, Craven Cottage. Fulham’s away record was abysmal last year – just as it usually is. This is the one area where I had hoped Hodgson would improve the team (and he did in Europe, but not in the league). Over the past five seasons, Fulham has won nine away league games. Yes, nine! That is less than two per year. Ick. If the team wins four or five away matches in 2010-11, then Sparky is a hero.

The real problem for the team is, once again, wonderfully charming – but tiny – Craven Cottage itself. Less seats to sell equals less money to spend on things like Craig Bellamy. Last season, Fulham home games were 94 percent full, which ranks up there with the big sides – too bad they don’t (and won’t) have more tickets to sell.

BEST PLAYER -- Mark Schwarzer seems a year past his expiry date (but might still be off to Arsenal!) and Breda Hangeland’s performance was down bit last year after a stellar 2008-09. I don’t really have an answer here. Bellamy if he comes. Clint Dempsey if he starts? Danny Murphy if he finds a time machine?

CHANCE OF RELEGATION -- Mil. The presence of Blackpool and West Brom in the 2010-11 league table mean there is likely just a single relegation spot in dispute and it is hard to imagine Fulham getting sucked into that battle with the steady hand of Hughes on the wheel.

CHANCE OF A TITLE -- nil.

PROJECTED FINISH -- Let’s say ninth on 51 points.

BOTTOM LINE -- The 2009-10 version of Fulham was not the defensive juggernaut they were the season before but they did have a bit more danger in attack. If Hughes can keep that trend going without giving up more goals, most Fulham fans would be quite happy. The magic of last season’s run to Hamburg (I could watch THIS over and over ) will likely make anything that happens this year seem tame.

How often does a kid remember the day AFTER Christmas?

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In case you missed it:

* Aston Villa
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* Sunderland
* West Ham United
* Stoke City
* Bolton
* Blackpool
* Blackburn Rovers
* Wolves
* Wigan Athletic
* West Brom