By Matt Rowson
Five years ago, Fulham were floundering at the bottom of Division Three. At the time of writing, they are ten points clear at the top of Division One. Quite some progress in such a brief period, the match of Watford's own ascent twenty-odd years ago.
Two major differences, though. One, the Football League is a different ball game now; the divisions are probably further apart and the barriers to rapid progress, often deliberately erected, are more robust. Two, Fulham have had Chairman Mo and his apparently limitless funds to fall back on. This generated a somewhat uneven playing field. Two years ago, Fulham paid two million pounds for Chris Coleman whilst their Division Two competition could only afford far thriftier outlay. Just this week the name of Emmanuel Petit is linked to Craven Cottage. It probably won't happen, but the rumours alone illustrate the way Division One's odds are stacked. You don't see Petit being linked with a move to Grimsby, or to Watford for that matter. Elton never bankrolled us in that way. Nor should or did he have to.
The money itself is no reason to dislike Fulham. To carp on about the finances would smack very badly of sour grapes with the league table the way it is. You've got to have the right man to spend the money, and in Jean Tigana Fulham appear to have made an inspired appointment judging from the team's success, the much-praised style of play and the club's increased pulling power.
The real problem with Fulham is that they are rapidly becoming British football's Jurassic Park. Unrecognisable from the football club of five years ago, New Fulham are borne of the tunnel vision of a determined but extremely stubborn millionaire. It's no small irony that John Hammond was played by Richard Attenborough, fan of Fulham's near neighbours Chelsea. Big Mo's determination to show "them" (them being a general term typically used to describe the "establishment" lurking in murky shadows and conspiring to deprive Big Mo of his dues) what for has long submerged any question of what's right or wrong.
And, like Jurassic Park, New Fulham is built on shaky and ill-conceived principles. Certainly Fulham's apparently inevitable ascent to the Premiership should guarantee their financial future with or without their chairman's continued interest. But it would be interesting to see what happened if Fulham should ever stumble back out of the Premiership. Big Mo isn't the sort to associate himself with failure. Meanwhile in the highly competitive market for London's football fans, even the current Fulham side have failed to attract the crowds. Whilst our attendances have been no more impressive, we're not ever likely to contemplate having to pay Petit £65,000 per week on the back of them. And if the club was forced to amend its purchasing policy, it would have very little in the way of a youth structure to fall back on. Only Sean Davis of the current squad came through the junior ranks, and even the reserve eleven facing Reading in the week didn't boast a single homegrown player.
At the moment, Fulham are the second favourite team of all but the fans of the clubs they are beating every week. It will be interesting to note the reaction of the support, currently lording over QPR, scoffing at old adversaries Brentford and setting their sites firmly on Chelsea when Fulham become just another Premiership side, part of Big Mo's hated "establishment". I'm increasingly mindful of a Chelsea fan who contacted BSaD last season, angered at the match preview placing Chelsea firmly in a box with Manchester United, Arsenal and the rest. Stung by bitter realisation, this individual had managed to convince himself that Ken Bates' plucky troops were somehow the defenders of the faith, striking a blow for the little guys in the big league. Fulham won't be a little club making a go of it any more, not by any stretch. The chances are they'll cease to be very interesting at all. Aston Villa, Newcastle and Everton have local fanbases. And they're still duller than Weekend Watchdog. Think about it.
Fulham's strengths are well documented, so what reasons for optimism can Watford have on their trip to Craven Cottage on Boxing Day? Well, if reports are to be believed, it's not only the ethics of the club's development that rings of Jurassic Park... the centre of Fulham's defence has displayed all the decisiveness of an overweight brachiosaur in recent games. With a midfield that enjoys knocking the ball around in its own half, that has to go down as a weakness. GT is unlikely to allow Watford to afford their hosts the respect that others have suffered from doing.
Add to that the fact that Fulham have so rarely been behind in the league this season. Jason Koumas' opening goal for Tranmere at the weekend probably arrived a little earlier than John Aldridge would have chosen... we know from bitter experience how tables suddenly turning can upset a team's rhythm. The atmosphere at Craven Cottage has not been anything to write home about either, and is unlikely to be enhanced by the game being held at midday on Boxing Day.
But it goes without saying that Fulham's playing squad is looking pretty formidable. Maik Taylor, briefly Southampton's keeper before his move to Fulham, is possibly a weak link, and is currently backup Northern Ireland keeper to Wigan's Roy Carroll. His cover is American Marcus Hahneman, signed by Paul Bracewell from Colorado Rapids. (Is there a law about American clubs and stupid names?)
At the back, first choice centre backs are skipper Chris Coleman and the portly Andy Melville, with principle backup coming from two more Welsh options in Kit Symons and Alan Nielson. Fullbacks are the highly rated Steve Finnan and the bullish, more defensive Rufus Brevett. Cover here comes from former Crewe and Wednesday man Wayne Collins and yet another Welshman, Paul Trollope.
Despite the rave reviews offered to Fulham's forward line, it's in midfield where the difference really tells. Lee Clark continues to be too good for this division without managing to escape from it... with perfect timing he appears to yearn for a return to the north-east in coincidence with Boro's relegation (here's hoping, Tel...). Alongside him, twenty year old Nicholas Sahnoun has impressed early in his loan spell from Bordeaux, which lasts the season. Fabrice Fernandes has plenty of talent, but is criticised as a "pretty boy", fragile in a challenge and too frequently releasing possession. Latest addition to the side is Andrejs Stolcers - Latvians appear to have superseded Scandinavians as the Division 1 fashion accessory but Stolcers, who can also play up front, has made a classy start to his Fulham career.
Other midfield options include England U21 midfielder Sean Davis, a solid defensive midfielder who is apparently one of the stars of the season so far, as well as Dane Bjarne Goldbaek, who last played against us in our win over Chelsea in September '99. The formidable John Collins, like Petit a former Monaco charge of Tigana's, has a hamstring problem whilst Steve Hayward, a rare veteran of the Division Two side, appears to be on the verge of joining Luton. American Eddie Lewis, another Bracewell signing, has generally failed to impress.
Up front, the main man is the velociraptor Louis Saha, who has excelled since arriving from Metz in the summer. Saha, who once had a spell at Newcastle when he had sensible hair, appeared to have picked up a knock at the weekend. Seeing as the Cottagers were hosting Tranmere, this isn't overly surprising. Louis Boa Morte, a scuttling, momentum driven rattlesnake of a forward has recently deposed one-time Kenny Jackett target Barry Hayles as Saha's partner; Boa Morte is on a season's loan from Southampton. Other attacking options include the veteran German Karl-Heinz Riedle and the sprightlier Kevin Betsy, who sounds like a child's doll.
Given our recent downturn, this game is far less of an event than it could have been. Fulham have shifted position from that of our championship rivals to, realistically, the team we want to keep winning and knock points off of Brum, Bolton and the rest.
But not Tuesday. Craven Cottage holds mighty pleasant memories for the Hornets, and for many of the players - eight of the current squad played in that game in May 1998. Out of context, Fulham are not a difficult team to want to beat in any case. Irrespective of who your fiancée supports.
And, as for Big Mo, last word has to go to Jeff Goldblum... or more precisely his character, Ian Malcolm, who one assumes isn't a Fulham fan....
"I'll tell you the problem with the power you're using here... it didn't require any discipline to attain it! You read what others had done and you took the next step... you didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves so you don't take any responsibility. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to achieve something as fast as you could..."