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Nationwide Division One, 20/1/01
Likely Lad
By Matt Rowson

This is not the sort of thing you could make up.

Okay, get this. I'm doing a Masters course, right? Three years distance learning, big pain in the arse albeit there's a carrot at the end of it. One of the sacrifices to be made is a fixture coinciding with the token annual exam, on a Saturday in January.

This is Year 3. Now used to having my January decimated, I checked out the fixture list as soon as it came out. Aware of the potential disaster, I contact the University. No problem, exam scheduled for January 13th in Sheffield. Hallam University is a leisurely stroll from Bramall Lane. The exam finishes before two o'clock. Perfect.

The exam timetable comes through. January 20th. January the bloody 20th. So which bright effing spark made that decision? Still, bound to be on Sky. Their schedule was decided before our untimely loss of form. Fulham top, Watford second, they're not screening the Boxing Day game, so it'll be on the Sunday, right?

Wrong. Saturday, midday. Birmingham-Blackburn is more fitting of the Sunday slot, apparently. So not only do I neither get to see or listen to the game, I have to spend three hours in the exam trying desperately not to think about football. The final whistle should go whilst the papers are being collected. Bastards bastards BASTARDS!

It's barely three weeks since our 5-0 humiliation at Craven Cottage. Robert Page will be missing again, this time through suspension, and Paul Robinson also. Half our back four missing. Against the league leaders. Fantastic. I mean, it's hardly as if Fulham need any help, is it? Top of the league, mullering pretty much everybody (except Stockport - bizarre!), lots of goals scored, not very many conceded, still plenty of money to spend, still linked routinely with every Premiership player who comes onto the market, doubly so if they happen to be French. Everyone knows that Fulham are the strongest side in the division.

Which is sort of the main problem, really. The situation in Division One is analogous to that in the Premiership. Certainly, Manchester United have the best squad in the division, but not by all that much, not really. Liverpool, Arsenal, even Chelsea's squad stands reasonable comparison, man-for-man. What sets United apart is the flattening self-belief. It characterises the whole side to such an extent that the merest slip by the likes of Silvestre or Neville sticks out like a sore thumb due to its rarity. Alex Ferguson's blind defence of his troops can certainly be classified as mind games, but it's the minds of his own players that he's manipulating. Nothing, least of all the manager, can allow a seed of doubt to enter their thinking. And of course the media generally oblige too. That's what makes United so formidable.

In the same way, Fulham's runaway lead in Division One is running on pure self-belief. Certainly Fulham have a squad that is strong by Division 1 standards, but not that outstanding, not really. And since we last met, the first team has suffered a number of setbacks, which mean that even with a makeshift defence, we shouldn't lower our ambitions on Saturday. Chris Coleman's dramatic injury, which looks like condemning him to twelve months on the sidelines, means that Fulham's central defensive pairing is Andy Melville and Kit Symons. Who not so long ago were playing for Oxford and Portsmouth respectively. I mean, really....

And the much-vaunted midfield, an area of strength for the Cottagers, is now missing Lee Clark due to an achilles injury in addition to the continued absence of hamstring victim John Collins. With Latvian Andrejs Stolcers looking uncomfortable and lightweight in a wide-left role, and Fabrice Fernandes, although free again from suspension, infuriatingly inconsistent. Far less intimidating.

Up front, meanwhile, the Cottagers are missing the obnoxious Barry Hayles through an ankle problem, meaning a rare start for Kevin Betsy and a first appearance on the bench this term for German veteran Karl-Heinz Riedle. Fulham have lost two of their last three games, the one win coming in unconvincing fashion at home to Norwich on Saturday.

They certainly have exceptional players, of course. Saha was the difference between the two sides at the weekend; largely ineffective until one moment of brilliance broke the deadlock. One moment can be all it takes. Sean Davis in midfield is a formidable obstacle, and Steve Finnan down the right provides a significant threat.

But Fulham are really only as good as we let them be. On Boxing Day we gave them an opening, they drove in a bloody big wedge and prised us wide open. We're not at the tail end of a run of defeats now, though. Nor are Fulham flying to quite the same extent. Game on.

Meanwhile, I'll be doing the Likely Lads thing from Sheffield to Bedfordshire, avoiding radios, football fans, teletext and mobile phones before - hopefully - picking up a video tape and watching with at least some of the excitement of being there. Not because Fulham are particularly important, mind. Just that after three hours of likelihood ratios and distribution theory I'm likely to need a serious antidote....