By Matt Rowson
Ah yes. Fulham.
Seems a while ago now that Kev'n'Ray's travelling circus was such a favoured target on these pages. Lots has happened in the meantime... we've won a Championship, a play-off final, got relegated, said goodbye to a great manager, the Vialli disaster and financial catastrophe, sold the ground, bought it back. Keegan's had an uninspiring spell as England manager and now runs what Steve Claridge described yesterday as "coupon-busting" Manchester City. Wilkins has developed from a figure of ridicule to the target of something closer to hatred following his pocket-lining involvement in Vialli's management team. And Fulham...?
Well, off the pitch, there's been no little progress, with the move away from and ultimately redevelopment of and move back to Craven Cottage. On the pitch, having blagged their way into the Premiership (not Premier, not a ship) party, they've spent the last three years hiding in the corner trying to avoid eye contact with anyone, with the consequence that they're always the one you forget is actually there.
Three finishes of thirteenth, fourteenth and ninth would do anyone in Division Two very nicely, of course. But you'd think that Fulham fans, even nouveau-fans, would have the grace to remember where they'd come from. Their promotion in 2001 has led to their first top-flight spell since the Sixties; as recently as 1996-97, they were in Division Four. And yet Fulham's relatively uncomfortable start to this season has been greeted with disdain by some on the messageboards, with one assertion suggesting that merely "clinging on in the Premiership wouldn't be worth turning up for". Well, if you're not fussed, there's a few of us down here who'd take the financial boost and no mistake.
The test of any manager is how they fare when things start to go wrong, of course; Chris Coleman's highly impressive ninth place last season didn't completely dispel the suspicion that the young man (Coleman is still only thirty-four) was biting off an awful lot. Club stalwart or no, the disquiet is progressing beyond mere grumbles. The club's defensive record is a particular problem, and no club in the top flight has lost as many league games as the Cottagers this season.
Having fished around, apparently unsuccessfully, for a move back into the financial circles in which he once operated, Edwin Van der Sar looks like staying at Fulham and is supposedly on the verge of signing a new contract. Mark Crossley, still only thirty-five and a one-time Welsh national colleague of Coleman, is the stand-in; he last crossed our path when sulkily accusing us of throwing the abysmal defeat at Brighton two years ago when the Stoke side he was loaned to were threatened with the drop.
Injuries and illness are limiting Fulham's options at the back, the weakest area of the side at the best of times. Zat Knight picked up his fifth booking of the season at Crystal Palace on Saturday; by my reckoning that means he misses this one but there's no reference to this either on Fulham's site or the FA's suspension lists. Twenty-one year-old Zesh Rehman, a defensive midfielder according to the official site, should certainly play; if Knight is missing then Coleman's options are limited with Alain Goma still recovering from a hamstring problem and Ian Pearce out with an adductor strain. Likeliest solution would seem to be American Carlos Bocanegra move across from the left; messageboard assessment has this as his strongest position in any case, he's been cited as the team's weakest link at full back.
This would probably see attacking but unfavoured youngster Adam Green get a run at left back, with Frenchman Jerome Bonissel a long-term absentee. On the right, former Arsenal reserve Mauritz Volz missed Wednesday night's draw at Southampton with flu, but should reclaim his place from Liam (son of one-time Watford target Leroy) Rosenior. Young left-sided centre-back Liam Fontaine could get a place on the bench.
If defence is a problem, then the midfield looks like Fulham's strongest suit, despite Steed Malbranque's patchy form as transfer rumours, apparently stirred by his agent, continue to circulate. Another player linked with a move is Luis Boa Morte, just back from injury and a key man on the left hand side; Newcastle are repeatedly linked with the Portuguese international, but Coleman continues to insist that a new contract is close. The longer the contract stays "close" of course, the less convincing Coleman will sound.
Club captain Lee Clark is coming back from injury to provide much needed leadership on the field; he might get a run, but would need to displace either Welsh veteran Mark Pembridge or the colossal Pape Bouba Diop, scorer of a very funny goal against France for Senegal at the start of the last World Cup Finals tournament. Other options include another recent flu victim Sylvain Legwinski, who isn't having a great season, but Claus Jensen is out with a torn hamstring.
Up front, thirty-three year-old Andrew Cole seems to be having a happier time than he did at Blackburn with eight goals this season. Tomasz Radzinski is coming into form following a slow start to his Fulham career, but Jonathan Pearce has just advised that he's left the Southampton game clutching his thigh. Which is a shame. Other attacking options are Dutch international Collins John and brawny American Brian McBride.
Liam Rosenior has just scored an own goal for Southampton. Oh dear.
It's difficult not to be underwhelmed by this one, given our depressing league form and the other cup ties looming. However, this might not be the poisoned chalice that it appears; if we lose the tie, then at least one of the cup distractions is out of the way. If we win, our league form might get a much needed boost.
And the last time I felt this indifferent about a cup tie was Southampton...