Focus Fives: Best January Signings

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The January Transfer Window! That time of year when every man and his dog is trying to find a gem in a very crowded market when little quality is on offer, and even if it is it often comes at a premium as other clubs are either a) reluctant to sell a prized asset mid-season and/or b) they know the club enquiring is desperate!

Since the January window was introduced in 2002/03, we have had our fair share of inspiring signings, bargains, super loans, underwhelming gambles and our pants pulled down with a couple of shocking pieces of business. In fact, it’s hard to argue in most cases that the window has been anything but a complete waste of time and overhyped jargon to a Fulham supporter and that was demonstrated when looking up who would make my Top 5. It very quickly became apparent that other than a handful of honourable mentions for the likes of Nevland, Sidwell, Collins John, Montella, Niemi, Pog, Stalteri, Targett and Ryan Babel that the top 5 were very easy to pick.

Nonetheless, they were easy to pick because their contributions to Fulham were outstanding and we can only hope that the board can replicate them with another quality signing this month, ‘hope’ being the keyword but at least Cavaleiro is a good start.

5. Brian McBride

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Fulham didn’t sign anyone during the first-ever January window of 2002/03. We signed 6 players twelve months later instead! The January sales of 2004 were very busy for the accountant at Fulham. With Louis Saha departing for a record £12m to Man Utd as Bobby Petta, Collins John, Ian Pearce, Carlos Bocanegra, Moritz Volz and Brian Mcbride joined Bashful and Snow White at Motspur Park.

It had been a brilliant first half of the season for the club as they were in line for their highest league finish with Saha in the form of his life. It was inevitable that he would get a big-money move to one of the big boys leaving even bigger shoes to fill for anyone coming in to replace him. This left the improbable task of replacing arguably our most gifted striker of all time on a shoe-string budget.

Somehow Chris Coleman managed to achieve this, and although Brian would never live up to the natural talent of Saha, he would go on to create a legacy of his own and all for a fee in the region of £500,000 from Columbus Crew! A bargain!

He began his career with the perfect start, scoring on his debut against Spurs at Loftus Road. From then on he grew into the role of a warrior, the American Braveheart if ever Mel Gibson wanted a support act. On the front line, fighting Fulham’s battle every season to survive against the odds with a declining, meagrely invested-in squad. It was an uphill task but one where you need your big characters and bravest players to step up. Brian did that week in, week out. Black eyes and broken cheeks a plenty as he became a firm fan favourite thanks to his attitude as much as his talent.

In all my years as a supporter, I’ve not come across anyone in the game who was as dominant in the air as McBride. It was astonishing watching him tower above centre backs for every header, with the accuracy to compliment his aerial superiority. The bloke had a magnet imprinted under his forehead (to compliment the titanium plates already there), there’s no other logical explanation for why he was so good in the air, especially given that he was only 6 foot, which meant that the majority of centre backs were taller.

There were a few outsiders for the 5th spot in my list but it had to go to Brian. For his consistency and for always playing at his very best. There are not many players that could have recovered from a long-term injury to play such a pivotal role in The Great Escape and we were incredibly fortunate that lightning struck twice in that regard with Bullard. His ability in the air would go down as legendary as he headed home winning goals in The Great Escape final run-in against both Everton and Birmingham City in front of the Hammy End before it was time to hand over the batten to the younger Bobby Zamora to take Fulham to the next level.

He remains the club’s joint second-highest goalscorer in the Premier League behind his compatriot Clint Dempsey. I feel he is firmly cemented in 5th place with nobody good enough to challenge as of yet, but equally, I don’t think McBride quite had enough ability to put him any higher.

Nevertheless, not many players in our history have been credited with a bar named after them, which demonstrates his popularity with our fanbase. A great player but an even greater man.

4. Simon Davies

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January 2007, the month when the footballing Gods started to knit together Roy Hodgson’s master plan. Nobody could have predicted at the time what kind of future was to unfold for Fulham Football Club but it all started with the signings of Clint Dempsey and Simon Davies in this particular window.

Davies’ career had taken a downward spiral after a decent spell with Spurs. He didn’t fit in with the style of play at Everton, scoring just 1 goal in 53 appearances. So when Chris Coleman brought him to SW6 his stock was relatively low with a mist of optimism still looming based on his Spurs days.

Overall Simon’s career with Fulham epitomises the journey Fulham went on between 2007 and 2013. The departure of Chris Coleman, the tenure of Lawrie Sanchez, The Great Escape, Hodgson, seventh, the Europa Journey and the sinking ship thereafter. The heights of being Fulham’s only goalscorer in a major final to add to his heroic goal in the semi-final that only a footballing genius would be capable of scoring. The fact those two goals were his only goals in Europe during his entire career, having played for clubs with the prestige of Spurs and Everton, epitomises the romance of this being Fulham’s first time to live the dream. The injury setbacks that saw his influence on the pitch decline and eventually result in retirement, perfectly reflected Fulham’s fortunes post-Hamburg. In a poetic way, the ups, the downs and the climax of the Europa League final show that Simon Davies’ career mirrored Fulham’s journey, and just like Fulham are now seen in the eyes of the neutral, Davies’ achievements are arguably a forgotten entity amongst our supporters. Would he make many fans’ team of the new millennium? I doubt it. Yet this is someone who contributed heavily to the most famous era in the club’s history, from the greatest of escapes to the fairytale of (almost) conquering Europe.

I doubt Chris Coleman or Simon himself envisaged the role he would play in Fulham’s history and there certainly won’t be many players who go on to have a Fulham career as eventful as Simon’s.

A true great.

3. Clint Dempsey

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Despite spending 6 years with the club across two spells and making 230 appearances, I think Clint Dempsey is in a small bracket of players who will always be remembered for one defining moment. That is undoubtedly his goal against Juventus!

Up until that point of his Fulham career, he was a decent all-rounder who’d have been remembered in years to come as a useful addition to our years in the Premier League. But in a very similar fashion to Danny Murphy before the Portsmouth goal, it took that crucial, history-defining moment to rewrite their future as a Fulham legend.

Of course, there were also a handful of memorable contributions during his first couple of seasons, including the vital winner at home to Liverpool which secured survival with one game to spare under new boss Lawrie Sanchez, which also happened to be his first goal. But it wasn’t long before Roy Hodgson came in and with Roy’s two banks of four and Zamora up top with AJ and then Gera during the Europa campaign, it felt to me to that Clint was treated with the same level of importance as Abou Kamara is to our current side. In and out, impact sub and someone to do a job either out wide or if Bobby was injured, up top. Useful but not pivotal.

Even the famous Juve goal was scored as a substitute and was his only goal in the Europa League proper that season. This theme continued through to the final when he replaced a half-fit Zamora in the second half. In fact, Basel at home, Roma away and Wolfsburg at home were the only games he started excluding the qualifiers.

Hodgson then left for Liverpool and something changed. Possibly coincidence but in my opinion, it’s because the team structure changed. A few sprays of WD40 and the system wasn’t so rigid and disciplined under Hughes or Jol as it was under Hodgson. Not a criticism in any way, shape or form of the previous regime, but the freedom given to our wide players suited Dempsey and he began to flourish as a potent goalscorer. In case you think I’ve imagined this, here are the stats. In the two and a half years under Roy, Dempsey scored 17 goals in 104 appearances. In his final two years under Hughes and Jol, he scored 32 goals in 87 games. So something clearly suited his game more as his career peaked.

Perhaps this sounds quite negative up until now so let’s balance that up. His last two years were sensational in a Fulham shirt. So much so in fact that he has to be regarded as one of our best goalscorers from midfield. He was aggressive, he was flamboyant and not shy of trying ambitious skills/shots. He was a match-winner who remains our top goalscorer in the Premier League era and the fourth highest in our history in the top division behind Graham Leggat, Maurice Cook and Johnny Haynes.

He scored hat tricks in consecutive home games against Newcastle and Charlton during the best season of his career when he signed off his time at Fulham with 23 goals in all competitions in 2011/12. The kind of form that had Gary Neville selecting him in his Premier League Team of the Year and sparked interest from Liverpool, which we all know turned very sour with an eventual move to Spurs. We won’t dwell on this as he returned during our relegation season in 2014 for a brief loan spell. It didn’t spark the kind of romance you’d have hoped from a returning hero but nonetheless, it cleared the air and felt like an apology for his poorly handled exit.

Why have I put Dempsey in third place? Well, his last season swayed it as he took his form to a level that I personally don’t think McBride or Simon Davies were capable of reaching. Plus he scored the ‘greatest’ goal in our history. Not the best of course, as that claim goes to Kasami but that Juventus match ticked every box when it comes to drama, giant opposition, the occasion, competing at the highest level, the comeback of all comebacks. It literally had everything and then to top it off by scoring the goal of your career as the winner makes that day both the greatest match and the greatest goal in our history. Even though that’s subjective, I’m very comfortable making that claim for this one.

2. Aleksander Mitrović

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Despite already experiencing mesmerising football in the second half of the 2016/17 season as we chased the playoff places, there was always a cloud hanging over Jokanović’s play that suggested there were a couple of pieces of the jigsaw missing. So, although it was left until the very last minute of the 2018 January window to approach Newcastle/Mitrović over a possible loan move, it was refreshing to see the club identify two positions that would make our team complete. Matt Targett is very unlucky to miss out on this list but when you see the five names ahead of him, it doesn’t take much to realise why.

Mitrović, on the other hand, was always going to make the top five and it was simply a matter of where to rank him. The reason I’ve put him in second place is that although McBride, Davies and Dempsey played in greater seasons, better teams, and provided us with more iconic individual moments, Mitrović has been the driving force in every season he has played for us. He was the difference between us being promoted and fizzling out during the Wembley campaign. He is our talisman, our pride and joy, the player who stands out above everyone at the club with even his teammates recognising his superiority. I’m not sure the other 3 have ever held such status.

His short-term impact arguably makes him the best signing Fulham have ever made and his consistency and loyalty to the club when put in a position where his commitment was truly tested after relegation makes him a true great already. So far he has scored 41 goals in 84 matches. That’s a goal every 2.04 games, a record only bettered by Allan Clarke and Bedford Jezzard post-Second World War. In his only season with the club in the Premier League, he scored 11 league goals. To put that into perspective for anyone who would say he hasn’t done it at the top level, Brian McBride and Bobby Zamora never managed double figures in a top-flight season. So to do it in the club’s worst Premier League team is another remarkable achievement.

I love him, you love him, it’s impossible not to. He’s like our Olympic torch, ‘Mitros on fire’ and all that jazz, but also because we know one day the torch will be put out and things will move on but whilst he’s representing the club, it’s hard to argue that seeing him in the lineup and leading from the front doesn’t represent hope. With Mitro in your team, you’ve always got a chance.

1.Brede Hangeland

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Brede Hangeland! What can you say about Brede that Fulham fans don’t know already? The gentleman-like personality of McBride but with the ability to lay claim to being arguably our greatest defender and certainly one half of our greatest partnership with Aaron Hughes.

When Roy Hodgson was appointed in December 2007, he made no secret of the fact that we needed to add players in January. Done in methodical fashion, it was as if Hodgson pinpointed certain types of players and knew who he wanted to sign in advance, such was his wealth of knowledge when it came to Europe. Having known Hangeland from his days at Viking FK, he brought the big friendly Norwegian to Fulham and within a handful of appearances, our defence began to take shape.

Although not blessed with pace, Brede read the game like a fortune teller and was accomplished enough on the ball to perform at the highest level. He wasn’t a fancy, ball-playing centre back as appears to be the trend nowadays, first and foremost he was an incredibly composed defender, making the game look easy. As the side propelled from relegation survivors to club record-breakers to European finalists, Hangeland also raised his game to the next level each time. He was a crucial ingredient in the greatest era in the clubs history. How do you better that?

I would argue that he was the most important player in the Hodgson era and also the best. But even if it’s a close-fought contest with Murphy or whoever else you want to throw into the debate, by the time you add in the personality factor, there really is no contest. Some players just get Fulham immediately. Hangeland, McBride, Volz, Mitrović. They understand how special the club is and demonstrate that pride and understanding of the club on and off the pitch.

He may not have been the greatest captain in the world, and it was awful seeing such a hero leave in the fashion that he did under Magath. But seeing him in the Hammy End with the crowd as soon as Felix was sacked, showing us where his heart belonged, showed how special the bond is between him and the fans.

Brede Hangeland should be an ambassador for Fulham Football Club. He has always represented the club with class. His sense of humour, his mannerisms, his personality. He was born to be a Fulham player and I can’t think of many who would be better placed to represent the club internationally.

Nobody in the new millennium has made more appearances than him and in my opinion, he walks into any greatest Fulham XI you can muster, it’s simply a case of who partners him at the back rather than whether he gets the nod himself. Far and away the greatest signing we’ve made since the January transfer window was introduced. How we could do with another Brede this month!

Legend.