Following Roy Hodgson as Fulham manager was always going to be a tough ask and Mark Hughes is not fondly remembered by our fans after his short one season stay at the club. It was more the nature of his departure, citing our lack of ambition, that rankled as well as the fact he was a difficult character to warm to after our love affair with Sir Roy…
It’s probably a little unfair on the Welshman that he’s seen in this light as his only year in charge saw us finish in 8th; the second highest finish in our history. There is of course the argument that it was player power that forced Hughes into a change back to Hodgson’s methods after a poor first half to the season that helped us climb the table. There is no doubt though that he should be afforded plenty of credit for bringing one of my favourite players of the modern era to the club in the form of the original and peerless Mousa Dembélé.
Dembélé was 23 when we signed him from AZ Alkmaar on a three year deal and had already been capped at full level by Belgium. Hughes had spoken glowingly of his talents and it was in a home game with Wolves on September 11th 2010 that we first realised what a player we had on our hands. He’d already scored in a League Cup victory over Port Vale, appeared as a substitute against Man Utd and made his full league debut at Blackpool. The game at Bloomfield Road had been our third successive draw at the start of the League campaign so the visit of Wolves was seen as a good chance to get a first win under our belts.
It wasn’t going to be an easy fixture though as Mick McCarthy had turned Wolves into very durable, awkward opponents and they too went into the game unbeaten, with a win and two draws from their first three games. We started brightly and Simon Davies had two penalty claims denied early on before the 10th minute when Wolves punctured the mood with a goal from their first real attack. Kevin Doyle broke on the right and swept the ball across for Jelle Van Damme to arrive at the back post to side foot home.
This quelled our momentum and things went from bad to worse just before the half hour mark when Bobby Zamora was stretchered off with a broken leg after a Karl Henry tackle.
The interval came as a welcome relief to us and things quickly changed for the better just four minutes into the second half when Dembélé rifled a crisp low drive past ex-Cottager Marcus Hahnemann to restore parity. From then on Fulham seized control and although the visitors had a couple of chances they seemed more content to protect the point they had whether by fair means or foul. As the pressure built it was the latter method that was utilised most which prompted a flurry of yellow cards and riled our fans who were still bitter at Zamora’s untimely departure. It’s not often our followers get into a febrile state but the atmosphere no doubt urged us forward. Finally in the last minute Christophe Berra pushed his luck once too often and got his second yellow card for a foul on the edge of the box. With several dead ball specialists in the line up there was some surprise when our new Belgian stepped up but that emotion quickly changed to ecstasy as Dembélé’s daisy cutter appeared to go under the wall and evade Hahnemann to give us the three points and turn him into an instant hero.
Over the next two years we were privileged to see him go from strength to strength as he established himself as one of the finest midfielders in the Premier League. He often seemed to glide around the pitch like a vintage Rolls Royce but combined this silky movement with such strength and balance that he was almost impossible to knock off the ball once in possession. It was no surprise that bigger clubs heads were turned and sadly he departed for Tottenham in August 2012. The Hodgson team was by now being broken up but I’ve no doubt the departure of Dembélé was the biggest single factor in the relegation that was to follow the following season.
As we entertain Wolves this weekend we’re at last in a position to emulate the 8th place finish that Hughes achieved in 2010/11. What also resonates is that in Willian we have arguably the finest ball player we’ve seen in a Fulham shirt since King Mousa the first was making such an impact back then. As an old Fulham chairman would say, we’re lucky people!