The Team’s Gambit

Image: Stu Forster/Getty Images

A lucky few got to see us play Liverpool at the Cottage in December but for the majority it’s very nearly a year since we had the pleasure of going to our favourite place to see our team in action…

Whenever anybody asks me what I miss most as a result of all the restrictions Covid 19 has placed on our daily lives, then my answer without a moment’s hesitation is ‘ Going to Fulham’. A lot of water has flowed under Putney Bridge since I watched us beat Preston on Leap Year Day in 2020. After a 3 month sojourn we came back to finish the season in style with that famous victory over Brentford in the Play-Off Final being the crowning glory. There was very little time to savour the moment though with the new season just five weeks away. We knew from our bitter experience of two years ago how difficult it would be to bridge the gap between Championship and Premier League and with most transfer business being done late (as always) we were cruelly exposed in our opening fixtures.

We shipped 10 goals in our first three games and on each occasion conceded cheaply and early which meant we never had a chance to get a foothold in those matches. Tony Khan made an injudicious tweet after our 3-0 defeat by Aston Villa criticising our efforts; but it was a lack of quality rather than application that was doing the damage. To be fair to Khan the defensive signings we finally made have all proved successful and performances quickly improved as they were blended into the team. Unfortunately, we were still coming out on the wrong side of results. We deserved a point at Wolves, should have won at Sheffield United, were denied by an offside goal and an abject penalty at West Ham and missed again from the spot against Everton. We did win at home to West Brom but we finally got a result at the end of November that I thought would see us turn the corner.

Few gave us a chance at high flying Leicester but a switch to a back three with Bobby De Cordova-Reid proving a revelation at right wing back was a tactical master stroke by Scott Parker and we thoroughly deserved our 2-1 win. We then lost at Man City (who doesn’t?) but followed this with a magnificent performance against Champions Liverpool in a game we would have deservedly won but for the efforts of Andre Marriner and VAR. If we thought that was bad Graham Scott went one better the following week at Newcastle and again three points were turned into one. In between we experienced the first goalless draw at the Cottage since God was in short trousers against Brighton and in the manner of London buses another one came along straightaway on Boxing Day against Southampton.

We therefore ended the calendar year in a decent run of form with confidence that our remodelled defence was now giving us the platform to start turning draws into victories. Fast forward another few weeks though and that feeling has pretty much evaporated. Performances have still been generally creditable. In fact the home defeat to Leicester was probably the only time we looked truly out of sorts since early in the season. However, the figure in the wins column is still stubbornly stuck on 2 and with the pack ahead picking up victories time and hope is starting to run out.

The credit Parker has put in the bank with our support has dwindled rapidly in recent weeks with many criticising the fact his tactics are now too cautious. I can sympathise with that view but it brought to mind something else that lockdown life has brought into my consciousness. With Boris insisting that we stay at home the goggle box in the Clarke household has come into a lot more use. My wife is very understanding and is happy to allow me my regular fix of the Fulham soap opera. For some curious reason though she dons headphones and listens to music while the games are on. She’s not too taken with the drivel the commentators spout but I’m sure the bigger reason is to drown out the ranting and ravings of a certain person in the room with her.

We have however happily been sharing other televisual experiences and like many others have discovered the delights of Netflix and their vast array of content. One of my particular favourites was The Queen’s Gambit which was a compelling drama about the world of International Chess. It’s success has apparently renewed interest in the game and although it’s too late for this old dog to learn new tricks it did make me see the similarity between the game and modern day football.

Football has got ever more tactical over the years with backroom staff analysing hours and hours of video footage in order to find the slightest flaws in upcoming opponents or to get marginal improvements out of their own players. It’s a far cry from the game I remember growing up. ITV 4’s airings of The Big Match Revisited take me back to those days of the 1970’s when football was played on mud heaps and featured a cast of maverick geniuses and psychopathic hard men. Tackles flew in far more ferociously than they do today but without VAR and prima donna attitudes players just shrugged them off and got on with it or had a quick fist fight that many referees would resolve with a stern talking to and a half-hearted handshake between the protagonists.

Unarguably today’s billiard table surfaces have changed the game for the better but I’m not sure so many of the other ‘advances’ have improved the spectacle. VAR certainly hasn’t and the I’m not sure over coaching of the players has either. I had to laugh on Saturday evening when Mark Noble was waiting to come on for the Hammers. This was a man with over 450 professional appearances under his belt who undoubtedly knows the game backwards having performed at a consistently high level for years. Yet there he was having to listen to Kevin Nolan lecture him with a clipboard or some technological gismo about what he should do once he got on the park. I’m not sure Noble took much notice as I’m pretty sure that by now he knows how to play the game. Neither is this a criticism of Nolan or West Ham. Every top-flight team is doing the same and Fulham are definitely no exception.

This brings me back to my comparison with chess. I feel Parker is learning admirably as a coach and, in just less than two years in our manager’s chair, has been demonstrably improving. He saw our flaws at the start of the season and now with a shored up defence is making sure we don’t lose a match virtually before it’s started. However, to draw an analogy with the chessboard, these tactics are so cautious that all too often we seem to prefer the stalemate of a draw rather than take the risk of going all out for victory. To win a chess match you have to sacrifice a few pieces along the way. In fact, being bold is often the best strategy as it can catch your opponent off guard and cause them to make mistakes.

I completely get Parker’s reluctance to over commit too early as in the Premier League. It’s very difficult to win a match from behind. However, we’ve now reached the stage where the stalemate of a draw is no good to us. To have a realistic chance of staying up we probably need between 36-40 points. To achieve that target would mean us needing to win about half the games we’ve got left. To use a cricketing analogy we’re not going to get there in singles so now is the time to throw the shackles off and play a few shots. If we’re going down let’s do it with a bang rather than experience a slow torturous death.

The performance against West Ham shows the team are still fighting for the cause. Just a win or two would give us, and more importantly them, the belief we can still beat the drop. The Great Escape of 2008 is one of my happiest memories in over 50 years of watching Fulham. This year’s team is arguably a better side than that one so although the task is hard it’s far from impossible. There’s still hope that come May the fat lady will be belting out her tune a healthy distance away from SW6.