Dan Crawford* is a sportswriter, Fulham supporter, Labour councillor (‘when will my bins be emptied?’) and commissioning editor of the Cottagers’ Hammyend.com fan site. It’s a good read for proper fans of any football club …
Salut! Sunderland: So have you gone from one bonkers owner to another or has it been – until the unexpected battering at Hull – a seamless transition from rich, generous and committed benefactor to a successor with similar qualities?
It’s a bit early to say at the moment. From the outside, Mohamed al Fayed’s eccentricities were probably what most people knew about Fulham, but he oversaw a rise, the like of which few of us saw coming when he arrived at Craven Cottage. Many of us were disappointed to see him go, because he’d kept Fulham punching above our weight for an awfully long time and established them as a self-sustaining, Premier League club, which was no mean feat.
We don’t know an awful lot about Shahid Khan, bar his background in American football. The encouraging thing is that he’s kept most of the key figures in place, including chief executive Alistair Mackintosh, and stressed the importance of staying at Craven Cottage. Given Fulham’s rather perilous league position at the moment, we hope that January might see some significant investment in the playing squad.
What do you make of it so far, Shahid Khan’s sacking of Martin Jol, the appointment of Rene Meulensteen in his place and – including Hull, of course – performances on the field?
I think the time had come to sack Martin Jol. He’d been under pressure for some time and didn’t show any sign of being able to fix things on the field. It was almost as though the spark had gone out. Meulensteen, for all his much-vaunted coaching ability, was something of a gamble as he’d had very little managerial experience, something he has himself acknowledged by getting in couple of experienced coaches alongside him.
The initial signs were encouraging. There has been a subtle switch in formation to a central midfield three, which has prevented us from being overrun and allowed us to dictate games a little bit more. Meulensteen’s also been willing to try a few younger faces, as we’ve seen in the FA Cup, which has been promised by a number of former managers, who have retreated to playing the older pros when things have got tough.
Meulensteen maintains the humbling at Hull – shocking as it was – was a one-off. Time will tell on that, but we still look alarmingly fragile at the back without Brede Hangeland, who wasn’t having the best of seasons prior to his injury. There’s a lot more enthusiasm about the place and I can’t stress enough how vital that victory over West Ham was. Home wins could keep us up and there just haven’t been enough of them this season.
Len Shackleton famously made chapter nine of his autobiography a blank page save for the title:”What the average director knows about football”. How much do you reckon Khan knows?
The honest answer is I don’t know. He’s a smart businessman and he hasn’t made any of the blunders that have afflicted owners at Cardiff or Hull in terms of the club’s colours or name. Even the managerial change he did make met with the fans’ approval. I can’t profess to believing that he knows a great deal about the game, but, as I’ve said already, he’s got Alistair Mackintosh, who has played a crucial part in transforming debt into profit in the past few years, alongside him – and I’m confident that we won’t be recklessly gambling like a few clubs in the recent past.
But at least he got rid of the bizarre Michael Jackson statue …
That he did. It was a bit of millstone around our necks and the tragedy was that it took away from the statue celebrating the contribution of Fulham’s finest ever player in Johnny Haynes. Khan said he’d listen to the fans – and he was quite decisive on that point.
Were you more surprised to see your club or my club in deep trouble this season, and did you always suspect the Paolo Di Canio appointment would end badly?
I’m surprised to have seen both of us struggle to the extent that we have. Jol’s real failing was filling his squad with a number of artisans and not coming up with a tactical plan to adequately utilise them. It shouldn’t be rocket science that a side with the likes of Taraabt, Ruiz, Berbatov and Bent would struggle without adequate protection but the defensive organisation that characterised our run to the Europa League final – and indeed, our respectable league finishes – seemed to have just disappeared.
I felt Di Canio was a strange appointment – not just for his own short fuse and what might come with that – but also because he hadn’t managed at the level he was being asked to. But, once he kept Sunderland up, I suspect he was always going to be given the opportunity to take the club forward. Like ourselves, it looked like a change had to be made and I’ve been really impressed with Gus Poyet, both in the football he’s trying to play, and his attitude to the situation he finds himself in.
Who are the greatest players you have seen – or, as in the case of Johnny Haynes I imagine, wish you’d seen – in Fulham colours and who should have been allowed nowhere near them?
You’d be right. I’m not old enough to have seen Haynes, George Cohen, Allan Clarke or even Gordon Davies play for Fulham and my most celebrated players come from the more recent era. It’s always difficult to judge the “greatest” player but I really enjoyed watching Steed Malbranque, who played for a few seasons at Sunderland, in a white shirt and more recently, Moussa Dembele. Both had an invaluable ability to glide past players, whilst Danny Murphy was an unexpected bonus at the end of his career – he just seemed to keep going and going.
At the other end of the scale, my early years of following Fulham were particularly bleak. They were plenty who probably weren’t good enough, but we consoled ourselves with the fact that they were trying. Nobody particularly took to Mark Cooper too kindly – he just gave the impression of going through the motions before moving on and scoring a goal that effectively relegated us and celebrating wildly in front of our supporters. From the Premier League era, we had an Australian winger called Ahmed Elrich who just didn’t belong at such a high level and is now in prison Down Under for gun offences (not entirely clear what happened but Elrich was apparently wounded in a drive-by shooting, then jailed for four years for possessing two loaded pistols and a quantity of Cialis, of all drugs – ed).
And what have been your own highs and lows as a Fulham supporter?
The lows were the really dark days. Being beaten by Hayes in the FA Cup on television wasn’t particularly clever, nor was losing to Torquay when we were 91st in the league pyramid and they were bottom of the pile. But the worst period would probably have been when it looked like the club was going to fold, or that we were going to lose Craven Cottage. It’s difficult to explain but, for most Fulham fans, the Cottage is such a crucial part our identity and the period when it seemed like we’d never return there was torturous, especially as were in exile at QPR. Fortunately, we returned home and some of best days followed.
I’d say my fondest memories were the promotion season from the bottom division under Micky Adams, because that side had narrowly avoided going out of the league altogether the previous year and stormed unexpectedly to promotion, which was remarkable. Some of the football we played to win the old Division 1 title under Jean Tigana was mesmorising and then there was Roy Hodgson’s reign, which started with a real battle against relegation that seemed doomed, until we strung three superb wins together at the end of the season to stay up. We then went on to record our highest ever finish in the league and, ridiculously, went all the way to the Europa League final after that. The less said about the last few minutes in Hamburg the better, butt he whole experience was unforgettable.
Football folklore has it Fulham’s away support, even for a game across London, does not require much more than minibus. Leaving aside the obvious exaggeration, does the relatively low following sadden you?
It does, although we do still manage to take a decent following to some away games. We had quite a large contingent for the reverse fixture at the Stadium of Light back in August and we sold out our allocation for the trip to Norwich in the FA Cup at the weekend. I think there’s a broader point about pricing and the treatment of away supporters these days – which is why campaigns like the FSF’s ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ one are really important, but when you see the impact a vocal away support (like your own) can have on a team, it’s incumbent on fans to make the effort.
Do you ever envy supporters of your grander neighbours in London?
I don’t, myself, because I’ve found them to be a little bit of full of themselves. Sure, they’ve had the success and recognition, but I wouldn’t swap places. We’ve got some real history of our own, a lovely ground and there’s a realism about our supporters that is quite comforting. I like to think that we’re seen as a welcoming, friendly club that does things the right way. Fulham will always be in the shadow of a large number of more successful, famous London clubs and we quite like to go quietly about our business, as it means we can surprise a few people.
Who do you hope has joined Fulham by the time the transfer windows closes?
We certainly need strengthening. On my wishlist I’d have a full-back, a couple of central midfielders and a striker to partner Dimitar Berbatov, rather than replace him. Whether we achieve all that probably depends on Khan getting his chequebook out and, given that the next month is probably pivotal to our chances of survival, I hope he does.
What will be this season’s top four in order and – being as cruel as you must – who is going down?
I think Manchester City will win the title and they’ll be joined in the Champions League by Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. At the other end of the table, I think West Ham, Crystal Palace and Norwich will go down.
If either or both escaped mention, where will our club/s finish?
Just above the relegation zone – hopefully.
Crazy sums of money are available to a few clubs but everyone seeks their own version of the sheikh or oligarch. Does the financial aspect of top-flight football horrify you or is it just something we have to accept?
I think it’s terrifying. The game’s gradually going to eat itself. We’ve seen a few spectacular falls from grace in recent years – Portsmouth and Leeds spring to mind – and I’m sure they’ll be a few more. The amount of money in the game these days does seem astronomical and what really does bother me, as someone who grew up watching lower-league football, is that the gap between the haves and the have-nots only seems certain to increase. Supporters, too, are increasingly being passed over for those who watch at home, which is particularly disappointing.
Following on from that, what aspect of the game most inspires you – and what, if not already covered, appals?
Diving is a real bugbear of mine, even if we’ve had a few famed exponents of it in recent years. It should be stamped out with red cards as far as I’m concerned.
In terms of inspiration, I think the people you meet through football is the best part. I’ve met some extraordinary individuals simply by having a shared interest in the game that I wouldn’t have got to know otherwise.
Brazil 2014: already excited or too bothered about Fulham to get too worked up?
I’m really looking forward to it, although I have to admit that’s largely because Roy Hodgson and Ray Lewington, who were so crucial to Fulham’s own recent revival, will be at the helm of the England side. The fact that we seem to have managed to accurately assess the paucity of the resources at Hodgson’s disposal helps in terms of being realistic – and a South American World Cup should be a real spectacle too.
Will you be at our game and what will be the score?
Yes, I’ll be at the game. We seem to be scoring plenty of goals, lately, and judging by your performance against United last night, this will be a real test. Since we can’t seem to keep them out at the other end, I’ll go for a 2-2 draw – which probably isn’t any use for either side.
*Dan Crawford on himself:
I’m a writer and journalist, mostly on sport, and most recently on cricket, which hasn’t been great fun with England’s thrashing in the Ashes. I’ve been going to Fulham since the early nineties and am a season-ticket holder in the Hammersmith End. We set up Hammyend.com with a Swedish friend of mine about ten years ago now when there went a great deal of Fulham fan sites on the internet and it’s become a part of what is now a thriving Fulham blogosphere.
** What he missed out: @dancrawford85 at Twitter is a ‘campaigner, writer and a Labour Party councillor for #ActonCentral on @EalingCouncil …on the @fulhamsupptrust Board.
Interview: Colin Randall