Greg Johnson thinks Scott Parker could be the Robert De Niro to Berbatov’s Al Pacino this season as Fulham ramp up the entertainment factor in the absence of trophies or a top half finish…
It’s a shame that Mohammed Al-Fayed no longer reigns over West London. The tenuous, cliched connection between Fulham Football Club and Harrods, brought about by the Egyptian businessman’s former ownership of both has never felt more tantalisingly apt.
Dimitar Berbatov, Bryan Ruiz, Adel Taarabt, Alexander Kacaniklic, Darren Bent: as fine a collection of esoteric luxuries and tacky rich man’s playthings as you could find across the multiple stories of the Knightsbridge department store. These are the gold encrusted Kashmir underpants, sub-prime bothering super truffles and absurd monster trucks for the under fours of the football world.
As you’d expect of such an impractical array of goods, it’s difficult to know where the bog standard essentials will come from; the daily (artisan) bread if you will. There appears to be little in the way of industry or work rate in amongst the Fulham ranks. In fact, ever since the sale of Mousa Dembele to Spurs last summer, Martin Jol’s team have felt rather gutted of their most vital keystone component.
Not only was the Belgian the club’s best player pre-Berbatov, but also their decisive balancing factor that brought fluency and structure to the side. With Dembele running the midfield, Ruiz was able to find his place behind the attack and offer more than mere flashes of brilliance while the defense enjoyed a degree of protection thanks to his energy and diligence.
Last season, beyond the aesthetic perfection of Berbatov, Fulham were far from elegant. Disjointed, jarring and confused are fair descriptions of the mess the post-Dembele team often created for themselves. Ruiz and Berbatov got in each others way, Sidwell and co lacked discipline and initiative in the middle and the once solid defensive pairing of Hangeland and Hughes was tinkered into dissassembly as pressure poured from an unguarded midfield.
The arrival of the in-demand yet limited goal scorer Bent on loan from Aston Villa a number of days ago at first reeked of yet more incoherent indulgence. Where was the work ethic and sweat going to come from to allow these odds and sods thespians the stage to perform? Had Martin Jol thrown caution and logic to the wind in some misguided attempt to become this decade’s Kevin Keegan? Perhaps he has in a roundabout Dutch manner, demanding enterprising attacking football, responsibility and initiative from his playing staff.
Creative chaos looks set to be the staple diet for Fulham this season, good news for neutrals and fans who fancy a taste for exciting adversity, following the signing of Scott Parker: supposedly the antithesis of the lazy shirker and art-school pretensions so despised by the Little England mentality that lionises him. Yet while his audience may well be fooled, his overly earnest air of authenticity can be considered an act in its own right. As his new colleagues swan about in the final third, wooing the crowds with their majestic techniques and cocksure swagger, this quintessential Englishman will equally be treating the crowds to his own form of method acting, sliding across the turf like a workaholic with vertigo.
Neither is he really fit to play the Makelele role many will undoubtedly suggest he fills considering the cast of ethereal talents he has now joined. Parker doesn’t do positional play. Racing about after the man, after the ball or generally and aimlessly, he’ll provide his own kitchen sink soap opera spectacle to weave into Fulham’s eclectic if ill-fitting tapestry. If his presence at Craven Cottage has been sought by Jol as a belated solution to Dembele’s departure last year, then such an assignment will only add to the sense that this season Fulham will be the best looking bad team outside of the newly promoted (and almost certainly soon to be relegated) bottom three.
That jibe is meant half in jest and fully in love. Fulham should make for some excellent viewing as they career about the place and serene with a wealth of mismatching players attempting to make Jol’s vision for attacking football a reality. What’s not to like? It’s incongruous rather than incompetent. It’s Frank Spencer doing Shakespeare.
Fulham and clubs like them can’t be expected to find instant and complete solutions to the sale of their most talented, pivotal players. They have neither the reputation nor the resources to replace outgoing stars as they move on to bigger and better things. Heads turned, their sale price is usually noticeably below their market value, which only exacerbates the problem. Martin Jol shouldn’t be criticised for Fulham’s hiccups in the absence of Dembele, after all his presence secured the coup signings of Berbatov and Maarten Stekelenburg, and has kept the club fairly stable and intact. There’s little else he could have done to plug the gap created by such a sale, especially following the loss of Clint Dempsey, who while less important to the team’s structure was undoubtedly a handy source of goals to have in the side.
Since taking over from Mark Hughes, who more or less stuck with the general ideas implemented by the Europa League final reaching Roy Hodgson, Jol has at least spoken of a desire to bring down the average age of the squad and instil a more proactive playing style. For the moment however, shorn of the practically irreplaceable Dembele, he has retreating to signing veterans such as Giorgos Karagounis and hoping his team can bodge points and victories out of last season’s ham-fisted midfield.
For this year at least it appears that his side will aspire to a different kind of progress: the opportunity to enthral and excite with the outside chance of a respectable, top-of-the-bottom-half finish. A return to Europe or the top half proper is out of reach for the time being any way, although that’s not to say the future in the medium-to-long term doesn’t look bright for the Cottagers.
The signing of Scott Parker this summer confirms that Fulham will be this year’s most exciting relegation flirts; dancing above the doomed trio of Cardiff, Hull and Palace, while Sunderland and Stoke struggle in the quagmire of 16th, 17th and lower. He is the ideal self-consciously earnest and workmanlike counterpoint to Berbatov’s palacial artistry, and as such the contrast between the two footballers should produce something rather splendid and eclectic, if not exactly consistent or effective.
He will be the work experience backstage rigger to their amateur dramatics society, the glass washer to their cocktail bar, the grease heeled runner to the sleazy jazz combo clouding up the green room with smoke: the deferential downstairs to their debonair and aristocratic forward line of Parker heaved privilege, and we’ll love watching it.
Long live excellence in beauty and form over mediocre, mid-table assuredness. Long live the land that Al-Fayed built. Long live Fulham Football Club circa 2013/14.