Fulham Thoughts: Credit Where It's Due

Posted by Paul Tomkins on October 18, 2004, 07:25:37 PM

Well, it seems this Liverpool side will not be given any credit, whether due or not. Win our game in hand, and we are above Man United and in a Champions League spot. This despite having presently played five away games (two of which as tough as they come, and Bolton hardly an easy fixture), and just three at home - where we have taken maximum points in all competitions.

On Saturday we had a poor first half (but not as bad as some reports suggest), and an excellent second half (which, having said that, wasn't quite up there with breathtaking Brazilian best, circa 1970).

And yet somehow, somewhere along the line, we appear to have failed miserably on Saturday. At 2-2, and down to ten men, a mere draw (to my addled mind) would have been a moral victory. To score two further goals was, all things considered, fairly remarkable. That we didn't hit the heights of the greatest teams in history is irrelevant. But surely any team that scores four second half goals (two with a numerical disadvantage), away from home, when trailing 2-0 at half-time deserves to, on balance, be loudly applauded? Why should the first half be the lingering taste in journalists' mouths, as if the second half was an irrelevance?

A couple of goals were deflected. Therefore, apparently they don't seem to count. (Two were deflected against Norwich as well - and yet players who don't shoot will never score; and it doesn't mean we didn't deserve to win that day, either).

We were lucky (apparently). And yet, if it we are so lucky, how many other teams at the top have lost clearly their best player to long-term injury this season? We are not at our strongest - with other players injured or tired after flying around the world - and yet we scored four goals away from home. Gerrard, Alonso and Kewell are all players Mr. Ferguson has either tried to sign, or publicly admitted wishing he could sign (as was Michael Owen, who departed at a stage of the season that left no time to find a replacement). None of them were able to start for us. Any team would miss quality like that. Chelsea finally lost a game after their £25m striker missed his first game due to injury. And they have a £200m squad of fit players.

It's a little pointless getting wound up by the newspapers, but some of the tripe that gets written is disappointing in that, in some idealistic way, you'd expect better; it would be nice, for a start, if more than a handful of football correspondents actually understood the game. I do not expect fawning praise when we win, but some balance and genuine insight would be nice. Jeremy Alexander (without wishing to invert some snobbery, hardly a 'football' name), of the Guardian, is one such man I'd like to sit down alongside to explain the game to; I may be wrong, but doubt he's even kicked a ball.

I've played football with, and against, journalists in the past. John Duncan is the Observer's Head of Sport, and as it is the Guardian's sister paper, he was in the opposite side as we divied up the numbers at the trials for the Guardian Media Group football team in 1999 (for an inter-media league), during my time at the company. He spent the entire time (in the match - not while I was working) man-handling me off-the-ball, and I finally lost my patience when he took me out me with a ridiculously illegal challenge with one of his two left feet - the only way he could stop me making a mug of him on my way to scoring another goal. His response was "you're too good to play against any other way."

This is one of the leading sports-page figures in the country. We patched up our differences after the match, and he's a nice guy. But a footballer he isn't. Other journalists I encountered were of similar ability.

Many of these people are great writers, and great journalists when it comes to uncovering stories behind the scenes of the game (or where the tabloids' are concerned, inventing them). But I don't sense many are great at understanding the game. I'm not saying people need to have played to a high standard understand the game; but I'd like to see some evidence that people preaching to millions of readers have a grasp of the fundamentals of the sport, and not merely a grasp of the English language.

"...The equaliser was genuine," Alexander - the subject of my ire today - says of Baros' brilliantly poached goal (our second of the game), when he reacted quicker than defenders, who were far closer to the rebound, to stab the ball home. (Although, of course, Alexander, in his purblind manner, suggests that "Edwin van der Sar could only push into the path of Milan Baros" - again missing the vital attributes of goal poaching: reacting first, anticipating the event and being already on the move).

As you will no doubt concede, at least the statement about the goal being 'genuine' was most generous of him. Oh, but wait:

 "...albeit through a defence with a stand-in centre-back in Carlos Bocanegra."

Ah, so it doesn't count after all.

(Adopting best Jim "Bullseye" Bowen voice) - You don't get anything for two goals against stand-in centre backs - not in this game. So according to Alexander, the score is not 2-2 at this stage, as many other's foolishly believed, but still 2-0 to Fulham. It's going to be rather hard winning games in these circumstances. If Alexander was the ref, he'd chalk off all of our goals for one bizarre reason or another: too scrappy; not pretty enough; deflected; scored against players who wouldn't get in the current World XI.

Baros, as he did against Norwich, created a goal with a long-range shot which took a deflection. Is that luck, coincidence, or - something unthinkable to some - good forward play? How many other Premiership strikers look to work themselves half-a-yard when 25-yards from goal, to get a shot away? (Not Van Nistelrooy, who for all his atrributes has never scored a goal outside the box). Baros doesn't care if it flies into the top corner with the unerring trajectory of an archer's arrow, or via 15 deflections. He knows that goals start with shots; how they end is irrelevant.

Alexander, like Baros, is now on a roll: "... before Igor Biscan, butt of the Liverpool fans [what, the ones chanting his name?], came on in injury-time to score a fourth as Fulham went in head-shaking search of a saving point that should have been three."

Well, if the game ended at half-time then they should undoubedly have had three points. However, we put them under pressure and they crumbled, as their manager admitted - in a game that, as far as I am aware, still lasts 90 minutes. We were second-best in the first half, but ended the game scoring twice as many goals as our opponents. Even his own article (on the paper's website) lists the goal attempts as 10 to Liverpool and 5 to Fulham. We won twice as many corners (6 to 3) and had more possession. In nearly every possible way you could look at it, we did twice as much as Fulham.

I am of course totally biased, and I don't want to be too harsh on Fulham; I have to say that for years, when I lived in London, they were my second team, and I used to go to watch them occasionally when they were in the bowels of the league. It's also hard not to have a soft-spot for a team your side perennially battered. But if Fulham deserved to win on Saturday, I would honestly say so. They didn't.

It gets worse in Jeremy's world.

"Two down at the interval, [Benitez's] band of expensive imports..."

[ - Large sigh - ].

Sorry, but I am lost here. What qualifies as an expensive import? Given that you can't get a Vauxhall Conference left-back for less than £5m, and Man United have paid fractionally shy of £30m for a player three times now (and Chelsea have bought innumerable players between £12m-£24m), can £7m be considered a starting point in the definition of "expensive" import (or otherwise) these days? If so, then up until the interval we only had one expensive import in Djibril Cisse. Look at the facts: Riise, Baros, Josemi and Hyypia average out at less than £3m each. I mean, Titus Bramble (admittedly not a foreign import) cost Newcastle £6m... 

Add Djimi Traore (£500,000) to those four Liverpool players, and you still don't even reach the fee Chelsea recently paid for their Portuguese right back. Half of our outfield side were foreigners who, combined, cost less than Paulo Ferreira. (And Ferreira cost 'half a Didier Drogba').

To suggest that we were fielding a load of expensive foreigners is totally misleading, and grossly incorrect. We are not Chelsea, or Manchester United. Benitez is having to work on a more limited budget. And even if they were expensive, of the starting line-up only two players were purchased by Benitez, at a combined cost of just £8m. The rest were Houllier's men.

At this point, Jeremy cannot be stopped: "Liverpool do not wear the international look well. On Saturday nine of the starting 11 were foreign, only Jamie Carragher local."

Yes, despite our league position and extenuating circumstances, we are still a collection of useless foreigners. (I must have dreamt being above Newcastle, and having a game in hand on them, while they field a load of expensive Brits).

Forgive me, also, for thinking that it was Xabi Alonso who won most man-of-the-match awards for his second half cameo; the man who lit up the game with his masterful passing, and who created and scored two of the three most crucial goals. Alonso is Spanish, wouldn't you know? Now he is an expensive import (and cheap at half the price). Baros, another outstanding performer on the afternoon, is Czech. Igor Biscan, with two sublime touches of the ball in his 20 seconds on the pitch, is Croatian. We do not wear the international look well, and yet overseas players were responsible for four away goals.

(A note to journalists: Frank Lampard, the English heartbeat and noted scoring sensation for Chelsea, has scored the same amount of goals as Igor Biscan in the Premiership this season. Biscan's was a drive from 20-yards, right into the postage stamp; Lampard's an illegally-converted penalty where he fell and struck the ball twice. Biscan, seen as a joke figure within the media, has, with less league playing time than Wayne Rooney - Biscan has played less than 45 minutes all told - scored more goals. Draw your own conclusions)

Finally on the subject of foreigners, I'd like to draw people's attention to Cisse's contribution to the fourth goal. It is the 93rd minute, and Cisse works hard to win the ball on the halfway line, sprinting clear of chasing midfielders to lay a pass to Biscan's feet. Anyone who paid close enough attention would then see Cisse, not intent on leaving his contribution there, sprinting for the return and pointing where he wants the ball played. Biscan chooses to pass to Warnock, and the reason Warnock is able to return the compliment is the manner in which Cisse has drawn defenders away from the ball. Of course, Cisse will get little credit for this. This is not the play of some lazy, uncommitted overseas player, but a striker busting a gut to create an opening in last minute of a draining game.

The Mirror had a familiarly depressing viewpoint on the game. (Other newspapers may have been as bad; I gave up after scanning a couple of websites).

"But it [the second half performance, and the four goals it spawned] simply papered over some serious cracks, and against a better side Liverpool would have been dead and buried by half-time."

Lame, isn't it? Surely four away goals is not so much papering over cracks, as Polyfilla followed by the work of a plasterer? You can have all the cracks you want if you score four goals in winning an away game.

I will tell you something that I really don't understand, relating to the second half of the sentence I have highlighted. We have played better teams away from home in our previous two away games - in fact, two of the three toughest away games we'll face, in Man U and Chelsea - and lost narrowly both times. When we've beaten teams we are supposed to beat (the teams, incidentally, we never could beat before this season), all we've heard is "ah, but Liverpool wouldn't have done so well against far better sides."

No shit, Sherlock!

By this thinking, apparently we wouldn't have come back from 2-0 down to beat Arsenal at Highbury 4-2? Or drubbed Arsenal 3-0 at Anfield with 25 shots at goal to one in reply (as was the case with Norwich)? Well seeing as they haven't lost for 49 games, I very much doubt we would (then again, even Arsenal wouldn't look so good if they were playing a team as good as, um, Arsenal!).

Thing is, against West Brom, Norwich and Fulham we've scored three, three and now four goals. Why isn't that good enough, when we took all nine points? If we keep winning these kinds of games, we will qualify for the Champions League with something to spare; only six games this season will be against teams who could be considered better than us - home and away against the three favourites for the title - and of the 30 remaining games, 26 don't involve those sides.

Beating Norwich 3-0 at Anfield wasn't good enough, as it was "just Norwich". Fulham, who finished 9th last season, are similarly dismissed. Apparently, this season the FA is going to ignore points we pick up against good, mediocre and sub-standard opposition, as it doesn't think they are particularly important. We are only allowed points from our head-to-head games with the big boys. Or so you'd think.

On Saturday, Kirkland made two (maybe three, according to some sources) saves, and had just two further efforts he stood no chance with (well-created goals; credit Fulham). To go to any Premiership team and limit them to a shot on target every 22.5 minutes is not some kind of 'hammering' we were lucky to escape from. At Chelsea (a game in which Alan Hansen thought we were in danger of being pummelled out of sight), Chelsea managed two shots on target all game. Two shots all game! Man United, despite a bright start to the game, could only beat us with two set pieces, and for all the defeats, we have not conceded more than two goals in a game - and we also not lost by more than a one goal margin. Our goal difference in the league - an indication of the balance between defence and attack - is bettered only by Arsenal.

We are not perfect, and Rafa knows his team has a long way to go to get even close to matching Arsenal (funnily enough, judging by his laughable comments at the weekend, Alex Ferguson knows the same about his team: now they are expensively assembled). But it would be nice if the struggles our club have faced this season were viewed in context: new manager and coaching staff; new players with little time to settle (two arriving once the season had already started, another getting injured in his first training session); top scorer and international icon leaving on the eve of the season; best player (and second only to Thierry Henry in terms of how crucial he is to the team he plays for) injured with broken metatarsal; a succession of other injuries to a whole host of midfielders, and so on. I don't expect our club to be afforded pity, but a dose of fairness wouldn't go amiss. 

In the days before electronic media, match reports needed to mix details of what happened with a spattering of analysis and comment. Now, reports such as Alexander's - published two days after the match - offer nothing. Everyone has read countless reports already, and possibly seen the entire game on Sky for themselves. Insightful analysis (that which Alexander attempts, but fails) is what we should be supplied; one Alan Smith article (in the Telegraph), or a piece by Gordon Strachan (for the Guardian) is worth 100 of this kind of misleading report.

Maybe Jeremy Alexander was, in the manner of Salif Diao, merely having a very bad day. "Sloppy" is the best word to describe both.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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