Looking back to move forward

Posted by Richard Jolly

Sometimes, a new regime adopts a "Year Zero" approach. Not at Fulham, however, where the combination of a recently appointed head coach, Rene Meulensteen, and Shahid Khan, the owner who bought the club this past summer, appears to have heralded a "Year 1975" policy. Enter 1970s midfielders Alan Curbishley, as technical director, and Ray Wilkins, as assistant head coach. It is not merely the famous cottage at the corner of the pitch that will give Fulham an old-fashioned feel.

Yet there is one retro policy that makes immediate sense -- Clint Dempsey’s return to London transports the club back to a recent, happier time. To the 2011-12 season, perhaps, when his 23 goals were the most any Fulham player has mustered in the club's dozen years in the top flight, or March 2010, when his glorious chipped decider against Juventus was a highlight of their improbable run to the Europa League final.

Having never properly replaced Dempsey, Fulham have instead secured his return, albeit only on a two-month loan from the Seattle Sounders. The American’s second debut could come away to Norwich in Saturday’s FA Cup tie, but more pertinent is next weekend’s relegation six-pointer against Sunderland -- as Dempsey’s last Fulham goal, in May 2012, came against the Black Cats in the final home game of his first spell at Craven Cottage, they might represent appropriate opponents. There is a sense of symmetry.

Rather more relevant, given Fulham’s plight, is the reality that recruiting a player who polled fourth in the vote for the footballer of the year award 20 months ago is a coup. If Dempsey overachieved in his final year at Craven Cottage -- something a less happy season at Tottenham indicates -- his arrival nevertheless addresses several needs in the Fulham squad.

The positions on the wings were where former Fulham manager Martin Jol was at his most experimental in his attempts to introduce the next generation. In an otherwise aged squad, Pajtim Kasami, Alex Kacaniklic, Ashkan Dejagah and Adel Taarabt have represented the relative youngsters. But, compared with Dempsey, that great guaranteer of goals from the flanks, none has proved prolific. Only Kasami, sometimes spectacularly, has really contributed. If Dempsey reprises his old role, cutting in from the left, Fulham can envisage an improvement, even if the 30-year-old will increase the average age of the side.

If it is easiest to measure Dempsey’s contribution on the score sheet, the ProZone statistics the clubs use ought to provide other evidence of his attributes. Jol’s fondness for flair meant Fulham accumulated luxury players. The dilatory approach to defending of Dimitar Berbatov, Darren Bent, Bryan Ruiz and Taarabt is one reason they have conceded the most goals in the Premier League. Tellingly, Meulensteen has been reluctant to start with more than one of that quartet.

What that necessitates, however, is players in the final third who are prepared to put a shift in for the team. Dempsey, who has long brought a blue-collar work ethic to a distinctly lucrative business, fits the bill. A blend of industry and incision on the wings is all the more important given the tactical tweak Meulensteen has made. The Dutchman has sacrificed an attacker in a bid to bolster the midfield, creating a central trio of Giorgos Karagounis, Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell.

Clint Dempsey celeb FulhamEmpicsClint Dempsey joined Fulham from the New England Revolution in 2007.

They have proven commitment, a combined age of 99 and a willingness to run as long as their aged legs will permit. But they do not provide many goals, even if Sidwell may have exceeded expectations thus far, heightening the significance of others chipping in -- especially as Berbatov, the preferred lone forward, has proved rather less potent than he was last year. Apart from Bobby Zamora’s golden year of 2009-10, Dempsey outscored the specialist strikers for much of his initial spell at Craven Cottage. A repeat might be required in the next two months.

Yet if goals constitute Dempsey’s promise to his every employer, they also represent Fulham’s problem. It is why they need not one footballer who hails from Texas but two. Brede Hangeland is less a product of the Lone Star State, but the Fulham captain was born in Houston. The cornerstone of their back four has not played since October. Since then, Fulham have shipped three goals each to Manchester United and West Ham, four apiece to Leicester, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City, and a surreal six at Hull.

The Norway international, who has had sciatic nerve trouble, might be back in the middle of January. Relegation has become a very real possibility in his absence, and these two men of Texan origin will assume vital importance in the coming weeks. The stalwarts of Fulham’s modern-day golden age are the two old-timers who could make a difference.

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