The darkest hour

Posted by Phil Mison

Scott Heavey/Getty ImagesThe prospect of Clint Dempsey returning to Craven Cottage will help Fulham supporters get through the festive period.

How appropriate that Fulham should be entertaining Manchester City on Saturday at the Cottage. It will be Dec. 21. For those in the northern hemisphere it is the winter solstice -- the shortest day of the year.

There are no signs that Fulham will be entering the field through a tunnel of long-bearded druids in white robes rather than the usual gaggle of scrubbed, angelic and slightly bemused-looking school kids, but ritual sacrifice may still be on the cards if City play to their potential.

When Transjordanian clerics of the fourth century randomly plucked a date out of thin air to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they were simply marrying up to a traditional pagan date long enshrined as a time to eat, drink and be merry. Quite simply, cattle were slaughtered as no feed remained to get them through the winter, making it the only period when fresh meat was available, and the fermentation process begun in autumn meant it was time to get supping.

I like to mark the date symbolically -- the sense that the sun is about to return northwards, and days start lengthening again. There’s your metaphor for our famous old club, the one that has limped up to Christmas with a clanking ball and chain around its ankles (read: Martin Jol) like Marley’s ghost.

A former club director reminded me this week of my blog content from the season start. The tone of his congratulatory mail was the blog had called it correctly from the off. I checked back.

Before Fulham’s day one trip to Sunderland, having just got back from the Parma friendly, where they surrendered an early lead and conceded goals to far-post headers, I sounded the alarm bells. Astoundingly, none of the frailties clearly evident last summer had been addressed as Fulham began the new season. Nothing that has happened from last August up to the West Ham game should have come as a surprise.

Two major additions to the squad in Adel Taarabt and Darren Bent turned up unfit. Neither has yet been a telling factor. I don’t expect either to still be with Fulham in a month’s time. Dimitar Berbatov, going into the final year of his two-year deal, appeared to have his thoughts elsewhere.

Jol’s pricey new keeper got injured in his first game. Fulham lost the services of Sascha Riether, Hugo Rodallega and Brede Hangeland as the life-support machine went critical, but all sides deal with injuries and suspensions. These were weeks when a few slates got blown off the roof but in reality the structure itself was rotten. The wolf arrived and blew down the house that Martin built.

But enough of the past. The Whites go into the Christmas programme in the bottom three fighting relegation but from here on in the only way is up! Even without Sergio Aguero, Man City will be a stern test. Pour yourself a big glass of brandy Sunday morning and prepare to embrace the new dawn. The sun -- and Clint Dempsey -- are coming back!

A word on the return of the Deuce in the white shirt. Disregard the manner of his leaving in 2012. Does anyone out there know the full story? Has Clint ever opened up about it? The man expressed a desire to play Champions League (and at 29 he knew he was running out of time). Do you have a problem with that? Did you ever see him bottle a challenge or give less than 100 percent when playing for the team?

The anonymity of forums gives every blinkered numpty the platform to display his ignorance. I cannot believe those posters puffing up their chests with comments like “Move on,” “Not needed,” “Never go back” or “See him as an impact sub maybe.”

Rene Meulensteen, thank heavens, has more sense than the above. Even if it’s only for two months, even if his start in Seattle has been less than stellar, here’s a character who will run through brick walls for the club. Fulham have never replaced the Deuce. Or his work ethic.

The manager continues to right the sinking the ship. A dedicated fitness regime is announced for the over-30s (that’s nearly the whole team, isn’t it?) to nurse them through the four-game festive period.

Even better, the message has gone out of a clear policy to "drip feed" academy players into the first team set up by degree. Can you imagine a greater fillip to these keen-as-mustard youngsters as they turn in winning performances each week in their respective leagues?

Fulham continue to be linked with a number of high-profile players in the window, and we know Meulensteen’s judgment will be backed with funds. Will Bryan Ruiz be off soon? I suspect Ruiz’s time at the Cottage is indeed coming to an end, but just as Rene has done with others, there’s no public slating of individuals. “Bryan has a future at Fulham if he wants it.” How different from his predecessor.

A final footnote on the two latest sackings in the league. Four straight defeats and the rug is pulled out from under Steve Clarke at West Brom. Harsh, surely? A year ago WBA were pushing into the top six and everyone loved the gaffer. Seems he crossed the chairman, however, so off with his head. Clarke will bounce back for sure.

As for Andre Villas-Boas ... one of the great sideshows of any season is watching Spurs spend a mountain of money in the summer, stroke it around in the September sunshine, then sour like curdled milk. Incredibly lucky to take all three points from Fulham, now humbled at home twice in four days ... why, it’s almost enough to make me believe in Father Christmas!

COYW!

Twitter: @FulhamPhil

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