Fulham FC - The age factor could see them going down this season
The date is 12th May 2010, and Fulham walk out to 49,000 fans at the Nordbank Arena in Hamburg, Germany. Facing their toughest game in recent history, ninety minutes, extra time and possibly a penalty shootout stood between themselves or Atletico Madrid winning the Europa League.
In the 32nd minute, a low strike into the right hand corner from Diego Forlan gave Atletico a 1-0 lead. That lasted just five minutes however as a fantastic strike from Welshman Simon Davies inside the area to the top left hand corner had given Fulham a deserved equaliser.
The game failed to produce any more goals within the ninety minutes of normal time, and extra time loomed. The deadlock between the teams was then broken with a smart finish inside the area by Diego Forlan in the 116th minute – four minutes later and Fulham would have taken their chances in a penalty shootout, where the team who can hold their nerve best is victorious.
The chance never arrived and Fulham and their fans were left heartbroken. Fulham finished a respectable 12thposition in the Premier League and the future looked bright. Roy Hodgson was awarded the Manager of the Year Award for his incredible accomplishment with the club and seemed destined to continue the club’s success.
Fly forward to Saturday, 30th November 2013, and Fulham play West Ham away. The game remains drawn for the first half and a very valuable point looks obtainable. Two minutes into the second half and Mohamed Diame’s deflected shot from outside the box puts West Ham ahead.
In the 82nd minute, Carlton Cole tapped in from close range to make it 2-0 before Joe Cole finishes off a deflated Fulham in the 88th minute with a curled shot from just inside the area to make it 3-0, and leaving Fulham asking how, in the space of three years, they’ve gone from finalists in the Europa League to a relegation dog fight?
A lot has changed in the world of football after three years. Diego Forlan, the player who gave Atletico Madrid the vital goals to lift the trophy is now playing for Brazilian club, Sport Club Internacional. Roy Hodgson, the manager to take Fulham to the brink of European glory, is now managing the England national team and only two players remain from their famous European run (Brede Hangeland and Damien Duff).
The biggest issue is that in thsse three years the team has not progressed in terms of quality. The 18 man squad which participated in the Europa League final had an average age of 31, while the team which faced Swansea in November had an average age of 28, which would suggest a club who had a great balance of experience and maturity with youthful pace and imagination.
But as that squad against Swansea included one seventeen year old, Moussa Dembele (no relation to Mousa Dembele, just an incredibly similar name), and did not have and Brede Hangeland (32 years old), the figures were slightly skewed.
The average age of the full squad is the oldest in the Premier League, at 29 years and 30 days old. To put that into context, last season, the oldest team was Queens Park Rangers at 28 years old, and that didn’t end fantastically for the club as they finished bottom and were relegated to the Championship.
That’s not too say that age entirely dictates a club’s fortunes in the league. Manchester United come 15th in the table of average age with Chelsea and Manchester City just above them at 13th and 12th, while Aston Villa are the youngest team with an average age of 24 years and 64 days old.
The difference with Fulham and Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea is the quality of players at that age. Yaya Toure for example has recently turned 30 years old and is still one of the best midfielders in the world, while Steve Sidwell is also 30 years old and simply isn’t.
The Premier League is regarded as a league which is based around speed and intensity, while Italy and Spain tend to play at a much slower pace which has suited numerous older players such as Andrea Pirlo and David Beckham. An older squad such as Fulham’s do not top the Premier League in terms of fitness and agility, which indicates that a tough season is in store for the aging team.
Fulham have not bought in enough quality to improve the side after the departures they experienced in the summer of players such as Chris Baird, Simon Davies, Mahamadou Diarra, Mark Schwarzer and Danny Hoesen. Experienced footballers such as Maarten Stekelenburg, Scott Parker and Darren Bent were steps in the right direction but currently there are too many gaps in the squad to deal with the majority of Premier League teams.
Martin Jol succeeded Mark Hughes, with the Welshman leaving the club in sour circumstances after an 8thplace finish and Europa League qualification via the Fair Play system. It looked as if the Dutchman would continue Hughes’ good work when he achieved a 9th place finish in the league before finishing in 12th at the end of the 2012/2013 season – which was in no way disappointing for the London club.
However, the current campaign has been a bleak experience for everyone at the club. After 13 games, Fulham find themselves in the relegation zone after just three wins and Jol is no more in the club. After 88 games in charge of the club he had overseen 28 victories – although his three this season came against Crystal Palace, Stoke and Sunderland back on the first day of the season.
A deadly combination of a misfiring strike force and leaky defence means that the club’s top goal scorer is Darren Bent with three of the club’s 11 goals and the goals conceded per game ratio is up to 1.75.
In July 2013, Fulham’s Chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed sold the club to Shahid Khan. Usually the new chairman wants to bring in new people to put a stamp on the club; instead the only thing he did remove was the Michael Jackson statue. After seven games, with Jol facing pressure from the media and fans, Shahid Kahn came out with this statement, quoted in the dailymail:
“Martin is a very experienced coach, he’s a good guy. We’ve gotten off to a start nobody’s happy with, whether you’re a fan or you’re Martin. We want to do better but I’m not the kind of person who’s going to act on impulse. You go through life and learn valuable lessons. I want Fulham to be very successful. You can’t go out of the frying pan and into the fire. That’s the most important thing.”
Kahn’s Christmas good will for Jol ran out on the very first day of December, and coach Rene Meulensteen was promoted into the manager’s seat within a month of joining the club (although this will not have surprised many observers). The 49-year-old will now have the unenviable task of rejuvenating a team visibly low on confidence, and Meulensteen will need to use every ounce of knowledge from a long career at Manchester United to save Fulham from a heart breaking relegation this season.