On The Spot: Sean Davis - By Henry Winter
IT SHOWS how far, how fast Fulham have come that when the Premiership newcomers run out at Old Trafford tomorrow, their confident, home-grown midfielder Sean Davis will have played in all four divisions at the tender of age of 21.
From Micky Adams' salvage operation in the Third Division, through Kevin Keegan's inspirational spell to the current thoughtful management of Jean Tigana, Fulham's rise has been spectacular.
"When we are walking out at Old Trafford and looking at Veron, Beckham and the endless list of star names Manchester United have got, that is when it will sink in what we have achieved," said Davis, an impressive product of Fulham's academy.
"That is when I will think: `Right, I'm here, am I going to watch the game pass me by or stamp my authority on it?' I know I've got to work twice as hard as last year in the First Division but I'll be stepping out there without fear."
He relishes the challenge of rubbing shin-pads with the finest the Premiership has to offer. "Look at Liverpool's Steven Gerrard, who's a world-class player. I'm older than him. If he can do it at his age, I can give it a go.
"No one's scared at Fulham. The gaffer's mentality is to go to Old Trafford and win. He wants to win every game, even little five-a-sides in training. He's very ambitious. We played United in the FA Cup last season and did well but at the end of the game, the gaffer went mad because we got punished for taking a short corner and conceded a late goal. The gaffer showed us that at the top level if you make mistakes, you get punished. We need to sharpen up."
Tigana and his popular assistant, Christian Damiano, have given Fulham an ultra-professional feel. "They took us to the French training centre at Clairefontaine for a week in pre-season," continued Davis.
"When you go into the dressing-room there you see the tags of names like Barthez and Zidane. It game me a lift thinking to myself: `They have been here and trained.' We trained hard, three times a day.
"The gaffer has added to the squad which I think we needed to do. With the chairman [Mohamed Al Fayed] and the money behind him, the manager can bring in anybody he wants. When you watch Edwin van der Sar train, it gives everyone a lift. There's a good buzz around the place, knowing we've got world-class players in our team.
"The more quality he brings in, the more people are fighting for their places. He's just brought Jon Harley and people are asking: `Do you think he will play straight away at left-back?' But Rufus [Brevett] had a great season last season and it will be good for both of them to battle it out.
"Under Tigana, the training methods are all good; more technical. He's very relaxed. He says: `Do it simple, two-touch.' Christian is always giving us ways to benefit our game. My diet has changed. I eat more healthily and at the right times. Before, I would eat an hour before training and would be all heavy. Now we get told: `Eat three hours before training, chew your food, sip your water and you will get more energy and will be fresher and livelier.' It's working.
"Last season, the boys were a lot fitter than before. It's carbohydrates and protein: the normal chicken, pasta, bread rolls, toast and fruit. We get fat-tested and weighed all the time. We can't really go out and eat too much junk food. I used to do that. In the past, I would have a chicken sandwich without thinking about the way it was cooked."
Born in Lambeth, south London, Davis grew up in nearby Clapham and was spotted at his local sports centre by Fulham after being rejected by Wimbledon and West Ham. In his few years at Fulham, Davis has seen a "massive" change since Fayed's arrival.
"The chairman has done wonders. When I first joined as a YTS, Fulham were in the Third Division and I went to a college with some of the Arsenal lads. I told them we had to wash our own kit, bring our own sandwiches, clean our own boots and other people's. The Arsenal boys were saying: `Oh, we get our kit washed for us.' "
His debut came at 17 years and 25 days. "One day we had a reserve game against Chelsea, and I played against all the Chelsea stars like Ruud Gullit. I thought, `this is good'. I did quite well. The next day I came late into the ground to watch the first team playing Cambridge United in a Third Division game.
"Alan Cork [Adams' assistant] said to me: `Get your boots on.' `What do you mean?' `You're on the bench.' All the other YTS boys looked at me and I thought Corky was winding me up. He is a bit of a wind-up merchant.
"But it was true, so I went into the dressing-room and none of the players really knew me because I had been there only three months. I always remember going on the pitch for the last 20 minutes and Micky saying to me: `Enjoy it because it might not happen again.' Luckily it has."
Adams nurtured the teenage Davis. "Micky was a strict manager but he instilled into me a work ethic of giving 100 per cent. When I was young, I was a bit temperamental. My attitude wasn't spot on. Micky would punish me and drum good habits into me.
"Fulham were bottom of the League and Micky turned it all around. The team spirit was second to none. When Mohamed Fayed took over, it was four or five games into the Second Division and Micky left, which was a big shock. Then the big names came in. Kevin Keegan was such a big name. It lifted me just standing next to him. Keegan instilled a lot of confidence in me; he encouraged me to play more and worked with me during training and afterwards.
"Keegan started me in a few games but [after he left for England] Paul Bracewell started me regularly. I played the first 13 games of one season but then `Brace' didn't really play me after that and that was a bit confusing. He said he didn't want me to burn out. It was hard to take but I learnt from it."
Davis still has plenty to learn but, like Fulham, he is looking forward to enrolling in the centre for higher education that is the Premiership. "We want to finish in the top half of the table," he concluded in typically fearless fashion.
Goalkeepers are different, they say, and they might be right. But instead of seeing the stereotype of the modern footballer as mercenary, millionaires before they start shaving, anyone at White Hart Lane on Wednesday would have obtained a glimpse into another side of the pampered professional. It could be called the human factor.
At half-time, having been one of the many to make way, Holland's goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar searched out some family or friends in the crowd and made a little diving gesture. It was like a child in the park and indicated his pleasure at the flying fingertip save he had made from Gary Neville minutes earlier. Van der Sar was smiling.
"I was happy with the 45 minutes [on Wednesday]," he said the following day. "It was good for my self-confidence. I had a point to prove, it was the first big game in a new country. It's always best if you can leave with a good memory."
And Van der Sar has one already. Though small, it is more important to him than might be expected from an established international.
This was a telling little moment from the 6ft 6in Dutchman, as surprising a signing as any this close season when he traded in Juventus for Fulham 18 days ago. For a player of undoubted wealth, 30 now with a successful decade behind him, it revealed just how much gratification he gets simply from doing his job well. But then he has not had much excuse for self-congratulation recently - Van der Sar's pride has been more shaken than stirred these last few months.
That, frankly, is why a man with a European Cup winner's medal, a Uefa Cup winner's medal, four Dutch championship medals and 61 Holland caps, including an appearance in the last World Cup semi-finals, is now at Craven Cottage rather than the Stadio delle Alpi. That is a steep, sudden decline - no disrespect to Fulham.
Abrupt and most unexpected was Van der Sar's verdict. "I had a meeting there a few weeks ago," he said, "and they didn't tell me anything about signing a new goalkeeper." A placid man, Van der Sar continued in a manner that for him was vehement: "I was very disappointed with the behaviour of the coach. I mean that. I feel a little betrayed by them."
He was sitting at Tottenham Hotspur's training ground in Essex, where the Dutch prepared for Wednesday's international. Lush, green and English, this is Van der Sar's new world, but there was something unreal about the fact that two days later he would cross the Thames to report for work. At Fulham.
The origin of this unlikely journey can be traced, not that far back, to the first Sunday in May, when Van der Sar, playing in what was effectively Serie A's title decider between Juventus and Roma in Turin, fumbled a last-minute shot from Hidetoshi Nakata.
Juventus had been leading 2-1. The game was drawn and, five weeks later, Roma won the title by two points - from the Turin side.
Juve had lost three games all season and Van der Sar, the team's only ever-present selection, had conceded fewer goals than any other goalkeeper in Italy. But that Sunday was to prove decisive to player and club. It was Juve's second consecutive second-place finish behind a Roman club. Soon Carlo Ancelotti was to become a former Juventus manager. Two years after he had walked out Marcello Lippi was re- engaged.
A new regime is always a concern for players under pressure, and Van der Sar was certainly that, but then the Dutchman had the words of Juve's director general Luciano Moggi to comfort him.
While others were blaming Van der Sar for Juventus's second narrow failure, Moggi said:
"Van der Sar will stay. In order to replace him we would have to find a better keeper and there are very few of them around at the moment. We're looking to keep him because he showed great character, especially when his ability was put in question last term. It's tough to find someone better."
You do not need a crystal ball to realise that shortly after that statement Moggi found someone he thinks is better. He is Parma's Gianluigi Buffon and he should be better - after all, he cost Juventus £32m.
It was the speed of it all that most perplexed Van der Sar. "Yeah," he said, "the plan was to stay in Italy. But, yeah, they bought another goalkeeper. Two and a half weeks ago. Time to go and look at somewhere else."
Mohammed Al Fayed and Jean Tigana gave Van der Sar a riverside view of their Fulham future. He liked what he saw. "There were some clubs interested in Germany, Holland and England but Fulham was the most decisive one. They wanted me really - really. So that was a good sign.
"Of course they are not on the same level as my former clubs, Ajax and Juventus, but they are very keen to come up to that standard. It will not happen in two years but we can give it a shot."
It must have been some sales pitch from Tigana and Fayed. "They said they started four or five years ago. They got two promotions and Mohammed Al Fayed bought the club, saved the club, saved the ground. They said they're going to build a new stadium on the place where they have been for the last 100 years. I think that's a good thing - history.
"I met him [Fayed] when I was negotiating. He's a persuasive man, yeah. I read some things about him, about his life, about things he did. He comes across to me as quite a nice guy. He's approachable."
Van der Sar also approached his mentor Louis van Gaal, his manager at Ajax and with Holland now. He told Van der Sar: "If you play 38 games in the Premier League then that is a very high standard in the world of football. If you do your work then no problem."
All well and good, but two years ago Van der Sar had the chance to join Fulham's opponents tomorrow, Manchester United, rather than Juventus. At the time Fulham had just clinched promotion from the Second Division having started the season away at Macclesfield Town. Van der Sar was regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
He is honest about his form with Juve. "I accept that I didn't play very well in Italy for the two years. It was lower than my Ajax standard. I don't know why."
And United? "They came in too late." Regret was a word he chose not to use, although in being the last of the Ajax side to leave post-Bosman, there is more than the Juventus experience to explain why Van der Sar's reputation at home is one of introspection.
So tomorrow Van der Sar will play at Old Trafford for the first time, a remarkable statistic given the amount of Champions League football he has played. His chief danger will be his Dutch team-mate Ruud van Nistelrooy.
"The big favourites are not Fulham," he said with due irony. "I've played in two or three games already but we will have to see in real competition how we are doing.
"The Man United game is not a fair game to see. It will be the three or four games after that. I think I'll be busy."
FULHAM'S Edwin van der Sar admits Manchester United are likely to give him a far tougher test tomorrow than England managed in midweek.
The Holland keeper was given just two shots to deal with by Andy Cole and Robbie Fowler during the first half of Holland's 2-0 win on Wednesday night.
But tomorrow he goes head-to-head with his international team-mate Ruud van Nistelrooy, the pounds 19million striker who will spearhead United's Premiership charge. Van Nistelrooy has already bagged six goals pre-season for the champions and scored Holland's second to sink England at White Hart Lane.
Van der Sar said yesterday: "I think I will have a lot of shots to deal with.
"Van Nistelrooy is in good form and in good shape and it will be hard to deal with him."
While the United striker was busy breaking English hearts, United's scoring potential was further underlined by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and record pounds 28million signing Juan Veron.
Veron was a scorer in Argentina's 2-0 win in Ecuador, while Norwegian striker Solskjaer hit the target in his country's 1-1 draw against Turkey.
Van der Sar added: "Of course we are not the favourites for Sunday and that will be the case in most games this season. But the United match is not a fair game to test our strength."
Last season's achievement of Ipswich Town in qualifying for the the Uefa Cup appears to have raised unrealistic expectations at Craven Cottage where there has been talk among the club's hierarchy of matching that feat.
Mohamed Al Fayed is not the sort of man to settle for second best but his squad does not yet look equipped for a top-five finish. "They will play a lot of good football," Sir Alex Ferguson said, "but they will have to learn how to survive in the Premier League."
The purchase of Edwin van der Sar, solid for Holland against England on Wednesday, should improve a defence in which Alain Goma and Jon Harley are additions.
There have been good reports of Steed Malbranque, who was signed for £5 million to add more goals from midfield. The failure to sign a new forward has, though, left Jean Tigana with unfinished business, even if Louis Saha did run Manchester United ragged in the FA Cup last season.
Their (Man Utd) talent will be tested for the first time tomorrow as United kick off their campaign at home to Fulham.
Ferguson is full of praise for the work done by Craven Cottage boss Jean Tigana and reckons the Premiership new boys will provide a stiff test.
He said: "They want to play football the right way and they will make it hard for plenty of teams.
"They have been in the shadows for 30-odd years and gone down the league. But, through the ambition of their chairman, they've come back again.
"It will certainly be a good match to start." Before that, United's challengers get their campaigns underway.