Shooting for the stars

Saturday 29 December 2001

It was almost a year ago that Fulham hosted Manchester United in the FA Cup and confirmed their arrival as a team to be respected throughout the land.

The First Division leaders were not beaten until the 89th minute and even Jean Tigana must have been tempted to hand beers round his dressing room after running the country's best team so close. Mohamed al Fayed's vision of making Fulham "the Manchester United of the south" appeared less fanciful than ever.

Twelve months and one promotion later, that dream is a step closer. Yet as United return to Craven Cottage tomorrow, the Tigana revolution has the slower feel of evolution to it.

Many had imagined an avalanche of goals, particularly after a 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford on the opening day; few foresaw 0-0 draws with Derby, Leicester, Bolton and Charlton. Tenth in the table might be respectable but it is tinged with disappointment.

"It is frustrating," says the left-back Rufus Brevett, sitting in the training-ground canteen. "We have drawn with teams like Derby, Southampton, Ipswich and Leicester and we should be winning those games. A point's better than nothing but when you are on top in games it doesn't feel like that. We've thrown points away.

"There is a disappointment that we're not higher up the table. If you take points from those games you're looking at fifth place but I'd like to think we can qualify for Europe, which would be a great achievement for the club. Ipswich did it in their first season and that's what we are striving for."

Provided Fulham rediscover the scoring touch to turn draws into wins, the Uefa Cup is a possibility. The £35m Tigana spent after promotion is almost 10 times what Ipswich paid, yet in other ways the Frenchman has had it harder than George Burley.

Fulham's rise has been unusually rapid, as Brevett appreciates having played for the club in the Second Division in 1999, but expectation is high and opponents have stifled in a way Ipswich only encountered this season. Repeating last term's 105 goals was always as likely as Tigana employing Jo Brand as fitness consultant.

"It was never going to be as easy to score," Brevett says, reflecting on 17 goals in 18 league matches. "Teams have seen us play and tried to stop us, especially at home. They've just packed the midfield and stopped us playing and that's why we've got to go direct sometimes."

By direct, Brevett hardly means route one. Fulham's commitment to an attractive, passing game remains strong but longer balls into the channels have been more prevalent to hit teams more directly. If the lack of league goals from Louis Saha (one since August) has been surprising, Tigana is not chewing through 100 toothpicks a day with worry.

The £11.5m striker Steve Marlet is almost back from injury, though a missed penalty for the reserves this week typified the problems, Steed Malbranque has impressed with his attacking from midfield and Tigana has built a strong defensive base from which the club should flourish once the scoring difficulties are overcome.

While only Derby and Leicester have fewer goals, no one has kept more clean sheets than the nine Fulham and Sunderland have managed. In four of the past five games Fulham have not conceded, the 4-0 defeat at Tottenham seemingly an aberration.

"We've not changed the training," Brevett says. "I think it's just a concentration factor. We know we're playing against better strikers and that we have to be focused for 90 minutes. One slip and they'll score." The form of the Dutch keeper Edwin van der Sar has also been vital.

The presence of internationals such as Van der Sar confirms for Brevett how far the club has progressed since he was signed by Kevin Keegan from Queens Park Rangers just under four years ago. Brevett's debut was a 1-1 draw at Grimsby in the Second Division.

"Possibly my worst game for the club," he said. "I was awful. But it's come a long way and with such speed it's been unbelievable. When I signed Kevin Keegan said to me: 'This is Fulham, the big club round the corner from your little club'. I started laughing because you'd obviously think QPR were a lot bigger than Fulham. But he said: 'In a few years you'll realise'. "

What Keegan started, Tigana has taken on. It says much for Brevett's form that he has kept out Jon Harley, a £3.5m signing from Chelsea. The 32-year-old typifies the new regime's knack of improving players and feels he is performing better than ever.

"I'm playing with a lot more confidence," he says. "I've never been one to play with a lot of confidence but the manager just lets everyone express themselves. If you make a mistake it doesn't matter, you just go out and get the ball back.

"I'm also fitter than ever. The fitness coach Roger [Propos] has been very good, although it's been hard, very hard. With most managers you train from 10 o'clock until 12 and go home. Here we train twice, sometimes three times, a day and the food is great. Everything is small details and it's great to be part of."

By four o'clock tomorrow Fulham will know how far they have come in the past year and how much further they must go to match Al Fayed's ambitions. "I don't think we look out of place," Brevett said. "It can only get better."

(also from Saturday's press) KEVIN MCCARRA IN TODAY'S TIMES

The season is long enough to ensure that all the clubs experience every emotion. At its beginning, there was a bright vitality to Fulham as they held the lead, scored twice and could not be too downcast by so impressive a 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford. Louis Saha, a bright and sharp goalscorer then, found the ball bobbling, however, when he was expected to convert a prime opportunity against Charlton Athletic on Boxing Day.

Fulham drew 0-0 and have not scored in three matches since the defeat of Everton. In attack, they are having little fortune. Steve Marlet, their record signing, had the process of adaptation disrupted by injury and a comeback with the reserves, on Thursday, saw him miss a penalty that proved that sharpness does not return instantly.

Even so, Fulham are capable of holding the ball to ensure that United do not overwhelm them. Despite the resurgence of Sir Alex Ferguson's side, opponents have not lost hope, either, that their defence will yield goals. When the United manager talks of the steep path ahead, he is making a sensible assessment of the difficulties yet to be faced. This is the kind of away game that will really examine the strength of their championship bid.