Clarky

Monday 8 April 2002

BOBBY ROBSON is due to attend an official function 24 hours after the froth and bluster of another Premiership season finally subsides. "Unusual, although very special," is how he describes the Cottage Demolition Party, when the clink of champagne glasses will mingle with the thud of the wrecking ball as work begins to transform Fulham's ground beyond recognition. It may be too late; the edifice is already crumbling.

Having spent £40 million on players last summer, with plans for a new stadium out of the architects' office and into the hands of the builders, a grapple with relegation was not what Fulham envisaged. It is precisely what they have, however. They have drawn one and lost seven of their past eight games and travel to Newcastle United tonight protected from the worst by a meagre three points.

While defeats for Derby County and Ipswich Town offer comfort, scanning the bottom of the table for signs of hope does not suit a team who have provided some engrossing football after their promotion from the Nationwide League. One of the facets that Robson admires about the club he served as player and manager is that "through this bad run they have never resorted to booting it", but intricacy is becoming obsolete.

"It's serious now," Lee Clark, Fulham's player of the year, said. Clark misses an active return to his home-city club by way of the Achilles injury that has bedevilled his season. Clark, a cunning midfield player, has been given permission to sit in the stands at St James' Park, as he often does when duty allows, racked with mixed feelings. "I had been hoping that results would go Newcastle's way so we could beat them," he said. From his place on the sidelines, removed from the fray yet still part of it, Clark is well-placed to speculate on the causes of Fulham's dramatic decline, which began with a 2-1 loss away to Middlesbrough in February.

"That was the start of it," Clark said, "and it was typical of the way we've played - without the end result. A lot of people have said nice things about our passing, but it's reached the stage where we can't worry about that."

So what, precisely, has gone wrong? "The situation hasn't just crept up on us," Clark, 29, said. "The players have talked about it, but our confidence has taken a battering. It's a weird thing. A few weeks ago, we were thinking about trying to nick one of the European places and the football was assured, but just as when you feel untouchable when you're winning, your self-belief takes a hit when you lose."

They have no get-out clause. While their defensive record is superior to Newcastle's, since the turn of the year Fulham's regular strikers - Louis Saha, Barry Hayles and Steve Marlet - have scored just eight goals between them. "It has been a big problem for us," Clark said. "When we've fallen behind, the team seem to be wondering if we'll get a goal even to force a draw."

Relegation, he admitted, would be "horrendous", but the positive for Fulham is that Jean Tigana and his coaching staff have shown no intimation of panic. In Robson, too, they have an admirer. "I'm surprised by their blip," he said, "but Tigana was a great player and Fulham's style is indicative of him. They've been unlucky, but I firmly believe they won't go down. They simply have too many good players to be relegated."

Robson will hope that they delay the moment of proving it. St James' Park will have its own concerns, of course, including the prospect of Alan Shearer's 200th Premiership goal and the return of Craig Bellamy and Gary Speed to the Newcastle squad.

"Working with Alan has been a great privilege," Robson said. "He's a great captain and a wonderful professional. Two hundred goals would take some beating and he's not finished yet."

NEWCASTLE UNITED (possible; 4-4-2): S Given - A Hughes, N Dabizas, A O'Brien, S Distin - N Solano, K Dyer, J Jenas, L Robert - A Shearer, C Cort.

FULHAM (possible; 4-4-2): E van der Sar - S Finnan, A Melville, A Goma, R Brevett - J Collins, S Malbranque, O Legwinski, S Davis - L Saha, B Hayles.