Edwin's Euro-vision

Thursday 25 April 2002

From Fulham Today's Ian McCulloch

What a difference a day makes! Actually, make that four days. The despondent mood, and generally pervasive air of doom and gloom that has been everywhere over the last few weeks has suddenly lifted, and the players are walking round with their heads held high and a spring in their steps.

For all the brave talk and the public shows of confidence, you can't go through the sort of run that Fulham have been through without asking some questions of yourselves. But the exit from the FA Cup seems to have a lifted a mental burden off some of the players, and in the last two games we've started to see signs that the "real" Fulham, the team who can play good football and win games, are back.

All through the first part of the season, the talk was about Europe; then there was the horrible spell when the focus was more on the Nationwide, but two wins later it's all about Europe again and qualification via the InterToto Cup.

An up-beat Edwin van der Sar, fresh from his two clean sheets, spoke about the team's recent resurgence and how good it would be for everybody concerned if the Whites could finally make it into Europe.

"I think we played a little more defensively against Leeds," said van der Sar, "We only had one or two chances and scored from one of those, which is a very different story from most of the season. And not only did we score, we kept a clean sheet as well, the first one for eight or nine league games, and then against Bolton we had another clean sheet and we scored three goals as well, so that really was fantastic for everybody.

"We grew in confidence the longer the second half went on; in the first half they had a few chances and we didn't play all that well. I had to make a good save early on, and for the first twenty minutes we weren't that good, but we got better and gained confidence, and in the end we were happy about the way it went."

The battle is on for an InterToto spot, with Everton and Aston Villa the competition for the two remaining places. There are mixed views about the validity of the competition, but the opportunity to play some games against good quality opposition in a competitive environment is not one to be sneezed at, and with the prize of European entry waiting at the end of it, this is surely something worth fighting for. Van der Sar was in no doubt about how beneficial it would be for the club.

"Europe was our goal this season, we tried to go as far as we could in the FA and the Worthington Cups," he said, "We didn't do so well in the Worthington, but to get to the semi-final of the FA Cup was good. Unfortunately we had the slump in the league over the last couple of months, and that's cost us any chance of getting into the UEFA Cup that way, so now we have to work hard in the last two games to make sure we get a chance in the InterToto.

"I'm used to playing in Europe and it's good for you, it's good for experience and a good way of getting the club known. If we can reach that it will be a very good thing.

"I came to Fulham because it's a great story about the building of the club, and the possibilities here are enormous. Everybody has to start somewhere and it's sometimes more exciting to jump on a train that's at the station rather than one that's already down the line, and then you can enjoy the whole journey.

"We've got a long way to go, but the summer's coming and I don't know what the manager's ideas are regarding new players, but I think we need to strengthen our squad. We've played some good football this year, but for one reason or another we didn't get the points that we deserved, so we have to be better next year.

"Hopefully we can take the experience that we gained this year into next season and start winning some of the games that we have been drawing."

It must be such a contrast for the big goalkeeper, exchanging the best that Italian football has to offer for the homely ground by the side of the Thames, but van der Sar was quick to put down any notions that he was in any way regretting his move.

"I am very happy here," the Dutch international said, "It isn't the same level as Juventus, but it's more important that you enjoy yourself and enjoy life. I am very happy here in London and my wife and family are settled - my son speaks English already - and I think there are excellent prospects here for every body. It's going to take time, but if we can qualify for Europe via the InterToto that will be a good step, and it will be some more good experience for the players."

Experience. It's a word that has been used a lot recently and van der Sar came back to it time and again. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for experience, and on many occasions this season it has been more than apparent that this is the first season in the Premiership, and in this country, for many of the players.

Eyebrows were raised when Fulham paid out so much money for a goalkeeper in the summer, but that investment has been handsomely rewarded by the number of times that the Dutchman has been responsible for keeping the Whites in games this season - not least against Bolton, where his first minutes save against Bobic was breathtaking and set the stage for the team to go on and seal their Premiership safety. You can't put a price on that sort of experience.