By Michael Heatley.
When you've spent the summer in the Far East starring in the World Cup, it's hardly a surprise to come home and find your fame's spread as far as Lincolnshire. The local Echo carried the following Intertoto update: "Ian Taylor earned Villa a 1-1 draw at Lille, while Steve Finnan's late effort helped Fulham to a 1-0 win over Sochaux."
Unfortunately for Steve, not only was he not playing having just returned from a much-deserved holiday, but he'd turned an ankle in a practice match against non world-class opposition - Carshalton! "I did the ligament and it was quite bad, but it's healing now. It was actually a recurrence because I'd done it training in Japan."
Steve may not have been a Jean Tigana signing, but he's been the first name on the team sheet since 'Le Gaffer' arrived; indeed, it was his record as our only ever-present last term that helped Mr Consistency (who's never yet been sent off) into the PFA Select side. "I can't remember missing a first game of the season," he shrugs. "You'd be going back a few years now. After the World Cup and playing every game last season, you look forward to doing it again, but it's one of those things."
The World Cup, of course, left Eire international Steve with a suitcase full of memories - not least the cool penalty he notched against Spain in the last 16 shootout when others let the occasion get the better of them. "Even though we went out, it was nice to score it. The last one I'd taken had been against Rochdale at the start of last season, which I scored, but I missed the one before; that was Luton, when we were in the Second Division. So it's taken three, scored two!"
Steve's World Cup memory that will live with him forever is "Robbie Keane's goal against Germany. It was such a buzz when he scored it in the last few seconds and it put us in a good position to qualify. It was almost like we'd won the World Cup, the way we celebrated! But it was great just being involved and seeing all the beautiful stadiums."
Having started the first game against Cameroon on the bench, Steve was happy to get on at half time and hold his place. He was insulated from much of the off-the-pitch controversy regarding captain Roy Keane. "People kept asking us questions, which was a bit annoying because our first match was coming up and we were there to concentrate on our football. But when I got home people told me about the papers and how it was on the news every day."
Though Japan was "a beautiful place and really friendly," Steve admits he's unlikely to go back. Instead, he spent much of his three weeks off in Portugal. Of the players he faced in Japan, he spotlights Raul (Spain) and Ballack (Germany) as pick of the bunch. "Mind you, the German side is full of great players; it was just good to play against them."
Steve was delighted to have made his return to the side that defeated Bolton and Sam Allardyce, whom he played under at Notts County. "I suppose Bolton were favourites to go down at the beginning of last season. They had an excellent start, floundered a bit, but stayed up rather comfortably in the end. Now they're starting to attract big names like Okocha to the club, and Djorkaeff has re-signed, I wouldn't be surprised if they did better than they did last season." As for ourselves, "we should find ourselves in the top half - definitely."
While Bolton are happily ensconced in the impressive new Reebok Stadium, Fulham's ground situation is more fluid. How will that affect Steve and his fellow players? "You've just got to do your job no matter where you're playing." On previous visits to Loftus Road, Steve's noted "the stands are very close to the pitch, and hopefully that's going to be good for us in terms of support. There were a few gaps at Craven Cottage, so hopefully the fans can really make a noise and get behind us."
Happily for those fans, the World Cup shop window that's given Clinton Morrison a multi-million move and made Robbie Keane, Matt Holland and Damien Duff the subject of transfer speculation hasn't turned our young man's head. Steve's still here - and, with European football beckoning, he's more than content. "Now we are in the Intertoto Final, there's no reason why we can't beat Bologna. If we get at least one goal away in the first leg it would be good, but the team we're up against could come up with a few. Still, we've got a good squad and there's no reason why we can't go through."
If it comes down to penalties, would he be happy to go out there and hit one? "Yeah," he laughs. "If I was playing!" With respect to his understudy, Abdes Ouaddou, I don't think Steve - or the Lincolnshire Echo - should have too many worries about that!
(re-produced and edited from Saturday's Fulham v Bolton matchday programme)