One by one

Tuesday 20 August 2002

From Fulham Today's Ian McCulloch...

Fulham's tenure at the top of the Premiership may only have lasted a matter of days, but it was a thrilling experience and one that Whites fans will remember forever. It may be only one game, but it's difficult not to get carried away when you've come so far so quickly. What's important of course, is that it's just the fans who let it go to their heads, and the players keep their feet firmly on the ground.

It's an indication of how strong Fulham's squad is at the moment, when a player with the pedigree of midfielder John Collins can't find a place in the starting line-up for the first game of the season. But he amply demonstrated his professionalism when he reflected on the match afterwards, and also made it very clear that the players are not about to let the hype of such a heady position affect their determination to do well this season.

"It was a great start," said Collins, "Just what you want in the first game of the season. But with it being only the first game, we don't want to read too much into the performance. The players should enjoy it but they've also got to focus on the next game.

"We completely overwhelmed Bolton really. It was men against boys out there, which is how it was for the whole season in Division One.

"But it's highly unlikely that's going to be the case week-in, week-out in the Premiership. In general terms Bolton are usually a hard team to beat but we ripped them to shreds on Saturday."

In truth, there was a gulf in class between Fulham and Bolton; the difficulty is in trying to decide whether the Whites were that good or the Trotters were that poor. As with most things, the answer is likely to be somewhere in the middle, but before the game, most fans would have said that Bolton would be a difficult team to break down. Conceding a goal so early could have been disastrous, but there was a mental rolling up of the sleeves as the team went about their business of pulling a goal back. As Collins said, it was a real test of the players' determination, and as Bolton visibly tired in the second half, it also showed off their superior fitness levels.

"We came back from a goal down which was a good thing," he said, "You never want to go a goal down but it always tests the players' character.

"Since Roger Propos arrived, the one thing we always pride ourselves on is our fitness. We trained very hard during the pre-season, but with the Intertoto Cup we probably played a few more games at a higher intensity than the other sides. When you play a friendly, the pace of the game sometimes isn't what it should be.

"During the first few rounds of the Intertoto, we felt quite tired because we were training hard in between our matches. We picked the pace up over the semi-final legs and the first leg of the final and I think it paid off for us on Saturday. We were streets ahead of Bolton."

The season continues with a visit next to Teeside, where Middlesbrough got away with some outrageous fortune to take all three points last time out, and then straight onto the second leg of the Intertoto Final against Bologna. With a fair wind behind them, this time next week Fulham could find themselves back on top of the Premiership and qualified for the UEFA Cup - heady days indeed. John Collins, of course, is no stranger to the excitement of European football.

"I played in the UEFA Cup many times with Celtic, Hibs and Monaco," he said, "I once got to the semi-final with Monaco - unluckily we got beaten 3-2 by Inter Milan.

"It's a great challenge and a great opportunity for us all to take the Club into Europe. It's going to be a difficult game because Bologna are no mugs. They'll be a typical Italian team; well organised and fit. But we're at home and we should qualify but it certainly won't be easy."

Collins finished by once again stressing the professional approach that is necessary to be successful in football.

"As a football player you're only focusing on the next game. Saturday's game has gone, we got the points so we can now forget about that. It may be a cliché, but it's a fact."