No need to worry

Monday 18 March 2002

From Ian McCulloch

Fulham's assistant coach Christian Damiano sent out a message of encouragement to the fans today. The Whites might be on the back of a particularly bad run and starting to stare nervously over their shoulders, but the spirit in the camp is high and there is no shortage of confidence in the team's ability to pull things round.

Before assessing the future, Damiano looked back at Saturday's defeat at Everton.

"We started very badly of course," he said, "And then it was very difficult for us to get back. Overall I thought we played well, but we missed some good chances particularly in the second half. It was a game that perfectly reflected our season so far - where we could have drawn we've lost, and where we could have won we've drawn. We were quite surprised at how aggressive Everton were - sometimes too aggressive.

"We had a good chance that hit the bar - we have done that many times this season, whereas our opponents have scored from those opportunities. We have to accept that these things happen, but we will continue to fight."

Damiano had some interesting things to say about Jean Tigana's widely quoted views about Fulham not changing their style of play, even if they were relegated.

"We have chosen the most difficult way to do our job - we want to win, and we want to win by playing good football. We have been discovering how much aggression there is in the Premiership and how some teams sometimes go beyond the rules. We are a good team; we play well, we have good experience, good spirit, and we try to win every game with tactics and technique, but we will never try to win the game by being physical and going beyond the rules.

"We try to be aggressive within the rules, but in some games the opponents go too far. We do not have that sort of player in our team, and that is perhaps a weakness for us if you want to call it that.

"In our games this season we have conceded 20% fewer free-kicks than our opponents, and we have had 40% fewer yellow and red cards. But this approach hasn't brought us results. We try to work with the referees but it is difficult. We have lost three players to elbows this season, and then on Saturday, Steed Malbranque gets hit in the head and then receives a yellow card! I am worried that someone is going to be seriously hurt one day.

"At Fulham we want our players to be aggressive, but always we must play within the rules. To be physical is very much part of the English game, and we must be competitive but without overstepping the mark."

The question now is whether there needs to be a dramatic change of tactics to try and grind out some results before the end of the season. Damiano believes there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the team's approach; he can see what's wrong and what needs to be done. He also cites the lack of a real out and out goal scorer as being the fundamental reason for the Whites not being higher up the table than they are.

"We are in a difficult situation at the moment," he said, "Because we were playing well a month ago, and we had the best defensive record without playing defensively. And now we have conceded fourteen goals in five games - we've made mistakes individually and collectively and we need to correct this. We can't win games if we are letting in too many goals and this is something we need to sort out as a team - the strikers are the first line of defence, and if the midfield are pressing the opponents correctly then it's easier to take the ball at the back. When you let in goals it has an obvious effect on confidence.

"One of our big problems this season has been that we haven't been able to bring in another striker. If you compare ourselves to the best teams, Man Utd, Arsenal, Leeds, Liverpool, Chelsea and look at how many strikers they have and then look at the goals they have scored; Van Nistelrooy, Hasselbaink, Owen, Henry, then you can see the difference. If we had another striker who had scored another fifteen or twenty goals for us then we would be in the top five. We've not won some matches because we were unable to kill off the game. We've had good chances in every match we've played.

"We need a "fox in the box" who will press their players all the time, who can score goals with his shoulder or wherever because he's putting the defenders under so much pressure. We don't really have that sort of player at the moment - Barry Hayles has the potential, he's found it difficult away from home but he's done tremendously for his first year at this level; injury has had a big impact on Steve Marlet's progress and Louis Saha has found it difficult to get to his true level this season.

"We have a good team with good spirit, they work well together, with good discipline, but we need that one player who can finish things off for us. We have tried very hard to get that player; we have missed some - it was disappointing that we didn't get Carew and it is very hard now to find somebody else at this point of the season."

Damiano is also very clear that the exploits in the Cup have had no bearing on league form.

"For me, the Cup is a big adventure and it's very different from the league, but for the team when they go out to play there is no difference. Last Saturday was the same as the previous Sunday, every team plays at 100% all the time, and every player gives the maximum. Everyone has an image in their head of Cup matches being fantastic, dramatic games with lots of effort and passion, but for me, Premiership games always have the same intensity.

"The team approach each game in the same way, regardless of whether it is the Cup or the Premiership and that hasn't changed."

Is relegation a real threat now?

"We are very confident about the future," said Damiano, "If we were to stay on 35 points for the rest of the season then perhaps we would worry because the points needed for safety over the last six years has varied between 33 and 41. But if we can get to 40 points then we are safe. We have another eight games to get those points, so we are not worried, although I accept that it is mathematically possible. We need to win two games, and win them very quickly so that we can move on."

Damiano's message to the supporters was clear - there is no need for panic. He then went on to say how much the fans meant to the team and how important their support and encouragement was.

"The fans' attitude is fantastic, and we need to acknowledge how much they mean to us. When we lost to Arsenal for instance, they sang and chanted from start to finish regardless of how it was going on the pitch, they were wonderful. They can be like a twelfth man to us. There is a big respect and a big feeling between the fans and the team.

"Before each game, we show videos of the opponents to the players, and on each tape we show the fans - right at the end, just a little moment. We show some positive things about our own game and then the fans celebrating; it gives us a very positive image and is a very important part of our preparation. The encouragement of the fans is always with us, always in our heads.

"The fans have a fantastic attitude and we are full of admiration for them."