The Rovers return

Wednesday 8 May 2002

With the final game of the season against Blackburn rapidly approaching, the players have to get themselves back into gear and focussed after having the distraction of a two week break just when they would be understandably starting to think about their summer holidays. Skipper Andy Melville agreed that it was not the ideal preparation for a match which still has something of an edge to it.

"It is a little strange having this break right at the end of the season," he said, "I think they're going to change it for next year which will be a lot better; but we've been able to re-charge our batteries, we've had a couple of days off, and we're back into training now and looking forward to the last game.

"It's an important match because we need to get the three points to make sure we qualify for the InterToto next season; we don't want to have to rely on anyone else on Saturday, so our aim is to go there and be as positive as we can."

Last year's fixture was one of the most memorable in Fulham's recent history. That result should instil confidence in the players who were involved that night, but the downside is that the Blackburn team will definitely feel they have a point to prove. Games against Rovers have developed into something quite personal over the last two years, and Saturday's match will prove no different, even if it is the last one of the season. You can be sure that manager Graeme Souness would love it, just love it, if his team could finish above the Whites in the table.

"We went there and overturned them after going down to ten men," said Melville, "So they'll be looking for revenge. But what's more important for us is that we felt we let everyone down against Leicester two weeks ago, especially the supporters. But hopefully we can deliver a good performance for the travelling fans who come up to Blackburn, and get the points for them.

"That game last season will still be on Blackburn's minds because of the circumstances - they went 1-0 up and we had a man sent off, so it was a hard match for us, but the way that we scored in the last minute was a real kick in the teeth for them, and we more or less won the title then. I'm sure that will still be playing on their minds.

"I've not really seen much of them recently. They've got a lot of good young players there, especially Duff and Dunn, and a lot of experience at the back. Graeme Souness always gets his sides well organised, so we know it will be difficult."

Rovers have, in theory, one of the most potent strike forces in the league, with the experienced Andy Cole partnered up front by the talented Matt Jansen. Melville has no illusions about how difficult it will be up against ex-England striker Cole.

"Andy Cole's record speaks for itself," he said, "He's been scoring goals regularly at the top level for a long time now. I've played against him quite a few times over the years, and he's a very difficult opponent. You've always got to be aware of him, he's one of those strikers who always tries to get in behind you and in the box he's deadly."

Amazingly, considering all the doom and gloom there was around only a few short weeks ago, this could still turn into Fulham's most successful season ever. The Whites have never finished higher than tenth in top-flight football, and a win on Saturday could push them over that mark - throw in an FA Cup semi-final appearance and it's been quite a remarkable year. Melville is keen for the season to end as positively as possible.

"We want to finish the season as high up the table as we can," he said, "It was only a couple of weeks ago that we got dragged right into the relegation dog-fight, so it was nice to get a couple of good results and if we can get another on Saturday it will end up looking quite respectable for us.

"We said at the beginning of the season that our aim was to stay in the Premiership, and we've done that. Now we can go into next season with some belief knowing that we can handle this League, and that we've got a good base to take things on a bit further. We've learnt a lot this season and if we can take that forward then we've got to be very positive about the future.

"The Leeds game a few weeks ago was a very big result for us, especially considering the circumstances, but if you look at the season overall there have been very few games where we've been outplayed. Results haven't been what we've wanted perhaps but the performances haven't been too bad. Hopefully we've taken on board where we've gone wrong and that can only bode well for next year."

So what happens on Sunday - are the players on the first plane out of here?

"Obviously there are still some international games to play," Melville said, "Steve Finnan and Eddie Lewis are off to the World Cup, and I've got a Welsh game against Germany on Tuesday. The injured lads will continue to come in for treatment as usual, but everyone else will be taking a break - it's been a long hard season and they'll need it. Unless the manager calls us in for a few days next week then we'll be away."

What a nice way it would be to end the season - a victory over fierce rivals Blackburn to leave Graeme Souness speechless and a top half finish. Perfect.