Optimistic Exile

Monday 4 November 2002

Considering we've just lost three Premiership games in a row, I'm curiously optimistic.

Having watched the Dinamo Zagreb game on TV, I listened to the Arsenal match on the radio. It was clear that we were playing pretty well, matching the Gunners in almost every department but just missing that little bit of luck and/or inspiration which could have given us a point.

We could, in fact, have been two up early doors if Steve Finnan had managed to direct his first-minute header under the bar, and then referee Jeff Winter failed to give us what seems to have been a nailed-on penalty. Certainly the radio commentators were agreed it was a definite foul.

I can't help wondering if it had been any other Fulham player in the collision, perhaps the outcome could have been different. Luis, very unfairly, carries this tag of looking for awards with him - even Arsene Wenger, his former manager, referred to it after the game, saying: 'Boa Morte likes to provoke that kind of action'. Refs are of course aware of this and maybe tend to give defenders the benefit of the doubt.

We can justifiably claim to have prevented Arsenal from scoring, something no other Premiership team has done for a year, since the only goal was little to do with them but a total fluke. Arsenal themselves, to be fair, gave Blackburn a very similar goal a week earlier, courtesy of Edu. ('Marlet scores winner' makes a great headline - shame it was at the wrong end.)

This aberration apart, our defence coped well with Arsenal's attack, and when they were breached, Ed was impassable as the last line. By contrast, the Arsenal back line sounded from the radio to be quite uncertain at times, but even in that frantic last 10 minutes when we hurled everything at them, the ball just wouldn't go in.

Nonetheless, this is progress. Last season Arsenal beat us twice pretty comfortably, winning all four halves of the two games. This was far from comfortable for them, and we kept them out for the whole of the second half.

Although we now have two fewer points than we had after 12 games a year ago, our performances in the equivalent fixtures are equal or better in every case bar one - the game at Southampton. This progress must continue over the next two fixtures.

Although both are away, Villa and Birmingham are eminently beatable and we should get more chances in both games. In addition, Villa are not scoring, having notched only 7 league goals this season. Messrs Angel, Crouch and Vassell have so far scored one goal between them - and we think we've got striking problems!

That little bit of early luck (or of course inspiration) to give us a lead inside the first 15 minutes would be magic, and if that came on Saturday I'm sure we'd go on to win.

Before then we face Bury in the Worthington Cup. There will undoubtedly be many changes for this game as players who don't feature regularly are given a chance.

I would think the starting line-up might include Martin Herrera, Lee Clark, Pierre Wome, Bjarne Goldbaek and at least one young striker, possibly Callum Willock. Dean Leacock is with the England under-19s so may not be available, but we could also see Mark Hudson in action. Martin Djetou needs games so I'd expect him to figure, if not for the full 90 minutes.

Bury won at Bolton in the last round but even with our supposed 'reserve' line-up we should have too much class for a team which, despite sitting 6th in Division 3, has conceded 25 league goals already.

If we do win it congests the fixture list still further, with the next round due to be played in early December (hopefully between our two Uefa Cup Round 3 games). But I'm sure the players would want to be involved in every competition as long as possible - certainly we as fans do!

It will be interesting to see what sort of attendance there is on Wednesday. I noticed two significant crowds last Tuesday, perhaps an indication of the way football is going. Troubled Wimbledon had just 849 for their league game, the lowest Div One crowd ever, as their fans continue to stay away in protest at the move to Milton Keynes.

By contrast, there were 8,000 at the reserve game at St Mary's in which we beat Southampton 2-0. Saints move to a new stadium and continued progress in the Premiership seems to have strengthened their fan base - something we must hope will happen to Fulham when we finally get our own new ground. Progress on that front this week would be as welcome as league or cup wins, so tortuous has the process been.

We thought we should have had a penalty - maybe even two - against Arsenal - but there was an amazing story in one of the Sunday papers which shows that we are mere novices when it comes to protesting about refereeing bias. It concerns a team from Madagascar called Stade Olympique l'Emyrne.

They have become so convinced that every ref on the island is against them that in the last league game of the season, against AS Adema, the coach instructed the players to spend the entire game firing shots past their own goalkeeper. They carried out their job perfectly. The Adema players hardly got a kick of the ball, and the poor ref had to signal an own goal an incredible 149 times! Needless to say, the authorities aren't amused, and Olympique are facing serious sanctions. Somehow I can't see this type of protest catching on....

And finally, spare a thought for Peterborough defender Simon Rea. You're next to bottom of Division Two and you're facing the league leaders Cardiff away. So you come out fired up with determination. Cardiff striker Robert Earnshaw comes at you straight from the kick-off. He shall not pass! Unfortunately you are just a bit too fired up, and your match ends after just 15 seconds as ref Paul Danson shows you the dreaded red card. Somehow the usual mumbled 'sorry boss' as you walk past manager Barry Fry seems a bit inadequate!

Roger is always pleased to hear from other fans. You can contact him at roger@smithwalk.demon.co.uk