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Apr 1, 2014

Whites head for Premier League exit


Fulham's latest defeat, their 22nd of the season, leaves only a fanatical few still believing the current team has what it takes to beat relegation. The statistics are climbing to a frightening level, and set surely to get even worse before the final game of the season.

Ironically, that is likely to be a meaningless matchup against Crystal Palace. Consider this. Fulham, a side boasting Holland's World Cup keeper Maarten Stekelenburg and the Rock of Copenhagen, the giant Brede Hangeland at centre-back, have now conceded 73 goals so far this campaign after Everton added another three to the debit column on Sunday. Promoted side Palace, a side Fulham despatched 4-1 at Selhurst Park last October, have to date let in just 39.

Ian Holloway had cobbled together a bits and pieces squad of very average players over the summer. Fulham's win hastened his departure. But without breaking the bank, Tony Pulis since has somehow got this modest outfit organised to the point where they can beat title contenders Chelsea. I fully expect them to stay in the top flight.

How can Fulham with the players at their disposal now contrive to trail seven points behind Crystal Palace?

Exactly one year ago, Fulham were beating QPR 3-2 at the Cottage. That win was about the last cup of cheer I remember lifting. Virtually safe, Martin Jol's side then managed to lose six of their last eight. The decline before supporters' very eyes was palpable. Yet the board chose to sit on their hands and retain trust in a manager running on empty.

The rot set in over a year ago and the rapid turnover of managers and advisers since has only added fuel to the flames. I genuinely feel that had Rene Meulensteen been backed after the narrow loss to Liverpool, the club would have more points on the board now, and perhaps still be in with a fighting chance. Instead we got the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

Felix Magath said his charges could pull off another Great Escape if they won their home matches. Privately, maybe he even believed it. So the team for Everton was another bold –- or foolhardy -- experiment with youth (take your pick). Academy prodigy Moussa Dembele was sent out as a lone raider to carry the fight to Sylvain Distin, Gareth Barry, Tim Howard and the rest.

With a little more luck, the kid might have marked his full team debut with a goal during a first half dominated by a lively Fulham showing. The Whites were the better side and would have led had Pajtim Kasami, Lewis Holtby, John-Arne Riise or Kieran Richardson had their shooting boots on. But, as has been the case all season, there was nobody to finish off the approach play.

Fulham left the pitch to a standing ovation, their desire to go down fighting both evident and much appreciated by the crowd. The second half, however, followed an all-too-familiar pattern. It is not the kids who have dragged Fulham to the bottom of the pile. It is the senior pros and, let's admit it, a combination of flawed picks in the transfer market plus dead-weights in the management structure.

Keystone cops defending gifted Everton the lead, the panic defending inside the box being a hallmark of this nightmare run. Magath understandably gambled on going for the win, but yet again, just as we'd seen at West Brom, Cardiff and home to Liverpool, Fulham achieve parity (terrific strike from Ashkan Dejagah) only to lose concentration over the closing minutes of a match. That's been the Achilles heel all season, a direct result of picking players over the hill. What the brain is sending out, the rest of the body can no longer deliver.

With so many missed opportunities under Martin Jol, it reduces me to tears of rage to see the likes of Patrick Roberts, Cauley Woodrow and Dembele pitched onto the funeral pyre of failure now, instead of having been integrated intelligently into first-team affairs.

However, as fans saluted the side for their gallant, but ultimately fruitless endeavours, we must now look to Magath and the Academy boys to build a bright new future for London's oldest football club. The German says he's willing to stick around to sample the Championship. That will be a whole new ballgame for a coach who swept the board with Bayern Munich.

We'll leave what I feel is required to come through that campaign among the top three for another day. As ever, and feeling for too long like a pariah baying for firm direction from those at the top, do let me know your thoughts on where you think it has all gone so badly wrong.