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Aug 14, 2006

Fulham craving success

It has been a while since Fulham fans felt the feeling of success coursing through their veins. In the run-up to Christmas they had a taste of the 4th Champion's League spot after a succession of good performances, but then in keeping with tradition, fell away in the New Year and ended the season a disappointing 12th.

Hounded by constant speculation over his future, manager Chris Coleman has already become one of the early favourites to claim his P45 from Craven Cottage. A symptom of working for one of the Premierships most trigger-happy chairman as much as anything else.

After steering the club to their highest ever finish in his first season, when they reached the dizzy heights of 9th, Coleman has a lot of early promise live up to and certainly no-one can question his ambition for the forthcoming campaign.

Losing your top players is hard at the best of times, and Coleman has had to watch as Saha, Van Der Saar and Andy Cole have all left the club. With limited investment from Chairman Mohamed Al Fayed, Fulham are a team run on a tight budget and it is testament to the skill of the manager that he has pulled of some successful transfer deals already.

However, before the new faces can get settled, Coleman's first issue of business is to let another of his top guns leave the club.

Fulham's pre-season preparations have been disrupted by the saga revolving around wantaway midfielder Steed Malbranque. The 26-year old Frenchman's contract runs out at the end of next season, and he has already gone public in his desire to find himself a new club.

The club will not want to let one of their most valuable assets leave for nothing, when the Bosman ruling kicks in, though they are unlikely to get the £6 million that they are reported to value the player at.

Coleman has already stated his ambition for the forthcoming season saying, 'our thoughts for next season are to finish in the top 10. I think it's possible to do that.' Success that would certainly be welcomed for a club who have been languishing in mid table since 2003/04.

However, if Fulham have any realistic chance of achieving this ambition they must iron out the inconsistencies that have destroyed their form, particularly on the road. Having only won a single game away from Craven Cottage last year, at least it is obvious what needs to be resolved.

Coleman has already been making steps to remedy the situation, busying himself in the transfer market and aiming to plug the gaps before the season starts. Most notably with the signing of the impressive Jimmy Bullard for a cut-price £2.5 million from Wigan.

The sparky midfielder could prove to be a valuable addition to a Fulham squad lacking in any creativity without Malbranque. Bullard brought a unique character and enthusiasm to the Premiership last year with newly-promoted Wigan, and many found it a shock that he chose to move on after such a successful season with the North-West club.

Coleman clearly believes that Bullard can make the same impression at Craven Cottage, recently claiming that he will become a fan's favourite in no time at all. His creativity and willingness will be a key component of Fulham's season alongside the powerful play of Papa Bouba Diop.

As will the retention of both Brian McBride and Collins John.

Combining for 21 goals last season, the striking pair were invaluable in keeping the club well clear of the relegation fight. If Coleman is to succeed this season, he will have to get the best out of his under-rated strike force again and scorn much of the reported interest that other clubs have shown in them.

The addition of young striker Bjorn Runstrom from Hammarby, has bolstered Fulham's attacking options that already include the lively Luis Boa Morte, Tomasz Radzinski and Heidar Helguson, who weighed in with an impressive 8 goals last year.

Fulham have added just two defenders so far in a bid to stabilise a defence that was torn apart with too much regularity last season. The arrival of Frank Queudrue from Middlesborough will fill the gap left by the departing Wayne Bridge in the full-back position, and he will find good competition for places against Moritz Volz and player whose impressive performances will surely stand him in good stead this year, Liam Rosenior.

20-year-old Gabriel Zakuani, will also add some youthful exuberance and weight in the centre of defence. A consistent performer for Leyton Orient in the League 2, Coleman will be hoping that Zakuani can make the step up in class that is expected of him.

This Fulham side have the potential to do well in the Premiership if they can put last season behind them and they can take great strength from a good goalless draw against a strong Real Madrid team in pre-season.

Although they failed to find the net Coleman, always one to look on the positive side, showed his delight at keeping a clean sheet against one of the strongest strike forces in world football and is confident that the team will hit their stride come the first day of the season.

With the manager keen to show he's up for the challenge, some of the senior players will have to step up to the challenge too if Fulham are to fulfill their ambition of a top-10 finish. Dogged by inconsistency last term, Coleman must bring stability to a club that can not afford to repeat the mistakes of last season.

If he can do so, maybe the fans will have something to cheer about.