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Aug 8, 2008

Surely not another relegation battle?

Fulham fans go into the 2008/09 season knowing that it will be tough for the club to deliver them a second consecutive season of such drama, frustration, despondency and ultimate joy.

Finishing the last term in 18th meant Fulham had escaped the drop by one of the narrowest margins imaginable - a goal difference just three superior to that of Reading meant the Cottagers had defied the odds and brought about one of the most impressive comebacks since Lazarus.

Fulham's problems arguably began a season earlier with the arrival of Lawrie Sanchez. The former Northern Ireland boss was appointed as caretaker manager and somehow steered Fulham clear of relegation with a paltry win and a single draw from the season's last five games. His reward was a full-time contract.

But hopes that Sanchez would be a miracle worker were short-lived and despite spending heavily and seeking to introduce attractive, attacking football Fulham fans were forced to accept that a relegation battle loomed.

By the time Sanchez's tenure at Craven Cottage came to an end in December 2007, after just two wins in 17 games, Fulham were not so much flirting with relegation as dry humping.

The arrival of Roy Hodgson as Sanchez's replacement was not universally welcomed and failed to spark an immediate revival, but the vastly experienced manager ultimately proved to be Fulham's saviour.

Fulham managed to win four of their five remaining games in a remarkable run which began with a crucial 2-0 win over relegation rivals Reading in what was the club's first away win in 34 attempts.

The Cottagers' survival battle reached critical mass at Eastlands on April 26 when, despite being mathematically relegated at one point during the game, Fulham battled back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 and notch up an incredible second consecutive away win.

Another win, this time against fellow relegation candidates Birmingham, took Fulham out of the drop zone and presented the club with the unthinkable - their destiny in their own hands.

Victory on the last day of the season against an under-strength Portsmouth side preparing for the FA Cup final ensured Fulham's top flight status and Hodgson's position in Fulham folklore.

The former Inter Milan and Swiss national team boss brings to Fulham a wealth of experience gleaned from a 30-year career working across Europe and the Middle East; he has managed in the World Cup and the European Championships and is held in high regard in football circles for his cultured approach and tactical awareness.

On arriving at Fulham Hodgson set about his task of demolishing what he found before him and rebuilding from the ground up. A number of signings in the January transfer window, a change in playing style from pragmatism to ambition, and intensive daily fitness sessions resulted in a more confident group of players.

With no less than 11 new faces joining the club ahead of the 2008/09 campaign Hodgson goes into the new season with his own players, rather than a squad assembled by another man, this should give the club hope that another battle against the drop can be avoided.

The addition of Bobby Zamora from West Ham United and Andy Johnson from Everton for a combined cost of £16.5million will be crucial; Fulham need goals, so much rests on their ability to acclimatise to their new surroundings and each other's playing style.

On paper a classic big man-little man combination could be very exciting, not least because both Zamora and Johnson are more-than capable in front of goal and Johnson particularly possesses the kind of explosive speed that has been sorely missing from Fulham's attack.

Something else that will be sorely missed from the Fulham forward line will be Brian McBride who has returned to the United States after four years at the club; his aerial ability and vital goals were a crucial element of the club's arsenal; McBride will be a tough act for Zamora to follow.

Less tough to follow is David Healey, the man Johnson will replace in the pecking order. Although prolific for Northern Ireland at international level a measly four goals in 30 appearances for Fulham has seen his standing slide. If Johnson can keep fit and in form he could be a valuable addition, but it's a big 'if'.

In the middle of the park the return to fitness of Jimmy Bullard was crucial in Fulham's resurrection last term and his invention and tireless running could again prove pivotal, but unsettling reports of a possible return to Wigan has hinted at an uncertain future.

The addition of Zoltan Gera from West Bromwich Albion and Iranian international Andranik Teymourian from Bolton has bolstered the Fulham midfield, but whether there is the right balance between grit and invention remains to be seen.

The capture of Mark Schwarzer between the sticks could also be a shrewd addition following the departure of Kasey Keller. Schwarzer is similarly commanding figure and an excellent shot-stopper.

However, there remains a big question mark over Fulham's defence, which includes players like John Pantsil and Paul Konchesky, who have yet to fully convince at the highest level.

An opening day fixture away to newly-promoted Hull City was billed by some uncharitable observers as the new season's first six-pointer. But surely Fulham can aspire to more than simply survival this season.


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