Week 27 – Craven (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)
At around four o’clock on Saturday morning, Japanese time, Yuzuru Hanyu followed up his astonishing, world-record score in the short programme of the men’s figure skating with another fine display in his free routine to clinch gold at his first Olympics. In doing so, he enabled Japan, twice a host of the Winter Games, to leapfrog past Great Britain, which barely has a mountain you can ski down, in the Sochi medal table. The trick for low-lying countries like mine, of course, is to find an event the snowier countries seem to have overlooked – in our case, skeleton – and invest our entire, modest budget into retraining athletes from other sports to fill the gap. (Although I suppose that with my own home county of Somerset still largely under water, any forthcoming cold snap might at least give us the opportunity to try out some Dutch-style speed skating or make curling the national sport.)
Happily, any sense of crushing disappointment we Brits might have felt at falling a spot in the rankings was negated by the distraction of simultaneously breaking football news from West London. At around seven o’clock on Friday evening, Greenwich Mean Time, Fulham caught everybody off guard by suddenly announcing the appointment of Felix Magath as the manager to lift them off the foot of the Premier League over the remaining dozen matches. And then all the more so when it emerged that René Meulensteen had not actually been replaced in the role, because it was never given to him in the first place.
Indeed, the official club press release deigned not to even mention the Dutchman in passing; instead simply welcoming Magath to Craven Cottage with an appraisal of his Bundesliga record and the gleeful assertion by CEO Alistair Mackintosh that “the opportunity to bring in a manager with the experience of Felix Magath would typically be unlikely at this point in the season”. The first reference to Meulensteen came, quite brilliantly, from the man himself on BBC Radio 5 Live less than five minutes later, but even he was at a loss to explain what was really going on:
“I’ve not been told anything,” said the 49-year-old. “I knew the owners were freaking out and panicking about the fact that Fulham could get relegated, but they’ve had that sort of attitude already ten games back… They’ve hit the panic button on emotions of fear, but hey-ho, that’s what happens in football. It’s not always fair.”
Meulensteen may be about to discover just how unfair things can get. Employed as ‘head coach’ under the management of Martin Jol on 13 November last year, he was then quickly put in charge of ‘first-team duties’ with the dismissal of his compatriot on 1 December. The former Manchester United trainer described the move as “one that took me by surprise from the start, because that was not anticipated with Martin Jol leaving”. But in fact, his job title at Craven Cottage was never changed, meaning that technically, the position of ‘manager’ remained vacant until the arrival of Magath. Ruthlessly careful with their semantics, Mackintosh and company maintained that Meulensteen had therefore not been sacked, merely reassigned, and remained in the club’s employ. The situation for the latter is clearly untenable, and he would surely have a good case for constructive dismissal, but whether he will receive the full payout that would normally be due to an ex-manager is another matter entirely.
The fiasco is a clever new twist on Fulham’s own, in-house version of the managerial merry-go-round. Meulensteen may not have seen himself as a readymade replacement for Jol, but most observers did, with the much-liked ex-Tottenham Hotspur boss a sitting duck having recruited a few too many players who reflected his own, languid personality. Later in December, the experienced Alan Curbishley came aboard as technical director while Ray Wilkins, himself a one-time Fulham manager back in the third tier in 1997/98, was recruited as Meulensteen’s assistant. It did not take long to make the connection and Mackintosh himself even admitted that Curbishley in particular was an option to take over at some point in future. As such, it was somewhat out of left field that Magath should be the one unveiled – and before the technical director had even been consulted.
Also puzzling is the timing. Early December, as with Jol, is most opportune for a mid-term changing of the guard as it affords the new man time to assess his inherited charges before investing whatever money there is into re-jigging the squad come January. The overhaul was rapid, with four first team players moved on and seven new faces – including two, Larnell Cole and Ryan Tunnicliffe, who had developed under Meulensteen at Old Trafford – recruited. Despite a poor record of just ten points from 13 matches, identical to that achieved under Jol over the opening three and a half months of the season, it must rankle with the ‘head coach’ that he never got to see his team beyond promising displays against United and Liverpool; or marquee signing Konstantinos Mitroglou in action at all.
This is not to criticise the choice of Magath, whose reputation as a hard trainer is preceded only by his record as a fire-fighter. During relatively brief spells at each, he previously helped 1. FC Nürnberg, Werder Bremen, and Eintracht Frankfurt avoid relegation around the turn of the millennium, before taking VfB Stuttgart from second last in February 2001 to second place in 2002/03. In this regard, perhaps it simply was a case of an unexpected chance too good for Fulham to miss, regardless of complications, after talks between Magath and Hamburg SV fell through only last Thursday. As the German now attempts to perform similar escapology in England, he will be aided by the presence of two regulars from his 2008/09 title-winners at VfL Wolfsburg, Sascha Riether and Ashkan Dejagah.
As for Meulensteen, his 75-day reign follows a 16-day spell in charge of Anzhi Makhachkala last summer, meaning the most significant mark on his managerial CV remains those turbulent six months at Brøndby, where he is best remembered for asking his players to imagine themselves as tigers and giraffes. Yet his popularity remains high in Manchester, where he enjoyed enormous success after returning from Denmark and his training was credited for bringing the best out of star names from Cristiano Ronaldo to Robin van Persie. Perhaps it would be best for all concerned if David Moyes invited him back up north to help out once again.
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