Sunday 19 November 2017

Magath questions players' spirit as Fulham go down

Stoke City 4 Fulham 1

Goalkeeper David Stockdale reacts to the defeat that confirmed Fulham’s relegation
Goalkeeper David Stockdale reacts to the defeat that confirmed Fulham’s relegation
Oussama Assaidi (C) of Stoke City is challenged by Dan Burn (L) and Lewis Holtby (R) of Fulham
Jonathan Walters (C) of Stoke City shoots and scores his sides fourth goal
Oussama Assaidi (R) of Stoke City is challenged by Scott Parker (L) of Fulham

Si Hughes

It was appropriate that Fulham should be washed into the Championship like this, with a performance that possessed all the resilience of a sandcastle at full tide.

At the end, Steve Sidwell was motionless in the centre circle staring at the floor. Scott Parker held a similar stance near the touchline having puzzlingly been deployed as a right-back midway through the second half.

Grown men watching their team were in tears. Felix Magath, the Fulham manager, said some of his players had reacted similarly as they slumped into the dressing-room.

There was a sense it mattered. Yet what had gone before suggested it did not. Fulham were just dreadful. There was confusion in defence, an absence of drive from midfield and nothing in attack. From the beginning, they seemed resigned to their fate.

In the press room afterwards, Magath spoke slowly and deliberately. He explained that Fulham had suffered a "blackout". He had not seen this coming. He was disappointed by the lack of "fight and spirit".

"As you can imagine that is one of the worst days I have ever had," he said. "I was convinced before the game that we had a very good chance but today was what you would call in Germany a blackout.

"There was no fighting spirit there. I think they felt too much pressure – we cannot run, we cannot pass, we cannot play and we have never been in the game."

Magath, too, was contrite in his message to the supporters for the manner in which relegation was sealed. "I have to take the responsibility and apologise, not only for today but for not managing the situation because I was convinced we would stay in the league."

There were two moments in the second half that illustrated frustrations on the terraces neatly. With the scoreline at 3-0, Kieran Richardson scooped a shot towards the row marked Z. Previously, Fulham had managed only one effort on target. "That's why we're going down," came the grumble.

Later, Darren Bent's drive reached a similarly depressing destination. He was informed that he was "not fit to wear the shirt".

It had seemed, of course, that this was a classic case of those with everything to play for and those with absolutely nothing. Yet Mark Hughes, the Stoke manager, insisted in his programme notes that he was close to accomplishing a personal target set at the start of the season to finish inside the Premier League's top 10 for the first time in the club's history.

So Stoke began like they really wanted it. What followed was a microcosm of a Fulham campaign which has taken in a new owner, three different managers and 42 different players.

At best, Magath's side were disjointed. Realistically, they were disorganised to the point of embarrassment. Mahamadou Diarra was wearing the No 9 shirt despite being deep in a midfield which was unable to retain possession or support the one-man attack led by Bent.

Bent's presence alone, indeed, was unusual given that he had not started a game in two months. Fulham did not register a single shot on target in the first half. Stoke's lead at the break should have been reflected by more than Peter Odemwingie's goal, tucked in from a yard out after Stephen Ireland's shot had looped onto the crossbar via a block by John Heitinga that rebounded off Dan Burn.

By then, Lewis Holtby had already been substituted by Magath – a sign that things were simply not working. There was no offer of a handshake between the pair. Holtby simply slipped into his tracksuit and then disappeared into the dugout. "The player is very skilful," Magath reasoned. "But he did not get anything right."

Fulham's response in the second half was to get caught by the same trick on two occasions. Having built up enough courage to attack they committed too many men forward and the result was a succession of almost identical Stoke counter-attacks involving natural wing-play, crosses and goals for Marko Arnautovic then Oussama Assaidi, a winger Hughes would like to sign permanently from Liverpool.

Although Richardson volleyed in a consolation for the visitors, substitute Jonathan Walters restored Stoke's three-goal advantage within two minutes.

And with that, Fulham were down.

"We knew what we wanted to achieve from the game and to have secured that with 20 minutes or so remaining in front of our fans for the last time this season was pleasing," said Hughes, a former Fulham manager, who also spoke of his sympathy for colleagues at his old club.

"They're really upset at the moment. You don't like to see people who you've worked with go through that. But it's an unforgiving league."


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