MARK Hughes has had something of a rocky ride in the last few years.
He was doing so well as a manager, an immediate success in his first job with Wales and continuing the good work at Blackburn. Then came Manchester City, a bruising and chastening experience which ended with the sack.
He took time out before coming back at Fulham but this season hasn’t exactly gone as he’d have liked.
It was always going to be tough following in the footsteps of Roy Hodgson (don’t laugh, Liverpool fans), who had guided Fulham to the top half of the Premier League and taken them to the Europa League Final.
Then Hughes took over ... and a relegation fight wasn’t what the fans were expecting.
That’s what they’ve got, though, with the Londoners three points above the drop zone and facing a nervy final few weeks.
Strangely, they haven’t actually lost many games (defeat at Everton last time out was only their ninth of the season, compared to Blackpool’s 15). But they have drawn way too many – half their games.
Hughes believes an inability to eke out victories has cost his side dearly but is convinced the players have the attitude and aptitude to push up the table.
The manager said: “The team has moved on. It has added qualities that maybe it didn’t have before we came. Certainly the way we approach away games and the way we take the game to the opposition away from home is a positive for us.
“We feel we are probably better than the number of points we have.
“We have had a hell of a lot of draw, and even if we had converted a very small number of those into wins we would be very comfortably in the top ten, which is where I feel we should be.
“But we are quite calm and reasonably pleased with where we are, and certainly next season we feel we can kick on.”
Fulham’s prospects for the remainder of the season have been boosted by the return of Bobby Zamora.
The frontman broke his leg in September – not long after scoring against Pool, when Bloomfield Road’s first Premier League game ended in a 2-2 draw – but has been feeling his way back in recent weeks and scored a late penalty in Fulham’s last home game, a 3-2 win over Blackburn. Zamora was a sub in his first two comeback matches but could start tomorrow.
With Damien Duff, Clint Dempsey and the well-travelled but highly rated Andy Johnson also a major threat – not to mention tricky Belgium international Mousa Dembele – Fulham appear to have the firepower to get out of trouble.
Hughes added: “We have been playing well for a long time. I would be more concerned if we were showing inconsistent form, struggling in games and conceding poor goals.
“That’s not the case in our view and we’re playing good stuff, creating chances against top-quality opposition. I’m very pleased with what we’re doing. The team is working collectively really well.”
Fulham had several players away on international duty over the past fortnight. Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird (Northern Ireland), Stephen Kelly, Damien Duff (Republic of Ireland), Mark Schwarzer (Australia), John Pantsil (Ghana), Clint Dempsey (USA), Carlo Salcido (Mexico), Zoltan Gera (Hungary) and Mousa Dembele (Belgium) will all be assessed ahead of Sunday’s game.
Hughes has received a boost with the return of Steve Sidwell, who has been out for a month with a knee injury.
He is the manager’s preferred holding midfielder, though Dickson Etuhu will start if Sidwell isn’t deemed fit enough.
FULHAM (probable): Mark Schwarzer, Chris Baird, Brede Hangeland, Aaron Hughes, Carlos Salcido, Dickson Etuhu, Damien Duff, Danny Murphy, Clint Dempsey, Andy Johnson, Bobby Zamora (or Mousa Dembele)