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Fulham 2008/09 preview

All appeared doom and gloom at Fulham, but a Great Escape creates a sense of a second chance.

Cottagers eager to avoid another relegation battle

When Roy Hodgson took over at Fulham in December last year all appeared doom and gloom, but eight months and a Great Escape later there is a sense of a second chance. Last season's final day victory over Portsmouth secured a narrow 17th-placed Premier League finish and ensured Craven Cottage will be welcoming the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal in the 2008/09 campaign, rather than Doncaster and Swansea. Hodgson was brought in to replace Lawrie Sanchez at the turn of the year as the former Northern Ireland manager was handed his marching orders with Fulham struggling, despite starting the season with a new-look squad following heavy summer investment. The arrival of Hodgson was not met with a sense of euphoria in West London with the ex-Inter Milan, Switzerland and Finland boss recognised more for his European pedigree than domestic achievements, where he was best known for a brief stint at Blackburn in the 1990s. Hodgson, though, renewed Fulham's fortunes and four wins from their final five games, including an epic 3-2 turnaround at Manchester City, gives a clear indication that he is capable of getting the best out of his players. The survival suggests Fulham have been handed another life to create a feeling of buoyancy among supporters but, for all the fighting spirit displayed and the respect Hodgson has earned, it is difficult to see much more than a repeat of last season this time around.

Lessons learned

And as the current summer break began with transfer funds in short supply as goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and midfield duo Zoltan Gera and Andranik Teymourian arrived for free in May and June, there was no added reason for hopes to be high. The above named trio will reinforce the Cottagers and Gera is a shrewd signing but, with only another goalkeeper, David Stockdale, entering for a fee in the initial summer months, it appeared the necessary money required to avoid a new relegation scrap was unavailable - suggesting lessons had been learned from the Sanchez era. It also looked like yours truly's recent Season Shape-up observation of tight purse strings at Craven Cottage was proving to have hit the nail on the head with astute foresight. I should have known better. July saw club chairman Mohamed Al Fayed bring his chequebook out with a bang as West Ham's coffers were boosted to the combined tune of £6.3million as Bobby Zamora and John Pantsil were purchased to slightly mixed reactions. And after renegotiating a fee based on an old injury highlighted in a medical, Fulham have also taken advantage of London-loving former Everton striker Andy Johnson's rumoured homesickness. The occasional, 'how much?' has been uttered when Johnson's move, which could eventually be worth £13million, is discussed, but Fulham are in desperate need of a reliable frontman who will find the net with frequency.
European knowledge
And with Diomansy Kamara facing six months out after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery and Brian McBride, one of a host of players to leave Craven Cottage this summer, returning to America, Hodgson appears to have set his sights on pairing Johnson with Zamora in a classic big man-little man partnership. Fulham's problems, though, do not end in attack and a rearguard which leaked 31 goals at home last season - the third worst record in the league - clearly requires strengthening. Finland international defender Toni Kallio's loan move from Swiss club Young Boys has been made permanent, while a third goalkeeper has also been captured as Pascal Zuberbuhler arrives on a single season deal, but the major bonus will be the signing of right-back Fredrik Stoor on a four-year contract. The Fulham faithful will be keen to keep it under their hats that Stoor was part of the Rosenborg defence which was comprehensively taken apart 4-0 at home by Kings Road rivals Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League last November, but Hodgson's knowledge of European football cannot be questioned and the Sweden international could prove a decent piece of business. Elsewhere, hopes will be high that influential midfielder Jimmy Bullard stays at the club and remains match fit, while Northern Ireland star striker David Healey could yet find his feet following an unsuccessful first season after his move from Leeds United. But even if everything goes in Hodgson's favour, Fulham still appear set for another struggle and it could perhaps be the shortcomings of the newly promoted teams - Hull, Stoke and West Brom - which saves their bacon. The scalp of a big team is likely to provide the biggest cheer, while the fear of another possible relegation battle could provide an adrenalin rush over mid-table mediocrity, but anything above a 15th-placed finish would be viewed as an excellent achievement. How do you think Fulham will get on? Let us know using the form below.

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