The Dutchman's second season at Craven Cottage has brought its fair share of problems, but now he is building another attacking team around the inspired Dimitar BerbatovEXCLUSIVE
By Liam Twomey
Martin Jol has always been a man with a good eye for the beautiful game. A combative midfielder in a playing career which included spells with West Brom and Coventry in the 1980s, he was nevertheless raised in the Dutch culture of ‘Total Football’. Since entering into the world of management, it is a philosophy he has adhered to unwaveringly, and one which has drawn him inexorably back to England – first with Tottenham, and now with Fulham.
“I try to play attractive, attacking football,” he tells Goal.com. “I’ve been brought up in a country where the midfielders and full-backs all go forward, so there are not a lot of players in my team who can’t be creative. That is what I did before in England, Germany and Holland, and that is what I’m trying to do at Fulham.”
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Last season, boasting the flair of Bryan Ruiz and Mousa Dembele, the metronomic passing of Danny Murphy and the clinical finishing of Clint Dempsey, the Cottagers at times lit up the Premier League, as Jol transformed the pragmatic and disciplined outfit built by Roy Hodgson into something no less effective but all the more attractive, and claimed a ninth-place finish in the Premier League.
But success brings its own problems. Dempsey and Dembele were poached by Spurs, while Murphy spurned a new contract to seek pastures new, and Jol found himself having to start again.
“It’s been difficult, because we lost our best players as a result of clauses and ambition,” he admits. “Last season we made a lot of changes and had a terrific team, but then last summer we lost a few key players and had to build a new one.”
To fill the void, in came veteran playmaker Giorgios Karagounis, strikers Mladen Petric and Hugo Rodallega and, on deadline day, Dimitar Berbatov, swayed by the bond he forged with Jol at Tottenham. Disenfranchised at Manchester United, the classy Bulgarian appears to have rediscovered his joie de vivre at Craven Cottage, scoring 10 goals in 23 league appearances and papering over the cracks of an injury-hit midfield by filling in with distinction as a No.10.
And Jol is in no doubt as to his star striker’s importance. “When people talk about Robin van Persie at Manchester United, they talk about a player who followed in his footsteps, because Dimitar was at United and he was their top scorer,” he continues.
“I don’t like to compare players, but Dimitar was very important to Manchester United. Van Persie is in his prime. He’s in unbelievable form at a good age. Dimitar, at 32, is a bit older, but I feel he’s just as important to us.
“When you watch him in training and sometimes in matches, he’s quicker than you think. He’s quicker than 90 per cent of the other players in the Premier League. But he’s a bit different – he plays like you or I would play in the park. He looks so laid back, but he’s so gifted that everything looks easy for him.”
For all Berbatov’s heroics, however, the rebuilding process has been a painful one. After a promising start, Fulham finished 2012 on a run of just one win in 12 matches, and the New Year looked likely to yield little more than a relegation battle.
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Dembele’s poise and Dempsey’s goals were missed, while Ruiz’s absence through injury also stifled the team’s creativity, and Jol freely admits he has had trouble finding his best side. “Diarra and Ruiz were injured, and between the 10th and 20th games I couldn’t find the right balance to the team,” he concedes. “I was changing it all the time, and we were punished for it.”
The outlook is markedly brighter now though. Victories over West Brom, West Ham and Stoke eased Fulham clear of the relegation zone, and Saturday’s impressive 2-2 away draw with Sunderland has seen them sneak into the top half. If the recovery continues, they may well stay there.
Jol himself seems a contented man, and has confirmed he and his family are looking to settle in London, having lived in England, Germany and Holland over the last decade. Earlier this week, Goal.com exclusively revealed the Dutchman has re-opened talks with the club over the possibility of a one-year extension to his current contract, which expires this summer.
Fulham, too, have plans, with another summer of spending in prospect and a green-lighted brand new Riverside Stand set to boost the capacity of Craven Cottage to 30,000.
But Jol’s eyes, as ever, are focused fully on the pitch. “I would like to get back to the fantastic football we played last year,” he confirms. “If you want to play this football you need the right players, but I think we have them. My ambition is to develop a few youngsters, and we’ve got Matthew Briggs, Kerim Frei and Alex Kacaniklic at the moment.
“Hopefully with them, combined with the older players, we’ll have a very good side to be successful with. We’re aiming to be in the top 10 for the next decade, and beyond that, you never know. Last year, with the team we had, we could have been top six. Within the next two years we want to be in Europe again. The future looks bright for us.”
Martin Jol was speaking on behalf of Barclays Ticket Office. Every 90 minutes throughout the season, Barclays is offering fans the chance to win free tickets to Barclays Premier League matches by going to a Barclays ATM and requesting a receipt, or by visiting www.barclaysticketoffice.com
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