Thursday, April 12, 2007
There's panic on the streets of West London, alright, but it's not certainly confined to that area. With three of our best enrolled at Craven Cottage, the news that Team America fired their coach directly after "USA Day" made us all move a little in our seats.

The firing of Fulham boss Chris Coleman, announced on the stroke of midnight Tuesday, took everyone by surprise and heralds uncertain times ahead for the club's US internationals.

Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra are sure to be familiar Premier League faces to incoming coach Lawrie Sanchez, but Clint Dempsey has yet to establish himself in the starting eleven, and thus has more reason to worry.

Coleman plucked all three players from MLS and clearly rates Americans more than most - he had also tried hard to bag Claudio Reyna and Oguchi Onyewu during his tenure.

Until Sanchez names his team for Reading on Saturday, the fact is they will all be wondering what the Fulham future holds in these uncertain times by the Thames.

The problem is the Northern Ireland boss has almost no time to experiment, given the first of five key challenges takes place at the Madejski Stadium only 48 hours after he first found his bearings at the Fulham training ground in Motspur Park.

McBride was one of Coleman's favorites - last season he said, if fit, the Illinoisan would 'always be starting'. This time around, at the height of Bake's red-hot Indian summer, he rated the former Crew star 'the best £700,000 anyone has ever spent'.

While he is no spring chicken, McBride is the only quality goalscorer at the club and for now his position remains safe.

Bocanegra may still be a somewhat unsung hero, but is at last a lock in his preferred central defensive stall, having soldiered admirably as a stop-gap defensive midfielder earlier this season and as a left back for most of last.

The Californian's fifth goal of the campaign on Monday also reiterated his attacking usefulness to a team over-reliant on McBride for goals. After his compatriot, center back Bocanegra is Fulham's top scorer in 2006/07.

Dempsey is the big question mark. The former Revolution man has made seven appearances for Fulham since crossing the ocean, but all of them springing from the substitutes bench.

Coleman placed Simon Davies ahead of Dempsey in the pecking order, with the explanation that the Texan was short of full fitness wearing a bit thin after a few weeks.

We know probably better than Sanchez what Dempsey can do and think it is time he was given a fair run in the team from the start.

Fulham's right side has not caught fire with Davies or Tomasz Radzinski in place, and while Wayne Routledge has produced some dangerous forays, he seems too pure a winger for the team system - less of a threat than in his Crystal Palace incarnation and still only on-loan until the summer.

Dempsey's slick skills look up to Premier League benchmarks, but he still appears sheepish in his substitute outings when it comes to making the penetrating runs, sending over the telling crosses or crashing the net like we know he can.

Give Deuce the chance and I am sure he will show his flying colors; keep him benched and his confidence will stay moored on the quayside.

While Coleman is universally considered to have done a good job since taking over and had the support of the dressing room, this season has provided ammunition for his critics.

The Cottagers' away record is as dismal as it was last time - no team in the Premier League has conceded more goals on the road - and losing his two most creative players, Luis Boa Morte and Steed Malbranque, in the summer did not help.

Both fell out with Coleman, whose personality is allegedly too abrasive for Collins John and Heidar Helguson as well, but I do not hold that against a strong-willed coach in the age of excessive player power.

Coleman had a wealth of midfielders at his disposal, but the loss through injury of the "advanced sweeper" Simon Elliott, another MLS veteran, wounded the team badly.

The large but lumbering Papa Bouba Diop and lithe but light weight Michael Brown, Alexei Smertin and Davies never formed a cohesive unit. I had high hopes Jimmy Bullard would translate his Wigan wonders to Fulham, but his season has been injury-ravaged after a fast start.

Persisting with the ineffective Radzinski has been hard to fathom - the long departed Boa Morte's dribbling stats this season are still more impressive than the Canadian's.

When I wrote an article for YA about relegation candidates, I never seriously believed Fulham were one and nor did anyone else when Coleman warned us back in February. It was just his way of showing he was boss, I thought, and since he began as coach in the summer of 2003, "Cookie" never crumbled in the media's eyes.

Unlike some who betray the stress of failing to meet the perennially unrealistic expectations of directors, or show palpable personal weakness in the face of press hounds or unruly players, Coleman always appeared a tower of strength.

Of course, it helps that he is fairly young for a coach at 36, stands around 6'4", is built like a tank (he acquired the tag "Cookie Monster" as a Fulham player), possesses dark features (Mark Hughes called him "Mowgli" when he was at Blackburn) and a booming Welsh baritone that makes every sentence sound portentous and dramatic.

Not for him is the dinner party chat of Arsene Wenger, the relaxed resignation of Alan Curbishley or the Latin pantomime of Jose Mourinho.

I was lucky enough to witness Coleman's final performance in Fulham colors at Monday's press conference when he told us he could 'almost feel the nervous energy coming off everybody' following DaMarcus Beasley's killer second goal for Manchester City.

He looked strained and his voice was less buoyant than the week before, but he did not talk like he was expecting to lose his job - which he already had at that time, it later transpired.

But his words were more intense, with metaphors of dogs, guns and knives when speaking of the need to fight for Premier League survival.

Two heavy defeats over Easter and no wins in eight games had upped the ante, while the mini-renaissance of cross-towners Charlton and West Ham turned the screw on an owner nervous that next season's $60 million television payday was slipping out of his reach.

Add to that the thorn of the tabloid tale that his wife had set up an elaborate surveillance of his activities, and Coleman's life must have been unbearable over the past week.

"I have never seen him looking so stressed," one journalist muttered as the Fulham boss left the Cottage press room for the last time, though no one realized a dismissal was imminent.

A week before, Coleman had reiterated chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed's support for him and hopes of a healthy summer transfer kitty. "The chairman's fine," he said without hesitation. "There's not a problem with the chairman. He has always been good."

Even after the City defeat, he was discussing upcoming tactics for Reading this Saturday.

But Coleman obviously knew sacking was a possibility. Last week he told reporters: "Who knows what is going to happen? In the summer, if the club thinks it is time for a new direction, then that is what will happen no doubt."

Yet quite reasonably, he believed no club would risk changing coaches with only five games to go and a two-club buffer on the drop zone.

Insiders whispered that Al-Fayed, the Harrods owner, had considered firing him before, was jaded by his vocal expectation of yet more money this summer when the latest transfer window signings had failed to ignite and only retained him because he had the support of most of the dressing room and the fans.

Contrary to what you might have read, there were not legions of Fulham fans chanting for his dismissal after the 1-1 tie with Portsmouth and the 3-1 reverse to City.

Only a handful, and I mean a handful, sang 'Coleman Out!' : There were far more fans who applauded their players while the majority just shrugged their shoulders and shuffled out onto the Stevenage Road looking disappointed.

The overheating finances at the top of the Premier League have left the rest of the division desperate to stay in the race, so the prospect of missing out on next season's windfall from the Sky-Setanta deal was too much to contemplate.

Expectations were artificial as soon as Coleman overachieved in guiding one of the Premier League's smallest teams to ninth in his first season in charge.

Until there is a cap on spending or more equitable redistribution of revenue imposed, clubs who struggle to shift 20,000 tickets are on a hiding to nothing when up against the Roman Abramoviches and Old Traffords of this division.

Coleman admitted as much in his final program notes on Monday, reiterating his comments to journalists the week before that there are bigger fish in the water.

"I keep talking up a top 10 finish, because that's what I want and the chairman and the club want," he said, but added, "We've got no divine right to be in the top 10."

Let us all wish Coleman better luck than he has had in the past week, that Fulham's American legion pass the test in their remaining games and that Clint Dempsey becomes a protagonist on the field - if not a fixture on the team sheet.

Sanchez's task is no breeze, but he has helped little Northern Ireland defeat England, Spain and Sweden recently. Let us hope that he will not take revenge on the Fulham Yanks for the recent beating the US handed out to Ecuador, homeland of his father.

The three Americans at Craven Cottage should not feel alarmed, however. These things happen.

Already this season, Cory Gibbs, Eddie Lewis, Jonathan Spector and Zak Whitbread have seen their coaches fired in England, while Gregg Berhalter, Benny Feilhaber, Ian Joy, Kasey Keller and Josh Wolff have experienced the same thing in Germany.

Sometimes, that is just the way the cookie crumbles.

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