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Thursday, Aug. 22, 2002


Life stranger than fiction at Fulham

LONDON -- If Junichi Inamoto is feeling warm after training he could always stand between coach Jean Tigana and "the chairman's adviser for football" Franco Baresi to cool down.

Christopher Davies

To say the atmosphere between the two men is frosty is like saying Inamoto was a little happy with his two World Cup goals -- a candidate for understatement of the year.

(Baresi resigned his position with Fulham just before press time.)

Inamoto's English may still be far from fluent but rest assured the Japanese international has picked up the vibes and he must wonder what sort of political minefield he has walked in to.

Fulham has a reputation of being a friendly club but it is far from a happy place these days even though the Cottagers are on the verge of a place in the UEFA Cup and kicked-off the league season with a resounding victory.

Of course the spin doctors say everything in the garden is rosy, everyone loves each other and why the heck is everyone asking such silly questions?

Fulham opened its 2002-03 campaign with a home game -- sorry, "home" game -- a 4-1 win over Bolton.

Inamoto started in familiar territory but in the 68th minute came off the bench to make one of the most overdue of Premiership debuts. He made a telling contribution, too, supplying the pass for Sylvain Legwinski to score Fulham's fourth goal.

Incidentally, Legwinski has one of the more inventive of nicknames. The French striker was once with Monaco and so is known as Monaco Legwinski.

The match -- it was the first time Fulham had scored four goals in the Premiership -- was played at Loftus Road where the landlord is Queens Park Rangers of the second division because Craven Cottage is being refurbished. Whether it will ever be finished is another matter.

In fact the majority of Fulham supporters believe the club is unlikely to return to one of the most famous grounds in English football which attracted a crowd of just under 50,000 some 60 years ago when Millwall was the opponent.

The plan was for Fulham to vacate the Cottage for a couple of years, returning in 2004 to a new 28,000-capacity stadium. That was Plan A and why was it called plan A? Because there was also a Plan B (and C etc. . . ).

Plan B is becoming the more likely to be followed and that is a new venue somewhere in south west London. Fulham Alliance, a pressure group of loads-a-money local residents is doing all it can to slow down the rebuilding process and Bruce Langham, the club's chief executive, admitted: "Our preferred option would be to return to Craven Cottage but it would be foolhardy not to keep our options open and build a stadium we are proud of."

There is as much uncertainty on the football side too. Earlier this summer Mohamed Fayed, the Fulham chairman and owner of Harrods, brought in Baresi, the former AC Milan and Italy captain.

Initially it was said Baresi would be director of football and while no one can question the Italian's experience in Serie A, the European Cup and the World Cup his knowledge of English football and the English language is, shall we say, very limited.

The club's official stance is that Baresi is now "the chairman's adviser for football" and Tigana "is in control of the team and team selection."

Why does Fayed need a dedicated football adviser? Couldn't Tigana give the chairman any advice he may need? And why is Baresi there only on a six-month trial? The Italian will hardly be comforted by Fayed's assertion that "experiments don't always work."

Word has it that Tigana and Baresi have been involved in some heated discussions (i.e. blazing rows) -- denied by the spin doctors needless to say -- and the impression is that Tigana is a departure waiting to happen. Ditto Baresi. The race is on.

The bookmakers have Tigana down as the second most likely manager to be the first to leave a Premiership club after Sunderland's Peter Reid.

The financial freedom coaches enjoy these days after retiring from playing as millionaires means they do not have to put up with interference. When that happens they walk and when asked what steps he would take if he felt his position was being undermined, Tigana was probably tempted to say: "Large ones -- back to France."

Insiders say Tigana has been openly critical of Fayed to his players. Fayed, in turn, hardly gave a vote of confidence to his coach when he said he was disappointed Tigana had not produced a better return on the $45 million invested last year "but he is learning fast."

(Incidentally, for lovers of trivia Fayed had paid $15,000 for a private toilet to be built at Loftus Road -- it will only be used by the chairman, a luxury that surely makes the man unique in world football?).

So who Inamoto's coach will be at the end of the season is anyone's guess. In the meantime the player is happy to have finally made an appearance in the Premiership, which he failed to do during his year with Arsenal.

Inamoto has impressed his teammates, not least with his goal in the first leg of the InterToto Cup final in Bologna which helped Fulham earn a 2-2 draw. The second leg of what Fulham fans now call the InaMoto Cup is next week and a place in the UEFA Cup will be Fulham's if it wins or draws 1-1.

"He looks very comfortable," said striker Barry Hayles of Inamoto. "I really like the look of him and I think he'll do well for Fulham. He looks sharp and fit, works hard in training, has good technique and has a lot to offer the team.

"He is also very strong and makes surging runs, getting into the penalty area at the right time."

Christian Damiano, Tigana's assistant, has also been impressed by Inamoto. "I knew he was a good player, I could see that at the World Cup," he said. "But as soon as he trained with us I could see his fantastic ability. He has the capacity to play deep and quickly support the strikers. He'll be a big plus for us in midfield."

Defender Rufus Brevett added: "He's very good and looks an exciting player. He has good feet, a sharp brain and the fact he couldn't get into the Arsenal side doesn't really reflect on his ability."

Inamoto's English is still halting but he said: "This is my second season in Europe and another challenge for me. I'll try hard and do my best.

"I always knew it would be difficult in English football. It's very physical but I can cope."

Inamoto, whose contract is still held by Gamba Osaka, played just two Worthington Cup ties and 20 minutes as a substitute in the Champions League for Arsenal.

But the midfielder, who is on loan to Fulham for a year, has no regrets.

"Maybe I didn't play for a year but all the time I was practicing with excellent players at Arsenal at that helped improve my skills."

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.

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