Fearing relegation, Fulham panics, turns to eccentric Magath

Friday February 21st, 2014

Felix Magath has been charged with guiding Fulham to safety from the relegation zone.

If you think you've made a mistake, perhaps the best thing to do is to admit it and look to make amends as quickly as possible. But sacking a manager, then sacking his replacement 75 days later while getting rid of two other coaches you'd only just brought in, does look, as Rene Meulensteen said shortly after he'd been ousted from Fulham, like "pressing the panic button."

Fulham lies at the bottom of the Premier League table, four points from safety with 12 games remaining, its fate in the hands of one of German football's more controversial figures. Felix Magath won two doubles with Bayern Munich and then, astonishingly, he led Wolfsburg to the Bundesliga title, yet nobody who played for him ever seems to have enjoyed the experience.

With his bright shorts and fashionable glasses there appears something of the dandy about him, and yet he is notoriously tough, a manager who makes players cry by working them so hard. In Germany, as a profile in Spiegel noted last week, he is "more feared than respected," the perception being that he is a coach from another age a time when footballers were seen as little more than sniveling recruits who needed bashing into shape by a Sergeant Hartman figure, and yet it's not five years since he won the league.

Magath's father was Puerto Rican, a soldier who served as part of U.S. forces in Germany. His German mother brought him up alone after his father left. As a player, Magath was an industrious playmaker, part of the West Germany side that reached the final of the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, and the scorer of the winner in the 1983 European Cup final when Hamburg beat Juventus. A knee injury forced him to retire shortly after the 1986 World Cup at the age of 33 at which he took up a role as general manager at Hamburg.

After stints in the same job at Saarbrucken and Bayer Uerdingen, Magath became a player-coach at Bremerhaven in the fourth flight, before rejoining the coaching staff at Hamburg and eventually becoming head coach in 1995. The key principles were already in place: the relentless drilling, the stern approach. He was sacked in 1997 after a 13th place finish, at which he became a wanderer, parachuted in to clubs in crisis to save them, steering Nurnberg, Werder Bremen and Eintracht Frankfurt away from relegation - and leaving soon afterward after falling out with the club hierarchy.

His subsequent work with Stuttgart, Bayern and Wolfsburg may be more impressive, but it is that late 1990s part of his career that Fulham need Magath to revisit.

"Dear Fulham fans!" former Norway striker Jan Aage Fjortoft tweeted when Magath was appointed. "Never will you say again: Players didn't run enough. Players don't train enough. The boss is not clear enough."

He played under Magath at Frankfurt and seems to have relished his eccentricities. Magath, he said, made Jose Mourinho look second division when it came to mind games. Once he called a player to a meeting, sat drinking tea with him for five minutes, ate cake for another five, then sent the player away without having said a word. Magath had a hill built on the Wolfsburg training ground to his own specifications so he could have players running up slopes of varying gradients.

At Schalke he fined two players 10,000 euros each at halftime for having changed positions at a corner. At Bayern, he sent the players on a preseason training run through an Alpine forest, then hid half their water bottles to see if they would share the liquid that remained. Brazilian forward Grafite collapsed during a mountain walk during a training camp at Wolfsburg. Magath's regime will be tough: not for nothing did he acquire the nickname "Saddam."

"Whether Felix Magath would have saved the Titanic, I do not know," Fjortoft said. "However, the survivors would have been in top shape."

Yet for all the focus on fitness, that is only likely to become an issue in the summer: suddenly imposing an intense program now would probably counterproductive, risking injury or exhausting players already feeling the strain of the season. Magath essentially has to work with what he has been left by Meulensteen, and he doesn't seem particularly impressed by that.

"My predecessor let them play very attacking football for four games," Magath said. "Then he suddenly rearranged the defense, and that destabilized the whole team."

That's one way of looking at it, and it is true that Fulham picked up only 10 points in 13 games under Meulensteen, precisely the same record that saw his predecessor Martin Jol sacked. Another way of looking at it, though, is that the underlying figures were positive - shots per game went up from 8.1 per game to 13.8, with shots on target up from 2.8 to 5.0, while shots conceded fell from 19.8 to 17.5.

However Fulham was doing, though, what is important is what happens now. It has 12 games to haul itself to safety, which will probably mean claiming at least 15 and perhaps as many as 18 points. Of those final 12 games, only four are against sides in the top six, while seven are against other sides in relegation danger. Magath's claim that Saturday's match against fourth-from-bottom West Bromwch Albion is "the most important in the club's history" may be exaggerated, but it would be a good place to start the recovery.

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