When Felix Magath first arrived at Fulham’s training ground at Motspur Park in February, the players knew only of his reputation.
And they were afraid of it.
Nicknamed “Saddam” the German had a reputation for being not just a disciplinarian, but a dictator, working his players to the precipice of exhaustion to get them in shape for matches.
“That was a problem,” Magath admitted in his prematch press conference ahead of this weekend’s game at White Hart Lane. “The players read a lot of things and they were afraid.”
They had reason to be afraid. They had been leaking second-half goals at an alarming rate, suggesting the squad was running out of steam too early, and neither Rene Meulensteen nor Martin Jol before him had been able to plug the dike.
They were just 1-0 down to Manchester City at halftime – they lost 5-0. They were in a scoreless draw with Southampton until the 65th minute – they lost 3-0. They were scoreless at the Emirates at halftime – they lost 2-0. They fell to Liverpool, Newcastle, Swansea, and Tottenham all in the last 10 minutes.
So the front office brought in the man who would plug the gap. The man who would whip them into shape.
Except he didn’t.
Sure he wakes them up at the crack of dawn – to eat breakfast together.
Sure he sticks them in a basement – to make phone calls.
Felix Magath’s strategy to save Fulham from the drop concentrates on reminding the players what really matters: the fans. They’ve been stuck in the Fulham call center to thank fans for renewing their season tickets with personal phone calls.
He’s invited fans to come attend open training sessions and then dine with the players for lunch after.
And it’s worked. Just watch the elation when they score a goal. Lewis Holtby’s made a habit of acknowledging the fans after every score, whether it’s by his doing or not. Pajtin Kasami is a hug machine. Hugo Rodallega’s cried – twice.
Holtby will likely return to Tottenham Hotspur after the season, especially if the club is relegated. Why should he care? He has no real reason to, yet he does. Magath has instilled into this club what should really matter to the players.
Because when it comes down to it, if the club is relegated the players can get another job, they can go to another team, they can sign another contract. But the fans can’t. And when Magath focuses on that, it all becomes clear.
This doesn’t just apply to Fulham, mind you. It applies to all the clubs fighting for relegation, but this club has made it clear that the reason they’re fighting against the drop is for those in the seats, not those on the pitch.
For the Whites, it may just save their season, and they have the German “dictator” to thank.
“The players work with us,” Magath said behind his funky looking glasses, “not only me, but my athletic coach and my assistant coach – and they realize that we are not monsters.”
“Don’t worry about it, it’s not so bad.” It won’t be, if they stay up.