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How Ominous is Fulham’s defense?

Cardiff City v Fulham FC - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

So we all know why Fulham are struggling and why Slavisa Jokanovic got the sack this past week. You can play all the pretty football all you want, but if the defense ends up being as horrendous as what we have witnessed over the past 12 Premier League fixtures, you’re not going to win that many of them, if any. With 31 goals conceded, Fulham are certainly reaching historic heights of bad defending. But what if I were to tell you that their horror is not that dissimilar from teams of the English top flight’s past. Since the Premier League has been separate from the rest of the English Football League and became a 20-team league, seven other clubs have either surpassed or were within three goals of conceding the same among of goals as our Craven Cottage brethren. Let’s take a look at each one of them, if there was anybody salvageable from their back line, and what happened to them after their calamitous start to their respective campaigns.

2000/01 Derby County (28 goals conceded)

Backline Contributors: Mart Poom (GK), Darryl Powell, Horacio Carbonari, Chris Riggott, Danny Higginbotham, Taribo West, Bjorn Otto Bragstad

There was a time where Derby County were a consistent Premier League team. However, they were coming off of a 16th place finish in 1999/2000 and were hoping to do much better next season. Giving up 28 goals is not a way to accomplish that. During that stretch, Derby did not have a single clean sheet until their November 6th clash against West Ham but not before sitting at the bottom of the table without a single win.

Danny Higginbotham arrived from Manchester United. along with Nigerian Taribo West while on loan from AC Milan, over the summer to fix the defense, but that wasn’t happening at all. Luckily, the Rams only gave up 31 from their remaining 26 games and finished 17th. However, manager Jim Smith would only be able to keep his until October of 2001, in which Derby suffered relegation the following season. They haven’t been Premier League regulars since.

With regards to who survived footballing hell, Mart Poom had solid outings with Sunderland in the early 2000s while also becoming a fixture at Arsenal and other English clubs the rest of his professional career while being Estonia’s most capped goalkeeper. Chris Riggott was only 20 years old that season and went on to be capped nine times at Under-21 level for England. He tried to improve his career by moving to Middlesbrough in 2003, but never improved his reputation as an up-and-coming center back. Higginbotham would garner over 450 club appearances, but not without being a journeyman for clubs such as Southampton, Stoke City and Sunderland. Mr. West, unfortunately, never lived up to the hype from his exploits at National Team level (42 caps and a 1996 Olympic gold medal) and was heavily criticized for his lack of fitness and a possible falsehood about his actual age throughout his career. Lastly, Darryl Powell, Horacio Carbonari and Bjorn Otto Bjargstad didn’t seem to do anything substantial after this season. So there were a few young pieces that went on to have solid, but not memorable careers.

1997/98 Sheffield Wednesday (29 goals conceded)

Backline Contributors: Kevin Pressman (GK), Peter Atherton, Jon Newsome, Des Walker, Ian Nolan, Dejan Stefanovic, Andy Hinchcliffe, Earl Barrett

Next up is a Sheffield Wednesday side that also were used to playing Premier League competition, but just didn’t have their defense sorted out for some reason. Paulo Di Canio was just making a name for himself in England at Hillsbrough, but this was without David Pleat being on the hot seat before finally getting the sack on November 3rd. Before that, Wednesday had two wins, one clean sheet, a 7-2 defeat to Blackburn, a 5-2 defeat to Derby County and a 6-1 defeat to Manchester United to put the cherry on top of Pleat’s tenure.

Two more managers arrived before the club finished the season marginally improving and finishing 16th. They would give up 38 goals, but it is kind of amazing to think that Crystal Palace and another club on this list would go on to concede more than Wednesday’s 67 by season’s end.

Within their backline, Kevin Pressman was a club legend that would go on to play 478 times for the club and was at the prime age of 30 at the time. Des Walker, at 32, definitely wasn’t at his prime after being a mainstay at Nottingham Forest during most of the 1980s and in the early 1990s. Peter Atherton had a solid 578 appearances at club level, but was 28 and went on to Bradford City and Halifax Town before calling it a career a decade later. Jon Newsome was a Norwich City legend during his two seasons at Carrow Road before joining Wednesday, but he never really did much the rest of his professional career. Ian Nolan did receive 17 caps for Northern Ireland, but he never reached the heights of playing for Wednesday after he left the club. Stefanovic was the youngest of all the defenders that frequently contributed at 25, but only went on to be mainly a substitute role while at Portsmouth and even at Fulham in the mid to late 2000s. Lastly, Andy Hitchcliffe might have picked up seven England caps, but he was not able to garner over 100 appearances for Wednesday and he retired from injuries four seasons later while Barrett retired two seasons later. So unlike Derby’s iteration, Wednesday had many defenders at the peak of their powers and never really took off afterwards.

1995/96 Wimbledon (29 goals conceded)

Backline Contributors: Paul Heald (GK), Neil Sullivan (GK), Chris Perry, Kenny Cunningham, Alan Kimble, Alan Reeves, Andy Thorn

Amazingly, Wimbledon would go on to finish 14th after their supposed shaky start to the 1995/96 season. I say supposed because the narrative gets lost where they actually won three of their first five fixtures and recorded two clean sheets (the last being against Liverpool of all teams!). From there, Joe Kinnear’s team would go on to get outscored 22-6 in their next seven league matches, including a 6-1 defeat to Newcastle and a 4-1 defeat to Nottingham Forest.

Wimbledon got their next clean sheet in a scoreless draw with Middlesbrough on November 18th and had to wait until December 26th to collect another win, against Chelsea. Fortunately, the club would win enough games and score enough goals to get them closer to mid table. But this was without having to ground share with Crystal Palace down at Selhurst Park and be in the midst of their financial struggle that will see them get relegated in 2000 and no longer run as a functioning football club before their resurrection.

This was a club that had some famous names in Vinnie Jones and Robbie Earle, but what about those responsible for the shoddy defending? Kenny Cunningham would actually go on to receive 76 caps for Ireland while playing over 250 times for Wimbledon and over 100 times for Birmingham during their rise to Premier League status in the 2000s. Paul Heald was a newcomer to the club that season and would only play 18 times over previous number one Hans Segers. He would never get this much playing time at club level ever again. Alan Kimble was a solid contributor for the post-Crazy Gang era with over 200 appearances at the club, but he was 29 at the time and never went on to be a regular anywhere else afterwards. Alan Reeves was also in his late 20s this particular season before becoming a solid regular for Swindon Town to round out his professional career. Andy Thorn was 30 by the end of this season and would go on to retire from football two seasons later. Lastly, Chris Perry was the most successful of the lot as he went on to garner many club appearances at Tottenham, Charlton and West Brom before him and his 479 appearances called it a day. So this was a hodge-podge group at best, but at least Cunningham’s and Perry’s futures make up for the club’s failures that season.

2011/12 Bolton (29 goals conceded)

Backline Contributors: Adam Bogan (GK), Jussi Jaskelainen (GK), David Wheater, Zat Knight, Gretar Steinsson, Sam Ricketts, Gary Cahill, Paul Robinson, Tim Ream, Dedryck Boyata

The last season Bolton were in the Premier League saw them start the year as poorly as you could get defensively. And in the end, it cost them survival in the top flight as they went ahead to give up 77 goals. If I were to tell you that fellow relegated teams Blackburn and Wolves gave up more than that, you would have been quite surprised. But when you go through eight defenders, two goalkeepers and a manager in Owen Coyle that has turned out to have a poor career behind the bench, it should come as no surprise why Bolton were that poor on the back end.

Jussi Jaskelainen was such a dependable goalkeeper throughout his career, but to see him hit the tail end of his prime at 37 years old was quite painful. He would play for West Ham and Wigan before leaving England, but never while being a club’s number one choice ever again. Adam Bogan was an up-and-coming starter and would go on to have another three solid seasons with Wanderers while in the Championship before becoming a backup goalkeeper in Liverpool ever since.

The fact that David Wheater, a career Championship center back, played the most minutes among Bolton defenders in his first season at the club tells you everything about how poor this team was. Ditto to the fact that Tim Ream got so much playing time for them as well. Speaking of beleaguered Fulham players, Zat Knight was a part of this club at age-32 and he stayed at Bolton for another two seasons before retiring in 2015. It didn’t help matters that Gary Cahill left the club in his age-26 season and with seven England caps at the time to go join Chelsea in January.

Paul Robinson (the other one will be talked about later) would also move in January, to Leeds United, before playing 175 times for Birmingham City to finish out his career in 2018. Gretar Steinsson would just play nine more times in Turkey after this fateful season and would retire from football at age-31 after no-one else wanted to sign him. Sam Ricketts was also on the wrong side of 30 in 2011/12 but at least he had a couple of solid seasons with Wolves and Coventry City before calling it time in his career in 2017. Finally, Dedrick Boyata was the youngest contributor at the time at 22-years old and is currently building a solid, yet unspectacular career, at Celtic and Belgium. So besides Boyata, Cahill and maybe Ream if he can get on Ranieri’s, man was this a poor season for Bolton and their defense.

2012/13 Southampton (30 goals conceded)

Backline Contributors: Artur Boruc (GK), Kelvin Davis (GK), Nathaniel Clyne, Maya Yoshida, José Fonte, Jos Hooiveld, Luke Shaw, Danny Fox

Among the clubs that started off so poorly, yet was able to turn the ship around the best, was Southampton in their first season back in the Premier League. They were led by the always limited Nigel Adkins to start the season, who did guide them towards promotion the season before, until the now legendary Mauricio Pochettino took charge.

It was an odd sacking at the time as Southampton were in 15th position and seemed to have turn things around under Adkins. They drew four times in their last five games of Adkins’ tenure, including important points gained against Arsenal and Chelsea, and they only conceded just eight times in their 10 games after their rockey start. However, Pochettino went on to bring the defensive solidity and belief to see the club reach heights they haven’t reached since. Southampton’s 22 goals in their last 16 contests was enough to clinch survival that has gone on to last for another six seasons and their 60 goals conceded throughout the campaign was much better than what it looked like at the start.

Artur Boruc and Maya Yoshida arrived at the club over the summer and while the latter is still at St. Mary’s Stadium with 163 appearances and 88 caps for Japan under his belt, Boruc is not though he did become Bournemouth’s number one when they too arrived in the Premier League in 2015. Kelvin Davis played 687 club games in England and played 301 of his final appearances with the Saints while being the first choice in their promotion season before calling it a career in 2016. Nathaniel Clyne looked to be England’s future left back when he arrived from Crystal Palace as a 21-year old, but his transfer from Liverpool hasn’t been a complete success as injuries and the rise of Trent Alexander-Arnold has seen his potential mostly go to waste. José Fonte became club captain at Southampton and went on to play 36 times for Portugal before moving on to West Ham and then China. Jos Hooiveld was on the wrong side of 30 and never established himself in the South Coast. He is currently playing in the U.S. at Orange County SC. Danny Fox’s last great season came in the promotion campaign and it took until a transfer to Nottingham Forest before the Scotsman was able to get regular gametime again. Lastly, Luke Shaw was another future fullback for England before injuries and a difficult transfer to Manchester United stalled that as of today. So by the end of 2013, Southampton not only survived, but discovered a manager and a back four that worked for them for seasons to come. It’s the best case scenario that Fulham should look after.

2003/04 Leeds United (31 goals conceded)

Backline Contributors: Paul Robinson (GK), Gary Kelly, Dominic Matteo, Ian Harte, Michael Duberry, Zoumana Camara, Steven Caldwell, Lucas Radebe

We now point out towards the worst case scenario as this is the last time we ever saw Leeds United in the richest league in the world. The football club have never been the same since as financial meltdowns continued to haunt them to this day. And what seemed like a nightmarish defense at the start continued with a league worst 79 goals conceded and a sacking of then manager Peter Reid by November.

Paul Robinson might be the punchline that keeps on giving, but his reputation wasn’t soured enough back then as he was just a 23-year old hoping to become England’s number one in the near future. Gary Kelly was loyal through and through and stayed at Elland Road until his career came to an end in 2007 with 430 club appearances and 52 Ireland caps. Ian Harte was just at the prime of his career back then and his time at Levante was at least a successful one. The attacking fullback would never reach those heights again, especially after being blackballed by Roy Keane during his time with Sunderland in 2007/08, but he would leave football with 547 club appearances and 64 Ireland caps plus and almost 100 goals for club and country. Lucas Radebe is a cult hero for Leeds, but he was 35 years old by that season’s end and would last just another two more campaigns before leaving the game.

2003/04 was Dominic Matteo’s final season at Leeds before trying to salvage his career at Blackburn and Stoke City before leaving the game in 2009. Steven Caldwell tried to save United’s season as a 23-year old January loan signee from Newcastle, but wasn’t able to make it happen. He at least had solid outings with Sunderland, Burnley, Birmingham City and Toronto FC before his career came to an end. Zoumana Kamara didn’t really do much as a loan signing from Lens but the rest of his career was decent at Saint Etienne and Paris Saint-Germain before he retired in 2015. Lastly, Michael Durberry led all Leeds center backs in league minutes played with 1,710. He would at least return to England’s top flight with Reading in 2006 after having a solid tenure with Stoke City. He also has solid seasons at St. Johnstone in Scotland but he was never able to be a top flight defender after that fateful season. In hindsight, Steven Caldwell and Paul Robinson were the last pieces that had any form of long term value at the club as the rest of Leeds United’s back line decayed along with the club.

1997/98 Barnsley (35 goals conceded)

Backline Contributors: Dave Watson (GK), Nicky Eaden, Darren Barnard, Adie Moses, Arjan de Zeeuw, Scott Jones, Chris Morgan

Finally, we need to talk about the greatest culprits of bad defending in the history of the Premier League. We can certainly talk about Swindon Town’s 100 goals conceded season in 1993/94, but they played four more games due to a 22-team league. In order to make this comparable with what Fulham will have to face, I only included teams that played 38 games in England’s current iteration of the top flight. To this day, no other club that has competed in that format since has given up that many goals in 12 games than Barnsley’s only appearance in the Premier League. And the poor old Owls would finish the year with a league worst 82 conceded before never showing their faces in this division ever again.

They were managed by then 38-year old Danny Wilson and he did go on to be behind the bench for over 1,000 games throughout England. He did give it a go the following season at Sheffield Wednesday but not before he left the club in 2000 and was never seen in either the Premier League or the Championship ever again. Dave Watson seemed like he was going to have a great career in the game before a horrific knee injury in September 1998 curtailed that future and was forced to call it quits at age-28 in 2001.

Nicky Eaden would stay at Barnsley for another two seasons and would go on to garner a solid reputation at Wigan during their run towards top flight promotion, but he never was able to translate his 580 club appearances into more top flight outings. Darren Bernard stayed at Oakwell until 2002 and would play for Wales 24 times in the process, but like Eaden, he couldn’t reach those heights again like he did in 1997/98. Adie Moses seemed like one for the future at 22-year old, but injuries limited his opportunities and would only play 380 club games in total before retiring in 2009. Scott Jones also didn’t offer that much to the English game besides unmatched potential.

There were two players that went on to have solid careers otherwise. Chris Morgan helped guide Sheffield United towards promotion towards the Premier League in 2006 and would play over 200 times for both the Owls and Blades. Finally, Arjan de Zeeuw was a critical piece of Portsmouth’s promotion campaign in 2003 and would go on to garner 553 club appearances of his own. So even the worst defenses go on to find some diamonds in the rough.

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So in the end, Fulham are joined second worst in goals conceded in this stretch of Premier League play since the league became a 20-team division in 1995/96. That is ominous if you are comparing it to just Bolton, Leeds United and Barnsley, but they have opportunities to turn things around, like Southampton and Derby did. Even if things don’t improve dramatically like Sheffield Wednesday or Wimbledon, that doesn’t mean relegation is in the cards either. Not all these clubs sacked their manager, but not all these clubs spent so much in the transfer market and expect much more from their attack either.

That’s why Fulham are comparable to Leeds United, Southampton and Wednesday in sacking their manager mid-season. Now they need to find a way to make sure the futures of young players like Calum Chambers, Alfie Mawson, Marcus Bettinelli, Sergio Rico and Joe Bryan don’t go to waste.