As the Premiership season hurtles to a satisfying conclusion, few may be more sated than Mark Hughes. The Welshman, in his twelfth year of management, has led Fulham to tenth place so far this season, boasts a +4 Goal Difference and a fair play record which sees them firmly in contention for European football next season.
Roundly pilloried in his early days at Craven Cottage - for a combination of factors including the club's mediocre-at-best early form, his egregiousness about his time at Manchester City, an insistence that every opposing manager properly shake hands with him and finally, his not being Roy Hodgson. Using a finally-healthy forward trio of Andy Johnson, Moussa Dembele and - critically - Bobby Zamora, Hughes has masterminded the Cottagers back from a perilous December position. Fulham still struggle to win away from home, but they've solidified their spot as a mid-table Premiership team and haven't had a player sent off since 2009.
UEFA awards a Europa League position to the best-behaved club (in terms of red and yellow cards) in each of the three best-behaved European leagues, so long as that club hasn't already qualified for the tournament. While Fulham lead the Premiership's disciplinary table, they haven't assured themselves of this spot - should they commit three yellows more than second-placed Blackpool (or worse, a couple of red cards) over their last two games, they would be
lose their position. Stoke City qualified for the tournament thanks to their FA Cup success, while Birmingham's League Cup triumph could see them playing in Podgorica next year. To see Blackpool - perhaps even from the Championship - would provide the most unlikely trio of English Europa League entrants in some time.
The Whites' positive goal difference is also a boon. Alongside freescoring midfielder Clint Dempsey, their primary forward trio of Johnson, Zamora and Dembele have played a combined forty-two starts as Dembele and Zamora have spent much of the season recovering from broken legs. Each of the three has a differing, harmonising se
t of skills - Big Bobby's the target-man with eyes on an England call-up, Johnson's the archetypal goal poacher while Dembele is fleet of foot and nimble in the link-up.
This trident - thrust by Dempsey and Danny Murphy - has Fulham, Michael Jackson statue and all, sitting tenth in the league. Even after receiving an entertaining 5 -2 thrashing at the hands of Liverpool, Fulham boast a goal difference of +4, the second-best figure over the past ten EPL seasons for a club finishing in that position. Should they finish lower this differential could be a Premiership record. Like many managers, Hughes is most visible in defeat. That very little has been said of him during 2011 could perhaps be the ultimate compliment that his job in London has been completed in the image of the man himself - with very little fuss.
Image: Fulham's owner, Mohammed Al-Fayed with plastic friend. Courtesy: sports.yahoo.com