The news that Felix Magath is to replace Rene Meulensteen as Fulham’s manager was certainly one that induced shock and discussion. The appointment could be seen as one of a number of things; opportunistic, dumb-founded, panic-stricken or even inspired. A manager whose notoriety around Europe lies in his history of excruciatingly difficult training sessions and hardened disciplinarian style is also a manager armed with 3 Bundesliga titles in his CV.
For Magath, the choice of Fulham seems peculiar, particularly when he was a whisker away from returning to his beloved Hamburg a mere 24 hours before the announcement came from Craven Cottage. Contrarily, Fulham’s decision to abandon Meulensteen’s sinking ship could be the exact antidote their season requires.
It’s true. Magath is as uncompromising and hard-nosed as they come and the talk is that Fulham’s squad will not warm to his unanswerable approach but this will not matter to him or to the club in the long run. They can hate him, but Magath has the experience, drive and ability as a top-flight manager to steer this team to safety. Meulensteen is widely regarded as one of the finest coaches in the modern game however, he didn’t display enough conviction to suggest that he was cut-out for management. Fulham needed a manager. Now they have one.
Magath possesses that unwavering will to win that is found in the composition of most world-class managers. His disciplinarian style has proven extremely difficult for his former players but his emphasis on conditioning and fitness is a crucial element in his managerial philosophy and has proven effective in the past; title-wining effective.
Of all the anecdotes related to Magath’s training-ground brutality, the story of a hill and some coffee and cake stands above the rest. While in charge at Wolfsburg in 2008, Magath took his players to a training camp in Switzerland. After lunch, Magath announced, much to the team’s relief, that training would be cancelled for the day and they would be treated to some coffee and cake at a nearby mountain-top coffee house. That relief quickly turned to despair though as Magath revealed that each player was required to run the entire 2362 metres in order to get to the coffee house. The players found it tough going to say the least- Brazilian striker, Grafite, collapsed during the run and required a stretcher to take him back down the hill while the rest of his team-mates suffered the rest of the painstaking run.
It draws similarities to Paolo Di Canio’s pre-season trip to Italy with his Sunderland squad which was rumoured to have contained near-pulverising methods of training in an attempt to vanquish the lethargic, low-tempo style of Martin O’ Neill’s final days in charge at the Stadium of Light. However, there is one decisive difference that elevates Magath above Di Canio- his player management skills are sound and his tactical versatility is a hallmark of his former sides. Unlike Di Canio, however, Magath cares about his players. He pushes them to extreme limits, but he instils in them an undying hunger for victory and his willingness to adjust his tactics to suit different squads has proven a great success. Magath has a method to his perceived madness, in an era when player power is paramount to the running of a club, the 60 year-old German knows how to get the best out of a player. Di Canio just knew how to really piss them off.
Unsurprisingly, Magath’s persona as a no-nonsense drill sergeant has produced fraught relationships with players in the past. Jefferson Farfan felt decidedly disillusioned with “Saddam” (as Magath was sometimes referred to) stating that he would rather work down in the Peruvian mines that play under him again after the manager left Schalke. Clearly showing no signs of wanting a future reconciliation with Magath, Farfan added that playing under him was a “huge strain psychologically.”
However, Magath has proven his worth as a thoroughbred winner and although his near-comically maddening approach to physical fitness and conditioning may prove a stumbling block to effective communication between him and his Fulham squad, his deep-lying obsession with winning will surely shine through. Fulham may have been quick to fire Meulensteen, but it was clear the club was heading south and remedial action was necessary. Bringing in a manager with such a reputation is undoubtedly a risk, but it’s a risk that needed to be taken and Fulham have shown that they are prepared to dig deep in attempting to secure their Premier League status for next season.