When Fulham take the field, Clint Dempsey is the man.
On Saturday against Bolton Wanderers, the referee’s hand went up 25 yards from the home-team’s goal. Up stepped John Arne Riise, the Fulham left-backed famed for probably the most powerful shot in the professional game today. But alongside him was Dempsey, the indisputable leader of the Southwest London team. Riise stepped aside and Dempsey sent a wonderful curling drive around the wall and into the Bolton goal. It was his 20th of the season
And then last night, I was behind the goal at Craven Cottage in the driving rain where Fulham were at home to local rivals Chelsea. Fulham were the better team from the start with great runs from Riise and a young speedy dribbler from Austria, Kerim Frei. But it was Dempsey who at all time lurked with danger who Chelsea was most wary of. Chelsea’s John Terry was all over him.
Just before the half Chelsea got a lucky break and Frank Lampard slotted away the resulting penalty. But with 20 minutes to go Fulham turned up the pressure, and it was Dempsey who was very much the general. Playing in a more advanced role then normal, he split the Chelsea defense time and again with balls out wide to overlapping wingers.
Then, with time winding down the Chelsea keeper Peter Chech made a magnificent save to keep out the Fulham attack giving away a corner. Terry hung on to Dempsey but as the ball swung in a Fulham midfielder adeptly cut off the burly defender allowing the Texan to peel away and find space, and that’s not something you give the in-form American. Dempsey nodded home his 22nd goal of the season. Soaked to the skin, I stood proud, watching my countryman with his arms in the air in triumph. It was the performance of a leader.
Dempsey’s ready for the same role for the US, ready to take the leadership mantel from Donovan, who succeeded Reyna and McBride. But here’s the worry, who comes next? Do we have another Dempsey or Donovan? If we do they certainly weren’t in the Under 23’s who failed so miserably in Olympic Qualifications, nor in the Under 20’s who were just as awful in their quest to make the world championship, and definitely not in the Under 17’s who were thrashed in their age-appropriate world cup.