WITH its neutrals section and genteel location down by the bank of the Thames, Craven Cottage always carries the feel of one of the Premier League’s friendlier destinations.
For Vurnon Anita, though, there will be no old pals act when he comes face to face with his mentor Martin Jol. Newcastle’s ever-improving midfielder wants to cut his compatriot down to size – and then shake him warmly by the hand.
Fulham’s avuncular boss was the man who gave a young Anita his chance in the Ajax side four years ago, a decision that the 23-year-old acknowledges as the most important moment of his life. It also paved the way for the proudest moment of his career: stepping out in Holland colours.
The two have remained close since – friendly enough for Jol to phone Anita with a message of congratulations when he made his big-money summer move to St James’ Park.
It was a nice touch, and a much more welcoming embrace than Anita had from the testing physical demands of English football. He admits they took him by surprise at the start of the season but he has now adjusted his rhythms and is playing some excellent football.
That he has emerged as a fine player of worth to Newcastle should not be a huge surprise. Jol is a good judge of talent and, despite recent difficulties, he has built a solid unit at Fulham – even if they are missing the likes of Clint Dempsey, who was the chief architect of that remarkable 5-2 defeat at the same venue last season.
That is a result Newcastle will be looking to avenge tonight, perhaps piling more pressure on the Fulham chief in the process. He could be a central figure in that process, but Anita hasn’t forgotten the debt of gratitude that he owes to Jol.
“I know Martin very, very well. He coached me at Ajax and he also gave me a chance in the first half of my career,” he said.
“It is because of him that I made the national team and he is an inspiration to me. I am very much looking forward to seeing him again on Monday. When I came to Newcastle, he phoned me to congratulate me and said that the move to Newcastle was a great one for me. I was happy with that and I look forward to seeing him.
“It was just congratulations, honestly. He did not try to persuade me to join Fulham instead! I am really looking forward to seeing him on Monday and seeing him in his own ground.
“The biggest thing, though, is that I really look forward to beating him.” If Newcastle’s run of injuries, suspensions and bad luck have hardly been helpful to the club’s cause, they have at least forced Anita to show his mettle after being given a run of first-team starts.
Before that came about the cynics were asking whether Newcastle’s famous scouting touch had deserted them, but a run that began with a spectacular goal in Bruges has continued with some good performances in his favoured midfield role.
“Those defeats were not nice, but you learn things through it. You must keep the faith and the focus through those hard times and it makes you stronger,” he said. “We are a good group and no matter what, we can win matches. We must keep faith in ourselves, make sure we keep working hard and do things right again. You saw against Wigan that we were fantastic, which proves that we can do it. We must keep that spirit onto the Fulham game.
“Personally I feel that the Newcastle supporters are starting to see the real me. Against Wigan it was fantastic, it was good. But we are not there yet and I must keep on doing the things I’ve been doing behind the scenes, I must keep on working hard and really working on my form and my fitness too.
“It doesn’t happen by itself – the only way that you can really maintain your form is to keep doing those things like the extra work in training. I will keep doing it and hopefully I will improve.”
Anita’s growing maturity on the pitch has been a pleasant development but there were never any worries about his demeanour off the field.
A confident, cool character with a natural authority, he isn’t afraid of confronting questions head-on. And when asked about Newcastle’s ambitions this season the priority is clear: simply avoiding the ‘losing spiral’ is what it’s about first and foremost.
He said: “Our aims have not changed but we must take it one step at a time.”