This Fulham team might not win promotion, but they’ve won our hearts

We’ve heard it all before – winning isn’t everything.

It’s the taking part that counts. The memories. The moments.

There’s no doubt, though, that Fulham failing to win promotion at the end of this glorious season would be the bitterest of blows.

Because half a campaign unbeaten tells only part of the tale – this is a team that plays the most elegant brand of flowing football.

A team with a steely undercoat and a healthy habit of winning, even when the tide is against them.

A team with both trickery and tenacity, brains and brawn.

With all of this working in our favour, then, remaining in the second tier would almost feel unjust. But it’s an entirely plausible outcome.

All Cardiff City need to do on Sunday is beat Reading – a team who, at best, have proved inconsistent and porous at the back and, at worst, have been downright disastrous throughout 2017/18.

Reading FC players on their lap of appreciation
Reading players on their lap of appreciation

Their last outing, at home to a rudderless Ipswich Town, ended 4-0 in the Tractor Boys’ favour. It’s hardly a good omen.

And so the playoffs may well be our best bet. Yet, Fulham don’t fare well in playoffs.

Aside from our recent heartache in last year’s Championship semi-final, we’ve had a Division Three semis defeat to Bristol Rovers in 1989 and a Division Two loss to Grimsby Town in 1998. Hardly a broad data set, but enough to worry that history might work against us.

Regardless of where the Whites find themselves come the end of May, though, it’s worth noting the magnitude of their success and the joy it’s given us, the fans.

Ryan Sessegnon has brought homegrown spark and panache to the Championship. Tom Cairney has brought his typical mastery of the ball. Kevin McDonald has brought determination, Aleksandar Mitrović that lethal touch, Tim Ream that fabled consistency.

Player by player, Fulham have been exceptional.

And it hasn’t gone unnoticed. We’re a club much loved throughout England, with a revered and adored manager. Cardiff, meanwhile, have stumbled towards promotion with a manager who, to say the least, has his enemies.

Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock shows his displeasure at Wolverhampton Wanderers boss Nuno Espírito Santo
Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock shows his displeasure at Wolverhampton Wanderers boss Nuno Espírito Santo

To that end, it’s unfortunate that history is always written by the winners. If Cardiff do indeed do the business on Sunday afternoon, we could end up a footnote of the 2017/18 campaign.

But, around the club itself, throughout the grand Craven Cottage with its ever-swelling numbers in attendance, this is a team that will be remembered for years to come.

For that, Slaviša Jokanović, we thank you.

Slavisa Jokanovic congratulating Fulham team
Slavisa Jokanovic congratulates his Fulham team on their lap of appreciation

Promotion is still very much in our hands and, given just how good we have been in 2018, we’re clear favourites to go up through the playoffs. We will go into Sunday with confidence and, no doubt, do what we do best – win.

If it doesn’t prove enough, though, and for one reason or another, we come unstuck in the playoffs, just know one thing: this Fulham team have made history in their own right.

 

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Fulham the unstoppable train of 2018 – but is it enough?

Tom Cairney celebrates scoring for Fulham against Sheffield United

I have never felt more confident as a Fulham fan as I do right now.

Not confident in the sense that they are the best they can be – the 2010 Europa League heroics won’t be topped for some time – but confident in that every single game Fulham face at the moment seems winnable.

League leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers? No problem. Top six stalwarts Aston Villa? Not an issue. A prosperous Derby County away? Easy.

A run of nine straight league wins at home has left the Whites in fourth place with a satisfying eight point cushion inside the playoffs. Looking upwards, only five points separate them from Cardiff City, who have yet to face a number of tough ties, including the trio of Wolves, Villa and Derby.

All in all it’s a wonderful time to be a Fulham fan. They are toppling big teams with a swagger and a sense of certainty in what they do.

The January transfer window has left a team of great depth, diversity and determination, with the signings of Matt Targett and Aleksandar Mitrovic, in particular, proving superb.

Aleksandar Mitrovic celebrating Fulham v Sheffield United
New signing Aleksandar Mitrovic celebrates scoring for Fulham against Sheffield United

Unstoppable seems like hyperbole but in this current form, it’s an entirely fair description.

Will it be enough, though? For all the optimism flowing through Craven Cottage right now, there’s still a mammoth task at hand.

To catch Cardiff in second place and achieve automatic promotion, even with their tricky run in, is a huge job. They have a game in hand over Fulham and their own form isn’t exactly poor.

Neil Warnock’s side have a habit of stumbling their way to win after win. Tuesday night’s 2-1 victory over Barnsley, in which they had just 39% possession and faced 19 shots, is a perfect example of their tenacity and stubbornness.

Even putting Cardiff aside, Villa still need to be caught, too. The Whites have done all they can to put pressure on the teams above but it hasn’t quite seemed enough.

And so perhaps the playoffs are as good as it gets. No bad thing, of course – that is a substantial achievement in itself when you look at where the club were in late 2017.

Nonetheless, the semi-final woes of last year are proof enough that navigating the playoffs is extraordinarily difficult and, importantly, requires a completely different mindset to the standard routine of weekly Championship football.

Head Coach Slaviša Jokanović and his players have talked a lot recently about fearlessness. From the way the Whites have been playing, it seems an embedded trait in this team.

But it had better last. Because you get the feeling that these next two months will test the mental strength of everybody connected with Fulham in the extreme.

Let’s hope they’re ready.

Lambert the latest tired, British coach to land a top job, keeping those that deserve a shot at bay

In a little over two months, we’ve seen the return of Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew and now Paul Lambert to Premier League management.

Stalwarts of the English game, these are gaffers that know this league. Big Sam has managed at the top level since, pretty much, 2001. Pardew has been there or thereabouts since 2005 while Lambert has been fighting Premier League fires for a fair while, too.

Sensible appointments then, maybe. Good appointments, though? Probably not.

Allardyce’s start at Everton has been mildly successful – a positive first few games followed by a gradual reversion to the Big Sam mean (humdrum football and lousy results). Pardew has only just got his first league win as a West Bromwich Albion manager.

Meanwhile, the appointment of Lambert as Stoke City boss has, understandably, been met with derision, not least because he was the Potters’ fourth choice.

Such appointments are becoming increasingly common, though. Clubs seem fearful of risky moves for managers from, say, the Championship or, even more so, lesser foreign leagues.

And the risk is high, of course. Take an over-performing Championship manager, like Lee Johnson at Bristol City, and stick him at the Stoke helm and there will be flaws.

Bristol City manager Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson, Bristol City manager, is one of a number of lower league managers exceeding expectations

He won’t know the league, for a start. He would never have worked with such high calibre players. He’d also take longer to settle in and bed his ideas than your common or garden former Premier League boss.

But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work. And it especially doesn’t mean that, in the long run, a club like Stoke wouldn’t benefit from taking a punt on a bigger project.

Because it’s becoming clear that they don’t know what they want. Mark Hughes was appointed to change their style of play, to make it more charming, more alluring, more entertaining.

Now, though, they just want to win at all costs.

There’s nothing wrong with the pragmatic style of football that Lambert will bring, of course. Clubs need points and sometimes crude works best.

But, increasingly, top tier teams have tried to move away from a more tedious, mundane style of football to try and offer fans something a little more exciting. Yet, at the first signs of trouble, they move back to the tried and tested.

Which is how you end up with Paul Lambert.

Top sides could do well to look at the superb work going on below them. Paul Hurst at League One Shrewsbury Town deserves something a little higher up but Championship sides, like Middlesbrough, would much rather throw their money at Tony Pulis, the undisputed king of stodgy football.

Graham Potter, boss at Östersunds FK, who now face Arsenal in the Europa League round of 32, has surely earned a big move.

But no. English clubs, on the whole, lack the imagination and courage to drift outside their comfort zone and take a punt on someone who might be a little unknown.

Of course, there are exceptions to the idea that continuing to employ tired, British coaches is foolish. Roy Hodgson is working wonders at Crystal Palace (and as a Fulham fan, I could’ve told you that would happen) and David Moyes is doing well at West Ham United.

But for every Hodgson you’ll find two of Pulis. He was a risk-free decision when West Brom employed him in 2015. Sure enough, he kept them up and made them hard to beat. It seemed to have worked.

But, just as at Stoke before that and Palace before that, fans grew bored with the way their side played. Results began to dry up.

And the same will happen at Stoke now, as it will at West Brom, as it will at Everton. Short term fixes to long term problems will not bring stability. And there’s no guts to think of the bigger picture and make a bold appointment.

The cycle will continue and sure enough, Pardew will be at Stoke before you know it, while Lambert will end up at West Brom.

All we need now is the return of Harry Redknapp.

Tony Khan the scapegoat for feeble start to Fulham’s season

It hasn’t been the most inspiring of starts to the 2017/18 campaign for Fulham.

A catalogue of goals conceded late on, untimely injuries and, ultimately, some pretty poor results have left the Whites in a less-than excitable tenth place just after the quarter mark of the season.

If being four points off the playoffs doesn’t sound too bad, though – which, categorically, it really isn’t – then a look at some of Fulham’s flat performances against the likes of Preston North End and Burton Albion will reflect why many a fan feels a little deflated.

Whilst not in the throes of a Craven Cottage crisis there’s certainly an air of concern amongst a fanbase craving a return to the Premier League elite.

And with concern, impatience and anger comes the scapegoat. Someone to point to and say ‘we’re not winning, it’s your fault’.

Regardless of the fact that a poor run of form for any team in any sport is likely the concoction of many negative situations occurring in one go, it’s easy to blame one thing, one individual. It’s painless to process, simple to digest.

And so Tony Khan, Vice Chairman and Director of Football Operations – as far as can be understood, a convoluted means of describing his statistical role in player recruitment – has been on the end of an unreasonable amount of vitriol.

The argument is that his authority over transfers is unjustified and autonomy should be given to Head Coach Slaviša Jokanović. It’s a reasonable point and certainly something traditionally perceived as the norm, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to go.

Let’s say Jokanović gets his way, he can sign who he wants. Then, five months down the line, things haven’t improved – what happens then? A new boss comes in, inherits a team in the eye of a different Head Coach and has to start again from scratch.

Fulham Slavisa Jokanovic
Fulham Head Coach Slaviša Jokanović wants more say over transfers at the club

Having a single decision maker in a manager or Head Coach is reckless and reeks of short-termism. Fulham, of all clubs, should know that planning for all eventualities is vital if they want to be successful.

And so a role like Khan’s is spawned. A modern take on player recruitment that looks beyond the preferences of a Head Coach, outside of the restrictions of a scouting network and utilises the wealth of rich data available to clubs in 2017.

That’s not to say traditional methods aren’t used – we wouldn’t have a scouting department if they weren’t. Instead, Fulham choose to use all the resources at hand and for that they get vilified.

Khan has played a role at the Cottage for some time now and his tenure has seen the signings of Stefan Johansen, David Button, Tomas Kalas, Kevin McDonald, Neeskens Kebano and Floyd Ayite. All play crucial roles at the club currently.

The considerable profits on Scott Malone and Sone Aluko should also be considered – Fulham are not a club who have, of late, traded badly.

Granted, this summer’s dealings have yet to bear fruit with Rui Fonte and Aboubakar Kamara in particular failing to impress. Rewind 12 months, though, and Johansen, Kalas and Kebano weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders.

The use of data is seemingly what irks some the most, though. The idea that football, a game played on grass with a bag of air, full of unpredictability, physicality and emotion, can be summed up by a series of numbers, graphs and algorithms. It’s almost scary.

But it’s also completely legitimate. There is power in numbers and the way in which Khan and his approach is so widely chastised all seems very Daily Express. Very backwards. Very fearful of change.

The game is changing and Fulham are simply changing with it. Khan can’t be blamed for losing at Aston Villa. He’s not the reason we’ve been struck by an unhelpful bout of bad luck with injuries. He’s also not the reason Tim Ream isn’t in form or Kamara can’t find the net.

He’s just a scapegoat.

Fulham’s transfer window far from underwhelming

Craven Cottage Stevenage Road

It’s very easy to be optimistic at the close of a transfer window. You’re still in the dawn of a new season, unaware of your teams flaws and faults. 

You likely have a host of new signings to pore over, watching their YouTube videos, perusing their stats. It’s a time to be bullish and buoyant and to start dreaming big.

More often than not, though, you end up looking back at the summer months and pondering where all that hope went.

Fulham fans have endured enough nightmare windows to talk about about such waning positivity with great authority. Steve Marlet, Kostas Mitroglou et al., I’m blaming you.

Kostas Mitroglou Greece
Kostas Mitroglou cost Fulham around £12 million but failed to perform as they were relegated from the Premier League

But the slamming shut of 2017’s window feels genuinely refreshing, as though business has been done right and the fanfare around the club feels justified.

We’ve filled our most gaping hole – up front – with exciting names in Rui Fonte and Aboubakar Kamara. The former has only featured twice and the latter has yet to set the world alight, but they both have proven backgrounds and seem to fit our style of play.

More importantly, though, we have retained our key players. Tom Cairney, the subject of such significant speculation, signed a new contract in July to ease our fears. Ryan Sessegnon did the same.

Similarly, we kept the core of our defence together – Tomas Kalas was brought back to the club on loan to continue his burgeoning partnership with Tim Ream. Ryan Fredericks stayed and although we lost Scott Malone to Premier League Huddersfield, his replacement, Sessegnon, is hardly new to the fold.

Such stability is essential to forming a solid back four and could even prove more beneficial than entering the market for a new centre back.

The players lost – Malone and Sone Aluko – may have come as a surprise but they were not essential to the team, certainly not in the ilk of Cairney or, say, Kevin McDonald.

They have been replaced astutely and immediately. Rafa Soares will compete with Sessegnon at left back while Aluko’s space will be taken  by either Sheyi Ojo, Jordan Graham, Yohan Mollo or the already-proven Floyd Ayite. There’s certainly no dearth of wingers at the club now.

Yohan Mollo Fulham
Winger Yohan Mollo joined Fulham on deadline day as a relative unknown

What’s more, given the loss of Aluko and Malone, our net spend is low, if existent at all. Given the club’s penchant for undisclosed fees it’s impossible to be precise, but throw in a likely sell-on clause for Kostas Mitroglou and, hopefully, a tidy sum for Dennis Adeniran, and you can easily conclude that Financial Fair Play is no longer a concern for the Whites.

And with that comes a fair amount of wiggle room in January. You’d hope we don’t need it, of course, but there’ll be money in the bank to sharpen the squad and plug any voids which may open up in the next three months.

All in all it’s not been a massively lively window for Fulham. Fonte aside, perhaps, there’s been no marquee signing – certainly no Dwight Gayle as was rumoured on deadline day – and we haven’t lost huge names.

Yet, in spite of all that, it couldn’t feel further from underwhelming. Tony Khan and his recruitment team should be delighted with their efforts, even if they will go unappreciated on the whole.

It bodes well for another strong season but I get a funny feeling I’ve said that before.

Wolves – a Football Manager story: Chapter eight – February & March 2017

Molineux

January has ruined us. It killed any momentum we have in our haggard push towards the top two.

We have to change and we have to change quickly.

I take to the chalkboard, tweaking our oft-used 4-2-3-1 to make it more aggressive. We’d push higher up the pitch, play with a consistently high tempo and continue to exploit the talent on our flanks.

Mikel Merino is to become a figurehead of our midfield – Magnus Wolff Eikrem has been a magnificent servant to us this season, but the fact is, Merino is more technically gifted.

The significance of Jón Daði Böðvarsson, too, has begun to wane. It was time to reintroduce Nouha Dicko to the fray.

And so February started well as we stormed past Burton Albion 5-1. Hélder Costa, in an inside forward role cutting in from the left, was superb.

Burton Albion 1-5 Wolves

A tough game against top-of-the-league Newcastle follows, and we succumb to a disappointing 1-0 defeat. Beating Wigan Athletic 5-1 more than makes up for that disappointment, however.

The more attacking approach continues to have a positive effect as we next brush past Brentford 4-1.

Soon after, we finally manage to offload Ben Marshall, selling the winger – who had missed five training sessions in three months – to LA Galaxy for £2.2 million.

It was a profit, but the fans are unhappy. If they knew what was going on behind the scenes, though, they might think differently.

A crucial local derby then presents itself. As we begin to breathe down the necks of second place Norwich City, Birmingham City make the short trip to Molineux.

We win 3-0 and barely give the visitors a sniff. The decision to opt for Dicko over Böðvarsson is beginning to bear fruit.

Wolves 3-0 Birmingham

As always though, we falter at the worst moment. Within touching distance of Norwich, we fall to Reading, losing 2-1.

The dip is short lived, however, and we breeze past both Ipswich Town and Rotherham United.

And then, in plucky Wolverhampton Wanderers style, we strike lucky away at Fulham. We win 3-1, but in truth the game is tighter than the scoreline suggests.

Fulham 1-3 Wolves

It rounds off an emphatic two months for Wolves, as we put the misery of January well and truly behind us. We’ve morphed, dramatically, from a team that is hard to break down to one with entertaining, free-flowing football.

Wolves results February March 2017

Such performances have changed the dynamic of the league considerably. We end March five points off the top two and with automatic promotion a genuine possibility.

Championship league table March 2017

Can it be done as we enter the final month of season?

Read Chapter Seven

Wolves – a Football Manager story: Chapter seven – January 2017

Dominic Iorfa Wolves

January. The chance to usher in new beginnings, clean the slate and set yourself fresh resolutions.

Off the back of a mildly positive Christmas period, new goals and new challenges for my Wolverhampton Wanderers team should mean pushing towards automatic promotion.

As 2017 begins, we sit only five points off the top two.

The misery that unfolds in this opening month of the year, though, leaves that ambition but a distant pipe dream.

It started well enough with, a comfortable victory over Sheffield Wednesday. 18 year-old Connor Ronan, starting in the absence of Magnus Wolff Eikrem, impresses with a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win.

Bids then start flying in for right-back Dominic Iorfa. They’re tempting at first – Southampton throw £7 million at him, Everton £7.5 million, but we push them back hoping for higher offers.

Sure enough Saints come back and bid £8.5 million, rising to £10.5 million. We don’t need the money, really, but with backup in the form of Silvio and Matt Doherty, I decide it’s too good to turn down.

In a busy week, I also make another bold move by bringing in Mikel Merino. Not bold in that it’s a risk – he comes with no fee and no wages – but because it’s a completely unnecessary signing.

Mikel Merino

As a playmaking central midfielder he will be competing directly with Eikrem, one of our star performers so far this season. There are, with the gift of hindsight, bigger holes worth filling.

Still, we cruise past Southend 4-0 in the FA Cup (yes, it’s only Southend, but we truly obliterate them – it’s a joy to watch).

The remainder of the month, though – not so joyous.

We fall 2-0 to Norwich City, the only team in the top two we can realistically catch. The very definition of a six-pointer, we play well in phases but ultimately prove ineffective in front of goal. That problem again.

Norwich City 2-0 Wolves

We follow it up with another lousy performance against Huddersfield, scoring first and then succumbing to a 2-1 defeat.

I could throw out excuses – my two first choice goalkeepers are unavailable, for example – but, in reality, I’m just getting something wrong.

The balance has gone a little. Trying to squeeze Merino into midfield has meant dropping the more resolute and dogged enforcer-types that have kept our defence protected. Leaving Romain Saiss and Jack Price out of the team has left us porous.

Tottenham Hotspur away in the FA cup comes next and despite a gutsy showing we lose 3-1. By gutsy I simply mean we did well to keep them out until the second half.

Tottenham 3-1 Wolves

All the while, Ben Marshall continues to prove a point by missing training. I’m pushing hard to get him gone but, funnily enough, nobody seems all that interested.

Andi Weimann – on loan from Derby County – also starts kicking up a fuss and complains about lack of games. I let him go and bring in Oliver Burke as a temporary replacement. Not a bad swap by all accounts.

We then crumble to the most demotivating loss of the year, falling 3-2 to Barnsley. On this occasion, tactics are nothing to do with it – we capitulate in way I’ve never seen before and it well and truly kills our automatic promotion hopes.

Wolves results January 2017

The defeat rounds off a rather haunting month. We sit fifth, 12 points off the promotion spots. 2017 is beginning to look like a stinker of a year.

Championship League table January 2017

Read Chapter Six