Football is always said to be a game of two halves, and that has also been the case for the year that was 2021 as far as Fulham FC is concerned…
The first half of the year saw the club battle, unsuccessfully against relegation, before change in the dugout saw a change of fortunes on the pitch and revitalisation of the careers of a number of players. The Premier League campaign offered glimmers of hope and false dawns, but ultimately it was a drawn out suffering, that is best left in the past. Scott Parker’s risk-averse approach did not provide the platform for the club to survive the ruthlessness of the top flight, but it did appear as though he had amassed enough credit with the board and sections of the media to continue in his role as head coach, even if sections of the fan base disagreed. But, after Bournemouth made an approach for the young manager, his head was turned, and it was clear he had designs on another hot seat. The contractual wrangling threatened to impact Fulham’s transition back into the unpredictable Championship, but the appointment of Marco Silva proved to be a good decision, as the team raced out of the blocks, with the Portuguese tactician claiming the August manager of the month award as his new side defied their previous instructions and went on the offensive. 13 goals, four wins and an unbeaten start through the first five matches provided excitement for what the season ahead could provide. Indeed the side topped the table at Christmas, before factors beyond their own control, meant the year ended outside of the top-2. Below I’ve tried to pick out the most impactful moments of the past 12 months, before looking ahead to what we could see in 2022.
In terms of ability and performance at the highest level, Alphonse Areola is probably the man that turned in the best collection of Fulham performances this year. However, as good as the loanee goalkeeper was, he was not able to prevent The Whites falling through the trapdoor to the Football League. Joachim Andersen is also worthy of mention, demonstrating his ability in English football’s top flight to such an extent that he would certainly have been on every fans transfer wishlist, had the club avoided the drop. At the other end of the pitch, Ademola Lookman was consistently the biggest threat on the occasions that The Cottagers did attack through the first half of the year, while Bobby Decordova-Reid provided important goals, and has continued to perform at a high level in the division below, without dominating games. But the latter part of 2021 has been all about redemption and revival, and no player embodies that more than Aleksandar Mitrovic. He struggled to make any impact from January to May, but since August he has been an unstoppable force, racing to the top of The Championship scoring charts at record pace. He also secured his nation’s spot at 2022’s winter World Cup, all the while, demonstrating a commitment to his club that is not always seen in the modern game.
This could mean any number of things, but for the purposes of this piece I have gone for the performance of the team, rather than the most competitive or entertaining game from a neutral perspective. Using that criteria this could be argued as being the 1-1 draw with Parker Bournemouth at the start of December, but despite Fulham being good, we have seen the play better this year. Beating Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield was in many ways the perfect away performance. Solid defensively and clinical in a rare moment of attack against an opponent always likely to dominate possession. Players put their bodies on the line to protect their own net, and it came at a time when the three points seemed invaluable.
It’s easy to forget the well deserved point picked up at Tottenham Hotspur stadium with club in the midst of a Covid outbreak. Somewhat fitting, as at a similar time of year, it is outbreaks elsewhere that have disrupted Fulham’s start to 2022. With players not long returning from isolation, and some still feeling the effects of the virus that has dominated procedures across the globe for the best part of two years, Fulham battled back from a goal down, to draw 1-1 and outplay their more fancied opponents for large parts of the game. But for a Fulham fan, the most enjoyable match had to be the 5-1 mauling of Huddersfield. The match encapsulated everything fans have come to love about Silva’s approach. That it flies in the face of Parkerball only enhanced the joy of watching it. 3-1 up at half time, after going down to 10-men with just under 20 minutes to go, Silva could have been forgiven for protecting what his team had and seeing out the game. He preferred to exploit his opposition further, sending on the attack-minded Ivan Cavaleiro to threaten with counter-attacking runs in behind the hosts accommodating back line. The result, two goals for the Portuguese winger and a clear message to the rest of the league, that Fulham were coming with a relentless assault on the league.
There weren’t many goals that will live long in the memory from the first half of the year, at least from an execution standpoint. Mario Lemina’s winner at anfield was well-struck, but hardy goal of the season material. Fabio Carvalho scored his first senior goal at Southampton, but he has since bettered that during the current campaign. Harry Wilson leads the way in this category, finishing off some delightful team moves. His opener against Stoke at the Cottage in August concluded some lovely interplay with Decordova-Reid and Mitrovic. Mitrovic himself has some candidates among the 22 he has scored, the best of which sealed his hat trick against Swansea at the end of September. A move that started with the goalkeeper and was rounded off by a brilliant first-time finish from just inside the box as he connected with Denis Odoi’s delivery on the bounce. But it was another Harry Wilson goal that will live longest in my memory. Jean Michael Seri has had a renaissance to rival that of our Serbian talisman, and it was his most delightful of passes that put Wilson through to round off the 4-1 win over Barnsley in November. His inch perfect, lofted through-ball drew gasps of awe and anticipation as Wilson latched onto it and finished its aplomb to the delight of the Fulham faithful.
There isn’t really any debating this one. Tom Cairney, injured for the majority of the calendar year, finally returned in October, after 288 days out of the side. The Whites were toiling against a stubborn Cardiff side, when the ball sat up for the club captain who swung his trusty left foot at the ball, firing it into the net in front of a delighted Hammersmith End. Cairney could barely control his emotions as ten months of work and frustration poured to the surface as rain poured from the sky. Another redemptive moment, and the best of all in Fulham shirt in 2021.
MOVING INTO 2022
So as 2022 commences it’s time to look forward again rather than back. January of course, brings the opportunity for clubs to trade in the transfer market. It is not expected that Fulham will be particularly busy, having recruited a squad that bears few obvious weaknesses. There is depth across the pitch, many players the lib feel will be arable of making the step up in the event of promotion. Having said that, there is always room for improvement, and a winger and centre back are likely top o the list for Cottagers fans. Tim Ream has been another player reinvigorated under Silva, but his ability at the highest level has already been shown to be lacking, and if Fulham are to avoid a third successive Premier League relegation, you would have to imagine it will be a season that doesn’t see Ream start many, if any fixtures. Finding a centre-back partner for Tosin Adarabioyo that can also perform in the division above is a tall order, but would certainly be beneficial to provide them with half a season to form an understanding with Tosin and of the systems in place.
Neeskens Kebano has came to the fore late in the previous championship season, and has come to the fore again at the end of 2021. His skilful dribbling and direct approach has caused fullbacks problems aplenty on Fulham’s left-hand side, but beyond him and Harry Wilson, Fulham’s wide options appear less exciting. Cavaleiro has had moments, but consistency has not been the former Wolves man’s strong suit. Anthony Knockaert has barely featured for the last 18 months and has not convinced since joining in 2019. Expect one of them to leave before anyone new comes into the club. But an upgrade in wide areas could go some way to pushing Fulham closer to the promotion the club has clearly targeted.
As impressive as Fulham’s start to this season has been, recent results have taken some of the shine off of what has been a very good beginning to life under Marco Silva. With games suspended in the last week of 2021, we now find ourselves off of the top of the table by virtue of having played less games than their rivals, and thus less opportunities to add to the points tally amassed through the first half of the season. But Fulham have played everyone in the league, and it’s yet to be seen if anyone can handle them when at their best. The expectation, when fixtures do eventually resume, is that the Whites will continue to march towards promotion, and fans will be hopeful of a league win in the mould of Jean Tigana’s famous charges at the start of the millennium. Marco Silva is seeking to establish his reputation in English football, with the accusation that his team’s don’t maintain the performance levels that are seen immediately after his appointment. Steering Fulham to a successful 2022, would mean promotion, followed by a steady start to a Premier League campaign. If he achieves that, his reputation in England will be strong again, and his already positive reputation at Fulham will be solidified.