A summer off, a rest from the frustration, the meltdowns, the questions and of course the hope. June soon passes as the fixtures come out and that little football bug inside us all slowly emerges once again as the news breaks through that Mitrovic has signed a new contract. Cavaleiro and Knockaert not far behind, buzzing! Schools finish for the summer as we begin to count down the days before all those emotions come flooding back once again. Fulham Focus even did a ten-day countdown in anticipation of Fulham’s return to the league they are allegedly favourites for. Then Barnsley happened… what a bunch of wally’s we look now!
On paper our front line is devastating. A mouth-watering proposition capable of brushing aside a newly promoted team to the Championship, and yet it was Woodrow and co that made us look like League One imposters. When the line up was released, there were question marks over Knockaert being on the bench but when you take into account the fact he has played very little football during pre-season it seemed a reasonable call not to risk him so early. After all, Kamara looked like he’d developed a new lease of life and seemed a perfectly adequate alternative. “Looked!” “Seemed!” Definitely wasn’t!
His first touch was abysmal, his movement and link-up play undetected, his clumsiness and rash decision making in the final third as evident as it was before (and this is a step down in quality!) Sadly, he wasn’t alone out there. Kevin McDonald looked like his legs had aged a decade from the strong, commanding leader who drove us forward just 2 seasons ago. His partner in crime Stefan Johansen slightly sharper but well off the pace and dare I say it the skipper not much better either. Despite the defensive woes we clearly possess, we lost this game in midfield as time and time again our midfield was out run, out fought, and unable to cope with the tempo that Barnsley dictated the play with. Every time we lost possession it seemed Barnsley were in behind our midfield charging at our defence as the gap between the famous trio and our back four grew wider and wider, until it was almost as open as Bettinelli’s legs when Luke Thomas scored the winner. Where do we start with that one?! Error after error and embarrassing to watch. Le Marchand injuring himself with a rush of blood challenge, Joe Bryan; so weak in the tackle that he appeared to be blown over by a gush of wind, Mawson backing off, backing off, backing off, until Thomas decided the angle was perfect enough for a shot. I’m glad he did shoot because eventually Mawson was gonna end up in the net and we can’t afford any more injury scares with him potentially getting tangled up in the onion bag, those nets are a serious work hazard! Rounded off nicely with Betts opening up the flood gates. It was an awful goal! It was awful defending! But it was able to happen because Thomas simply wanted it more than our players.
That was the general theme of the 90 minutes. I knew beforehand that playing a newly promoted side first was the worst possible time in the football calendar. Barnsley had nothing to lose, the honeymoon had just started for them in front of their own supporters and we were the ones expected to go there and win. There was no pressure on the Tykes and they played in that fashion, expressing themselves and playing with freedom. The first half finally ended with the relief that Fulham couldn’t get any worse in the second half. I expected a different performance with Barnsley running out of steam but to be fair to the home side, their levels didn’t drop off an awful lot. Never the less, Fulham grew into the game. They were slowly beginning to get a handle on the midfield before Johansen was replaced by Knockaert. Yet Kamara who was appalling was kept on? Seemed a strange decision at the time.
Regardless, Knockaert’s introduction made a difference (surprise, surprise) and everything positive seemed to go through him from then on in with Barnsley dropping deeper and deeper. Guilt-edged chances were missed, first from Kamara, then Ayite, followed up by Kamara again. It was clearly destined to be a bad day at the office and the final whistle put us out of our misery.
Barnsley deserved the win whilst we need to take a long hard look at ourselves. This is the most expensively assembled squad in the division by a mile and although areas of our team aren’t good enough, practically everyone in this squad has been promoted from the Championship in the past 3 seasons. They know the league, they know what’s required and they are good enough to be putting in a better display than that! We can blame the players for a lack of ability all we like but you can make average players organised, have a game plan and be hard to beat as a very minimum. Think of all the coaches out there who do a much better job on a shoestring budget. Sean Dyche springs to mind. Slav managed to coach them to play above their abilities, can Parker’s management team and coaches repeat that? First of all, we need to decide on a style of play. We seemed to be caught in two minds, unsure whether to play the Slav way or to go a bit more direct. In the end, we did neither and there was a clear misunderstanding from the players.
The saving grace is that the window is still open and this result will hopefully be a rocket for the management, players and transfer negotiators to get their act together! 45 games to go so it’s too early to lose faith. Better to get the demons out early doors but we are going to need much more from our key players if we are to have any chance of the top two. Mitrovic and Cavaleiro were also very flat and don’t escape without a mention, they are capable of much better, we know that, they know that and it will come good, we just can’t afford too many no-shows like that because the key to promotion is consistency. As a team, we didn’t look fit and it makes you wonder what has been happening over the past 6 weeks or so?
To summarise, it’s early days. Parker needs to learn fast, his players need to improve tenfold and we are in desperate need for a right-back, a centre back, a defensive midfielder, plus Harry Arter who will be a very welcomed addition. Cyrus Christie has had enough issues over the past 24 hours and my thoughts go out to him and his family for what happened at Oakwell. So I’ll go easy on him today but the fact I’ve said that we desperately need a right-back tells it’s own tale and after witnessing another poor showing, a new right-back has gone from a ‘would be nice’ to a necessity.
Please don’t lose hope just yet. I almost did at the final whistle but on reflection, it’s still early days. I remember travelling home from Hull City in 2008. Schwarzer, Pantsil, Gera and Zamora making their debuts in a game against the newly-promoted Tigers. We lost 2-1 as they smothered us with the fearlessness and freedom Barnsley displayed on Saturday. I was stunned how we had lost knowing that on paper our team was so much better than theirs. Come May, Hull survived on the final day of the season to send Newcastle down, whilst Fulham finished 7th and qualified for Europe.
Keep the faith.