The first home match of another season and as always hope was springing eternal for me as I journeyed to the Cottage. The first home League game I watched was as a 7-year-old lad in August 1969 when the Maestro himself, Johnny Haynes was still in the lineup. Little did I realise at the time what a star he was yet in the 50 years since I’ve been old enough to appreciate and admire any number of great players in our ranks.
Okay, last season was awful but put in the perspective of half a century of watching Fulham it hardly ranked as a disaster. To be honest, our last two years in the Championship under Slav had delivered some of the most entertaining fare seen in years so I’ve had no qualms returning to the second tier. What has worried me in pre-season was that some pundits have us down as being favourites for an immediate return to the Premier League. I’m sure I’m not alone amongst our fans in feeling very uncomfortable with that tag. We all know how difficult a league the Championship is and our transfer business over the summer has done little to address the glaring deficiencies evident in our defence last year.
In fact, it wasn’t only the defence that looked dodgy in last week’s opener at Barnsley. The entire team looked off the pace and bereft of ideas at how to cope with the home side’s tenacious display. As it had been my birthday the day before the game I had tried to persuade my wife into a romantic weekend in South Yorkshire to celebrate. When she realised I meant an afternoon at Oakwell she declined my invitation. Shocking I know but as I watched a live stream of the game I came to the realisation she was right. To be fair wives always are.
The transfer deadline has now passed and was mainly marked by the sad but seemingly inevitable departure of Ryan Sessegnon. I’m sure had we stayed up last year he’d have remained in our colours a while longer but it’s hard to begrudge him a chance to prove himself at the highest level. He achieved far more and left in far classier style than a certain other departure this summer. Coming the other way this week were another 67 midfielders but sadly no sign of the commanding defender we’ve been crying out for. I was therefore intrigued who would make Scott Parker’s starting XI come 3 pm on Saturday.
As it turned out he made three changes with Tim Ream, Harry Arter and Anthony Knockaert replacing Maxime Le Marchand, Kevin MacDonald and Aboubakar Kamara from the side that started last week. There were also places on the bench for two of our other midweek signings, Reid and Reed and yes you read that correctly. Happily, the three changes had a positive effect on our performance and although we didn’t start like an express train we looked considerably more cohesive than last Saturday. Ream showed signs of the player of the year form from two years back and as a result Mawson, who was dominant in the air throughout, looked a lot more assured in the knowledge the American would do the mopping up. Knockaert always looked a threat and was a fraction wide with our best early chance but for me, it was Harry Arter who was the stand out performer on the day. He slotted seamlessly into midfield as though he’d been at the club for years rather than a matter of days. He didn’t do anything particularly flashy or outstanding; he just did all the simple things very well. He was constantly in the thick of the action, nipping in and regaining possession and playing clever passes that put us back on the front foot. In that respect, he reminded me a little of Danny Murphy who did these things so well you noticed him more when he was absent from the team than when he was playing, if that makes sense.
Arter’s work in the engine room allowed Tom Cairney to have a freer role and it was our captain who gave us the lead with a peach of a strike in the 35th minute. Tony Mowbray would have been disappointed his side gave him time to get the ball on to that trusty left peg but it still needed to be a hell of a shot to find the target from that distance. The goal settled us and although we’d hardly been battering on the Blackburn door I felt we just about merited our interval lead.
Rovers tried to fashion a response after the break but refreshingly we looked pretty comfortable and composed at the back and it’s hard to recall the visitors creating any clear cut openings. Bobby Reid came on for a disgruntled looking Johansen on the hour mark and Harrison Reed also got his debut with a tidy cameo in the closing quarter of an hour. Although we looked comfortable enough the cushion of a second goal came as some relief to the faithful. It arrived in the 81st minute courtesy of a positive run and cross from Joe Bryan ( who had an impressive shift all afternoon ). It fell kindly to Aleksandar Mitrovic and he buried the chance to seal the points. The Serbian had been a nuisance all afternoon and while he smouldered rather than burned it was good to see him celebrating the goal with his customary gusto. There was only time left for Bobby Reid to miss a chance that Mike Reid the Cockney comedian also known as Frank Butcher would probably have gobbled up. No matter: the points were in the bag and after the doom and gloom of Barnsley, all was right with the world again. Well at least until next Friday anyway.
If Barnsley was a 2/10 performance I’d give this week’s effort a solid 7/10. With a number of new faces still to blend in, we are far from the finished article but there appears to be enough talent in the squad to form the basis of a pretty decent side. The Championship is sure to be a long and bumpy ride but after last week’s shambles, it’s satisfying to know that at least our bus has now got out of the garage. Up the Fulham.