With the news that Slavisa Jokanovic has been sacked by the club and to be replaced by Claudio Ranieri, it seems a poignant time to look back on the reign of the Serbian. While the analysis over the next few days and weeks will be over what impact the experienced Italian can have on the team, it seems right to reflect on the memories of one of the best managers we’ve had at the club. This won’t be a look at how we’ll line-up against Southampton, or whether Ranieri can shore up our defence, but a look back on what Slav achieved during nearly three years in SW6.
Casting our minds back to Wembley has proven difficult enough since the start of the Premier League season but let’s go right back to the start. After a disastrous season that saw Fulham relegated from the Premier League and further disappointment during our first season back in the Championship – the start of the 2015/16 season didn’t fill us fans with optimism. But to find ourselves in 19th, 6 points from the drop, before the turn of the new year was even worse than many expected. The end of Kit Symons’ stint at the helm led to the search for a sixth manager in just over two years and the eventual appointment of Jokanovic.
With a poor squad, we overcame a worrying start with a fantastic away victory against QPR – racing into a 3 goal lead before halftime. The rest of the season involved strong flirtations with the relegation zone – which we only managed to resist with a run of three wins in April against MK Dons, Preston and Cardiff. A final day of the season home win against Bolton placed us 20th in the final standings. Evidently, it wasn’t all smooth sailing during these first few months, but without Slav, I genuinely believe we would have gone down to League One that season and we wouldn’t be having debates amongst the fan base of what our best Premier League centre-back partnership is.
It was obvious to all those involved in the club that a big overhaul in playing stuff was needed going into the 16/17 season. The sale of top scorer Ross McCormack sent nerves through a lot of Fulham fans but that summer we managed to secure deals for players such as Kevin McDonald, Stefan Johansen and Dennis Odoi, that would go on to form the foundation of our successful promotion. How much say Slav had in this process is speculated on by everyone, and known by practically no one. But as we’ve seen this season integrating so many new faces into the team is a difficult test of a manager’s ability.
The way in which Slav managed to coax out unbelievable levels of performance from players that most of us would never have thought could reach those heights is a huge testament to his ability as a coach. How many of us ever expected performances like we’ve seen in the last few years from Tim Ream, Dennis Odoi, Tom Cairney, Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen to name a few? The players obviously have some responsibility in all of this but improvements on the scale we’ve seen from these guys don’t stop with them. And then there’s Ryan Sessegnon. Everyone knows the how difficult it is for young academy players to break into the first team, but for a 16-year-old to do it in one of the most physically imposing leagues in the world borders on madness. The rise of “one of our own” has so much to do with the Serbian and without him, we can’t say what would have happened. There are plenty of young academy players that have the talent – but having a coach who can bring the best out of you and give you the confidence to play the way he does – that is rare.
After a strong start first few games at the start of the 16/17 season, the results trailed off in our typical autumn slump but the second half of the season in a 4-2-3-1 formation saw us play some of the best football in the division and crucially the results to go with it. Big victories such as the 5-0 at home and 4-1 away to Huddersfield, 3-1 away at Newcastle, 3-1 at the Cottage against Villa and 3-1 against Norwich raced us up the table to claim the final playoff spot. Playing the best football in the Championship became something we almost started to take for granted but there are few teams that can lay claim to doing just that. Ultimately, the failure over two legs against Reading was painful but there were enough signs to suggest we would come back stronger the following year.
Another poor start to a season during the 17/18 campaign, had a lot of fans openly questioning Slav’s methods and the seemingly random nature of his team selections. But the second half of last season is the longest period I can remember of being that excited to watch Fulham in every game. A record-breaking 23 games undefeated saw us rise from 17th to almost sneaking automatic promotion. In a world where few managers are ever given the time to turn things around, the owners stuck with Slav and were thoroughly rewarded. The longest unbeaten run in club history, our first playoff victory and a first Wembley win are all achievements that without Slav I don’t believe would have been possible.
The Play-Off final at Wembley will always remain a highlight of many of our lives, something that even seems too much to ask for in a dream. Doing it playing the style we did isn’t supposed to happen and ultimately that’s what Slav’s legacy will be at this club. He was majorly responsible for smashing all of the clichés about how you’re supposed to get promoted and play in the Championship. He was responsible for giving us the best days we’ve had since the run to the Europa League final and possibly the biggest occasion we will play a part in for years to come.
The optimism of that day feels like a while ago now. People will point to the £100 million spent and the 12 new players brought into the club and the failure to form them into a cohesive unit as a sign of the weaknesses of Slav’s method. But it is worth remembering he has built a team at this club before – just because he hasn’t been able to do it so far doesn’t mean he isn’t good enough for this level. We can all point to moments in the season where it could have turned out differently: like if we had held onto that two-goal lead against Brighton, or managed to take a chance during the Palace game, but the Chairman has made his decision.
The sign of a good coach is designing a system that gets the best out of the players that you have at your disposal and whether you can make your players improve and shatter the ceiling of what they and others’ though was possible. That these qualities have seemingly evaporated so far this season doesn’t make Slav a bad manager. All managers go through bad spells as we all do in our professional lives. But I don’t think we’ll ever see a style like that again from our team and it was almost idyllic. Without him, we’d be in League One and instead, he gave us one of the best days of our lives. Some might have wanted him to stay and some wanted him to go but I know we all feel a respect and deep admiration for him. I can only speak for myself but the only thing left to say is thank you for everything you’ve done and no one connected to Fulham will ever forget what you achieved.