TOOFIF: Marathon, Not A Sprint

Tom Cairney equalising against Leeds United. Credit: Getty Images / Evening Standard

Last season set the bar pretty high on expectations for the current campaign. I think we were comfortably the best footballing side in the Championship last year and it was an opinion shared by many pundits. We did the double on Champions Newcastle, played Brighton off the park twice for no reward and put nine goals past the other promoted side Huddersfield. Not surprisingly neutrals earmarked us to be one of the promotion favourites this year but in the transient nature of football today rarely are two successive seasons the same.

Therefore it came as no surprise to me, or probably anyone with extensive experience of following Fulham, how slowly we’ve started this term. Of course it would have been lovely to have gone on the sort of run our last promotion side did under the mercurial Jean Tigana but things have changed a lot since those glory days. Back then with Al Fayed’s enthusiasm at it’s height we were one of the Division’s biggest spenders. Of course our success wasn’t solely down to the Chairman’s largesse. Tigana’s revolutionary style of football took the League by surprise as it did most of the faithful who had witnessed much of the same squad deliver some sterile fare under Paul Bracewell. The addition of Collins, Boa Morte and Saha naturally made a huge difference but Tigana’s coaching brought out the best in more unsung heroes like Rufus Brevett and Andy Melville.The result was the most entertaining season I’ve ever witnessed where we were routinely putting opponents to the sword. In nearly 50 years of following the club it remains the only campaign where I virtually expected us to win every week.

Fast forward 17 years though and the Championship is a completely different beast. With parachute payments and increased TV revenues lots of clubs are spending big in search of the promised land of the Premier League. Khan is a different animal to Al Fayed and is on record as seeking a more sustainable business model for the club. Therefore we were never going to be paying £15 million on one player as Middlesbrough did for Assombalonga. Instead we cashed in on two of last season’s success stories in Malone and Aluko while their market price was at it’s peak and looked to the loan system for replacements. Reports on Soares are promising and hopefully once he’s fit we may see he is an upgrade in the left back department. Mollo, who was a free agent and Graham were brought in to cover the departure of Aluko and early viewings of the Frenchman are very promising. They have big boots to fill as Aluko was a particular favourite of mine with a work ethic to match his sublime skill. The only drawback with Sone was his end product which led some to believe he’d struggle to finish his dinner.

Other new players such as Kamara, Ojo, Norwood and Cisse have arrived and will obviously take a while to bed in to the Jokanovic system. Therefore it wasn’t altogether a shock how the season started. We should have seen the game out against Norwich but in fairness the Canaries were well worth their point. A draw at Reading was praiseworthy in view of the fact we played virtually the entire game with 10 men and a share of the spoils at Leeds was decent enough ; only marred by the very sad injury to Piazon. With the acquisition of the vaunted Fonte I was ready to see us get up and running against Sheffield Wednesday but they did a job on us as they have so often in recent years. Doom and gloom abounded but in our Fulhamish way we went to 100% Ipswich a week later and strolled to victory in the manner of many of last season’s stellar performances. Tom Cairney pulled the strings that day but it’s been clear he’s been carrying an injury all season. Consequently we haven’t seen him since and our form has remained inconsistent. Whilst we cannot rely on one player our captain is pivotal to the success of our system and we’ve struggled to adjust to his absence.

Having said that we played very well and should have beaten Cardiff but again squandered a winning position. We probably played less well against Hull but at least this time got that elusive home win which should have sent us to Burton in high spirits. Instead we didn’t really turn up. Frustration was amplified by the mysterious nature of Burton’s winning penalty although with the abysmal standard of officiating this season it hardly came as a shock. We then did all the hard yards against big spending Boro but once again couldn’t see the game out. We can only hope the 6 points dropped in our three home draws don’t come back to bite us later on.

I am writing this the day after our victory at Forest which was a much needed tonic after Saturay’s despair. It has left us on 14 points which I believe is similar to our haul from the first ten games of last term. A positive outcome from Friday’s trip to QPR would leave us in a pretty tidy position going into the International break and this is why I’m remaining optimistic despite our frustrating opening to the season. It was at a similar juncture last year that the new personnel really clicked and we swiftly catapulted our way up the table. Hopefully Cairney’s knee problem will be sorted soon and if he’s fully fit then it will almost give us the fillip of a new signing.

Despite all the rumours of Jokanovic’s discontent with the club’s transfer policy I’d venture that this summer’s business has left us with a stronger squad than last year.We haven’t yet fired on all cylinders but there has been plenty of promise in our displays so far. Early signs are that the league will be more competitive than last season and I think it unlikely that clubs will pull clear in the manner that Newcastle and Brighton did last year. Cardiff are currently top and sit 9 points clear of us but only the most rabid Welshman would claim they are a better team than Fulham. Being a more aesthetically pleasing football side doesn’t necessarily equal success though as we found out to our cost in the Play Offs in May. However with 36 games left there is plenty of time for us to haul back the deficit on the top two . The play offs are a very realistic target but with our track record in these end of season lotteries an automatic spot should be our ambition. I’ve been astonished to see some fans call Jokanovic into question in recent weeks. He has transformed the team over his tenure and has already led Watford to promotion from this division. He undoubtedly knows what it takes to be successful in the Championship marathon.In any event  I’m sure if things aren’t going to plan come January we’ll be able to get Chris Martin back from Derby?

In Slav we trust-COYW.

Post Script

The editor kindly afforded me the opportunity to add some more of my old tosh after the QPR game. Had we lost you poor readers would have been spared but as we picked up another three points on the road you can suffer a little more. Hardly fair as surely we suffered enough last night as in true Fulhamish fashion our nerves were put through the shredder. Once more we weren’t quite as fluent as last season but there were still plenty of glimpses of our true potential. Fonte wasn’t quite at the races although he did play a prominent role in both our goals. However even though he’s only been at the club for a short while he’s had no trouble acquiring the penalty curse. There were rumours air traffic control had to divert a couple of Heathrow flights after he sent that ball into orbit.Ojo had a mixed night and has now picked up a very unfortunate collar bone injury that might see him out for some time. With Piazon out long term we can only hope Kamara and Ayite’s injuries aren’t too serious.

The good news is that we have finally acquired the knack for winning ugly when not playing at our maximum. Even though the forwards haven’t been firing the engine room in the midfield put in another solid shift. Johansen delivered another crucial goal, McDonald was reliable as ever and Norwood deserves special praise for putting fires out all over the park. His energy levels last night were something to behold. As good as the midfield were though the defence were the true heroes last night especially at the end when QPR were throwing the proverbial kitchen sink. Fredericks and Sessegnon were influential at both ends of the pitch, Kalas was a rock whilst last year’s pantomime villains Ream and Button distinguished themselves again. No doubt as soon as either has a poor game there will be some haters on their case but for now their consistent performances have silenced the critics.

It’s always nice to enter the international break off the back of a win rather than having to wallow in the bitterness of defeat. It’s doubly sweet when it’s at the expense of our dear neighbours. Hopefully with some of the wounded returning shortly we can carry on our strong vein of form when the madness resumes.