Is it really all doom and gloom?

by Dan on August 23, 2017

If this article leaves you with a lingering sense of deja vu, I can only apologise. I wrote something similar after Saturday’s narrow defeat by Sheffield Wednesday but, after the hysterical overreaction to last night’s elimination from the League Cup at the hands of League One Bristol Rovers, there are some points that are worth stating.

The narrative is easy enough to understand. Fulham’s fine end to last season with a fluke. Slavisa Jokanovic might be a lucky coach but he could also be a very devious man. He might be getting restless given that, like Roy Hodgson, he rarely seems to put roots down in one place. The two defeats on the bounce show that he’s been found out at this level and, what’s more, he escalated a quarrel he might be having with Fulham’s board to such an extent that he refused to make all bar a token change against Rovers as he wanted to make a point about how he has been sidelined by the club’s streamlined recruitment strategy.

Personally, I think that the outrage is a little far-fetched. Let’s consider a few facts. Fulham, with a trip to one of the early season pace-setters Ipswich Town on Saturday, made eleven changes for a League Cup. It wasn’t like this was unprecedented – Jokanovic had mixed and matched his sides in this competition last year to varying degrees of success. Whilst a youthful team dispatched Leyton Orient and edged past Middlesbrough after extra time, they were knocked out by Bristolian opposition last year.

The eleven that Jokanovic picked included one debutante, two players starting only their third senior fixture and two more who had played four games in English football between them. Only Marcus Bettinelli, who was appearing for the first time this season, Michael Madl and Neeskens Kebano had made more than ten appearances in the black and white. Where Jokanovic’s wholesale changes had a sixteen year-old pulling the strings in central midfield, Darrell Clarke rotated only three players from Rovers’ win at Bury at the weekend and the divisional gap between the sides evaporated.

The visitors were defensively superbly organised, battled for everything and had veterans of attritional football – if Liam Sercombe, who I watched put everything he had into Conference games with Exeter City when he took his first steps in the senior game, isn’t too offended by that description. Clarke’s side also benefited from generous officiating when the assistant referee failed to spot that Sercombe was well offside before he played in the impressive Ellis Harrison for what turned out to the game’s decisive moment.

Of course, the reaction on the messageboards and across social media has been as measured as ever. One correspondent claimed it was the worst Fulham performance in living memory, which was quite a stretch considering the Whites were abject in Cup defeats by Orient, non-league Yeovil and Hayes as well as capitulations at the hands of Chester City and Port Vale. I would argue that the dreadful defeat by Sheffield United in the FA Cup – which included Rene Meulensteen withdrawing Hugo Rodallega to leave Fulham without a striker and then laughing with Ray Wilkins as his side failed to break down the Blades – was far worse than last night.

As ever, some fans also felt the players were worthy of brickbats. One suggested that Aboubakar Kamara was the worst forward to wear a Fulham shirt. Harsh on a guy who looked quite bright against Norwich and Leeds when he had hardly any service to speak of. It’s also inaccurate in the extreme – I’d put Bjorn Runstrom, Ahmad Elrich and David Elm well ahead of Kamara in those stakes from the Premier League years alone – and that’s before we get to discussing the relative merits of Aidan Newhouse or Tony Thorpe, who cost the club markedly different sums of money. Some supporters saw fit to coat some of the younger players – I’ll assume the gentleman alongside me in the Riverside Stand was unaware that Matt O’Riley was sixteen or that Tayo Edun had recently won the European Under 19 Championship with England.

Jokanovic’s lack of substitutions to influence proceedings, especially after Rovers recovered from a real Fulham flurry at the start of the second half, was puzzling but perhaps you don’t have to resort to conspiracy theories to explain it. With a squad that now looks a little stretched due to injuries would there have been much value in risking the likes of Kevin McDonald, a holding midfielder, Stefan Johansen – in central midfield – or the recently recruited Rui Fonte if they are all in line for a start at Portman Road. Surely league points would take priority over securing thirty more minutes of Carabao Cup action.

The idea that all the Academy products are useless and that Jokanovic is a fraud doesn’t ring true to me at all. I fully admit I’m from the generation that went to Fulham to enjoy an afternoon or evening with my mates in full recognition of the fact that the football wasn’t going to be of great quality. It gives me great pleasure to be able to watch some of the club’s finest young talent at Craven Cottage – and I’m sure Jokanovic and Huw Jennings would have learnt a bit more about some of those players in a senior football setting last night. Fulham have progressed to such a degree since I started watching them that instead of dreaming about a giantkilling, we are now hunted prey in these competitions. That’s a position I relish.

Nobody, least of all me, wants to gloss over what was a poor result or a testing start to the season. But allow me to point out that from the four corresponding league fixtures last term, Fulham amassed three points. Jokanovic’s charges have had probably the most testing start to the new campaign of any Championship side – and also have a number of new faces to fit into their squad. I can certainly understand people’s frustration following last night but this correspondent refuses to subscribe to the notion that it’s all doom and gloom already. At least allow Jokanovic some breathing space – after the miracles he worked last year, he’s surely worthy of that.

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August is fast becoming a month of disappointments for Slavisa Jokanovic. The Serbian coach’s furrowed brow at the final whistle said it all after Ellis Harrison’s first half strike proved enough for League One Bristol Rovers to send Fulham crashing out of the Carabao Cup at the second round stage – and leave the questions piling up for the Whites ahead of Saturday’s trip to in-form Ipswich Town.

Harrison’s timing was impeccable as this was his first Rovers goal away from the Memorial Stadium since he scored in Fulham in the same competition last season – against Chelsea. The lively forward, a menace all evening, kept his composure after collecting a clever reverse pass from the excellent Liam Sercombe to go through on goal, rounded a helpless Marcus Bettinelli and slid the simplest of finishes into an empty net. The former Exeter and Oxford skipper was clearly three yards offside when he surged onto a Chris Lines pass to continue a swift Rovers counter-attack, but the flag stayed down and the visitors profited.

This was far from a smash and grab raid from Darrell Clarke’s impressive side who fully merited their victory. Billy Bodin might have made it two when he bundled past Tayo Edun and into the box but miscued his strike and captain Tom Lockyer squandered a great chance from a corner just before the break when, after a bout of pinball in the Fulham area, his powerful shot was repelled by a fine reaction save from Bettinelli, who should have been given little chance from point-blank range.

Fulham, who changed their eleven entirely after Saturday’s first defeat of the campaign against Sheffield Wednesday, made little impression in the first period. The disappointing Neeskens Kebano, who did little to suggest that Jokanovic had been wrong to use him only as an impact player in the opening games of the season, sent a low cross towards the back post from a promising position but Lee Brown cleared the danger under pressure from Aboubakar Kamara, who was too often isolated up front – but also opted for intricacy instead of precision when the openings presented themselves.

The home side were restricted to hopeful efforts from distance by a disciplined and well-organised Gas defence. Liverpool loanee Sheyi Ojo sent one skidding wide from just outside the box on his Fulham debut, whilst Oliver Norwood – who laboured in a deep-lying playmaking role at the base of the midfield – saw a deflected side easily fielded by Sam Slocombe right on the stroke of half-time.

Fulham found more energy and carried a greater threat after the interval but couldn’t turn their plentiful possession and pressure into more clear-cut chances. Kebano fashioned the first opening for himself, cutting inside onto his right foot from the left angle of the box, but drove a rather tame effort straight at Slocombe when he could have shot across the goalkeeper. Young Matt O’Riley and Kamara saw efforts blocked at source, whilst referee Dean Whitestone inexplicably failed to card Ryan Sweeney for raising his hands to the French forward and pushing him over inside the box after an off-the-ball scuffle.

The visitors might have made the game safe when substitute Rory Gaffney sent Tom Nichols haring through on goal with a delightful outside of the foot through ball that represented his first touch after replacing the goalscorer Harrison. Gaffney got to the ball before Bettinelli, but the Fulham goalkeeper – making his long-awaited first start of the season after recovering from a hamstring injury – made himself big and got a vital touch to the ball with his body after advancing outside the box and Nichols was eventually crowded out.

Jokanovic sent on Ryan Sessegnon for the final ten minutes as Fulham finally put the Rovers goal under some concerted pressure, but the visitors held firm. Kamara bundled his way through a host of physical challenges and through sheer persistence found Kebano in the box, but the Congolese winger’s venomous shot clear the crossbar. It was Kamara who wasted the best chance at the death – sending a free header from Kebano’s cross agonisingly wide of the far post in stoppage time.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; S. Sessegnon, Edun (R. Sessegnon 81), Madl, Djalo; Norwood, Cisse, O’Riley; Ojo, Kebano, Kamara. Subs (not used): Button, Odoi, Kalas, McDonald, R. Fonte.

BRISTOL ROVERS (4-3-3): Slocombe; Bola, Brown, Lockyer, Sweeney; Lines, Sercombe, Sinclair; Bodin (Nichols 61), Moore (Broom 81), Harrison (Gaffney 68). Subs (not used): Andre, Burn, Telford, Broadbent.

BOOKED: Gaffney, Slocombe, Sweeney.

REFEREE: Dean Whitestone

ATTENDANCE: 6,243

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