Most of Fulham’s first-team squad are back in training at Motspur Park this morning as the club’s pre-season preparations begin in earnest. Just exactly what the summer schedule comprises of will remain a closely-guarded secret for a while, but it was good to see the enthusiasm of a broad cross-section of the squad come through on social media as they contemplated getting back to work.
— Matt Smith (@mattjpsmith) June 15, 2015
Heading back to Fulham for the beginning of pre season after a class 5 weeks off.. Made some class… https://t.co/iUZ4EpI5n4
— Jordan Evans (@Jordan_Evans11) June 14, 2015
For the fans, the most interesting part of the off-season occurs away from the training pitches. Discussions with agents, who is available, who’s not, the frenzied speculation of arrivals and outgoings is the talk of the silly season. It has, of course, already begun with many supporters already impatiently lambasting a lack of action on Fulham’s part, which is par for the course for this time of year. The task of rebuilding a squad – especially for the second season in a row – shouldn’t be taken lightly, but the results of last summer’s activity only underlines the fact that quantity is no substitute for quality. I’m by no means well-connected, but having had the opportunity to meet with Mike Rigg recently, I’m encouraged by his enthusiasm, diligence and drive. There’s no doubt that Fulham are working hard behind the scenes.
Whilst we all digest the latest rumours, the most crucial work will being taking place on those Motspur Park pitches. Kit Symons has stepped down from his advisory role to Chris Coleman at a time when Wales look likely to qualify for their first major championships since 1958 – principally to focus on getting things right as he approaches his first full season in charge. One of the most worrying things about our end of season form was how a team managed by an accomplished defender seemed devoid of defensive organisation and shape. I’m not expecting the reintroduction of Roy Hodgson’s rather regimented defensive drills that drove his players to distraction, but once the core fitness work has been completed, there will doubtless be a heavier focus on making Fulham tougher to play through this time around.
One of the biggest decisions will be around how Symons sets his side up. I got the impression that the rigid diamond was a way to utilise the players he had at his disposal rather than a system the manager believes in. Certainly, the emergence of the likes of Alex Kacaniklic and Patrick Roberts in the youth teams that Symons managed owed much to them having the freedom to make threatening runs from wider positions. If we are to get the best out of someone like Matt Smith, who finished the last campaign in fine fettle, the quality of service from the flanks will be critical. With the best part of nine weeks until competitive football begins, Symons will want to make Fulham’s football more confident and refined that the chaotic and frenetic stuff that characterised the closing weeks of last season.
The most exciting part of this tantalising pre-season period is seeing which members of the next generation take the opportunity to train on. The promising members of Fulham’s academy can be in doubt now that talent will recognised and improvement can take you all the way to the first team. The progression of Marcus Bettinelli and Lasse Vigen Christensen, two players who are with their national under-21 squads in the Czech Republic this week as a testament to their performances over the past year, attests to that. The eye-catching displays of Emerson Hyndman in New Zealand with the USA Under 20 side over the past fortnight also indicate that there will be plenty of competition for midfield places come August. Could the likes of Jordan Evans, Luca Della Torre or Ange-Freddy Plumain – to take just three examples – make strides forward over the next few weeks?
Early season form sets the tone for the campaign, especially in a league as unforgiving as the Championship. Fulham certainly never recovered from Felix Magath’s shambolic start last time around – and Symons will want to lay down an early marker as to his credentials. He’ll view this time as being vital in communicating his own ideas and making the changes that are necessary. The hard work starts here.