What seems like ages ago, a lecturer at university warned me about the dangers of ‘instant history’. However, with the transfer window’s closure still fresh in the mind, the temptation of assessing how Fulham got on is too great. Football fans are notoriously fickle and I’m sure somewhere in an angry corner of the internet, there will be some bemoaning the fact that the overhyped deadline day delivered just one new arrival in the shape of Richard Stearman, but I can’t join those who might consider the final afternoon a let down.
Reshaping a squad that was ridiculously unbalanced even at the end of last season will probably require more than a summer. Fulham have successfully shunted the big wage earners elsewhere and, whilst their still might be disappointment about the loss of Patrick Roberts, that transfer fee afforded us some capital with which to operate. The new signings that we’ve already seen in action have each, in their own way, illustrated their quality. Andy Lonergan’s arrival from Bolton Wanderers on a free transfer looks like a magnificent piece of business in the light of the cruel injury that befell Marcus Bettinelli. Just how crucial his penalty save at the New York Stadium last weekend turns out to be in Kit Symons’ managerial career remains to be seen – but I’m a hell of a lot more comfortable with a proven Championship custodian deputising for one of the brightest prospects to come out of the Fulham academy than I would have been wincing my way through another season of Gabor Kiraly.
Defence was the area where most of us would have been concerned once the final whistle blew on last season’s torment. The fact that Fulham lined up in Cardiff without having added a centre back to repair the league’s second leakiest rearguard would have raised plenty of eyebrows. The long-awaited capture of Lewis Dunk never materialised – and a fancy you could write a book about the twists and turns in that saga – but Fulham’s position is a lot stronger now than it was even a fortnight ago. Tim Ream has stepped comfortably into a centre back position and immediately solidified things which is no mean feat, whilst the signing of Richard Stearman – rumoured to be our first target back in those heady summer days – shouldn’t be sniffed at. Both are well aware of what’s necessary in this league and Stearman, to judge from his last two seasons at Wolves, is a demonstrative and decisive character, which we’ve been lacking, who was popular with the Wolves faithful.
If solving the problems at centre back were pivotal to having a more successful season, then addressing the full-back situation was no less pressing. Jazz Richards has yet to fully convince despite a performance for Wales in the close season that had Premier League clubs scampering to derail our attempts to seal a permanent deal (just look at the clumsy tackle that almost handed Rotherham a route back in a game that looked beyond them on Saturday), but the signing of the former Tottenham youngster Ryan Fredericks will offer serious competition for a first-team spot whilst Jack Grimmer recuperates from that nasty injury at Wycombe.
Kay Voser was pressed into service at left back after Luke Garbutt’s promising debut ended far too quickly – and that always had the feel of a short-term fix. Voser hardly looked reassuring in his more natural position last season and the limitations of playing a right-footed player on the left side of a shaky back four limited Fulham’s effectiveness at both ends of the pitch. Snapping up James Husband again on loan was a real coup – he was impressive in his brief spell last term – and delivered a masterclass in what we’d been missing at the weekend. His penetrative runs, calmness on the ball and diligent positioning made Ben Pringle look far more effective as a left-sided midfielder, whilst his dangerous incursions into the penalty area won a penalty and almost led to another goal in the second half. Hopefully, these additions will make Symons’ side far more formidable at both ends of the pitch.
The big change has been in midfield. Jamie O’Hara’s desire to both his best days aren’t behind him was evident from the way he sought to secure a place at Motspur Park in the summer and the manner in which he stepped into a deep-lying central midfield role marks him out as a potential replacement for Danny Murphy. A Fulham fan can pay no more handsome compliment than that. Pringle’s effervescence has already sparkled during the summer and I fancy he’ll become an integral part of the midfield quartet as the season goes on. His eye for goal, eager running and ability to drift into dangerous central positions should provide some of the movement that was so sadly lacking last season.
The big-money capture of the summer was probably Tom Cairney, whose move from Blackburn Rovers even surprised the player himself. I still worry that we’ll waste his prodigious talent if the Scottish international spends too much time on the right side of a traditional four-man midfield – not just when it comes to utilising that devastating left foot, which has already delivered two top-class finishes, but also in terms of depriving him of the space to link effectively with the likes of Lasse Vigen Christensen, Pringle and Ross McCormack. The fact that Christensen isn’t certain of his place in the side shows just how much Symons has strengthened this area in the summer months – but Ryan Tunnicliffe’s encouraging displays hint at a pathway into the first-team for those who might still be on the periphery.
Perhaps the one worry might be a lack of depth up front, given the frustration of not landing Gary Hooper late in the day. Fulham were horribly reliant on Ross McCormack’s goals last season and the player himself was brooding about his natural position only a week ago. For many, McCormack is most threatening when he’s poaching in the penalty area – we’ll just erase that horrible miss at Cardiff from our minds – but, such was the woeful lack of service at times last season, you couldn’t criticise him too much for dropping deep in search of the ball. Matt Smith might be the most conventional partner for the current captain, but his injury offers a glorious opportunity for Cauley Woodrow and Moussa Dembele.
Ironically, the pair cultivated a real understanding at youth-team level, but you sense there are now competing with one another for a single spot. Woodrow’s performances have been fitful so far, but two smart finishes – at home to Huddersfield when the Whites looked to have run out of ideas and, also in stoppage, at Rotherham to seal a much-needed win – show that he’s got the predatory instincts to match his ability to bring others into play. The raw Dembele has pure pace, a precious commodity in this Fulham squad, which scares the life out of Championship defences. His task is to work on his finishing – as well as to realise that his future development is best served at Craven Cottage and sign the new deal that Fulham are willing to offer.
Given that Fulham have managed to make significant improvements on a net spend of £200,000 across this window, there will be questions about when Shahid Khan might flex his financial muscles. Has he really done ‘whatever it takes’ to deliver promotion? Maybe not. But, given the boom and bust nature of English football, I’m quite happy we aren’t risking our club’s future in a mad dash for Premier League football. Sustainability might sound hollow right now but ask fans of Leeds, QPR, Portsmouth, Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn if they’d ask for careful husbandry if they had their time again and you won’t need too long to receive the answer.
Fulham’s future probably remains in cultivating a strong home-grown core. One of the more pleasing aspects of Symons’ reign has been seeing the likes of Bettinelli, Grimmer, Christensen, Woodrow and Dembele step into first-team football so promisingly. The task over the past few weeks has been to build a stronger squad so that the youngsters – like the returning George Williams – won’t have to shoulder so much of the work as they seek to make their next strides in senior football. A blend of youth and experience is the ideal, and I’d have no hesitation in saying we’re a lot better off now than we were post-Norwich in May.