The long search for Kit Symons’ replacement is over, although as the deal to bring Slavisa Jokanovic wasn’t finalised until Sunday night, Fulham’s new head coach is likely to be the most interested spectator inside Craven Cottage tonight. The view that the former Watford boss takes of the side he watches this evening will prove vital as a transfer embargo prevents Jokanovic from adding to his squad on a permanent basis during the January window. There’s also the small matter of this fixture now being a genuine six-pointer as Fulham’s promising autumn form gave way to the kind of winter slum that spells relegation.
The last side that Stuart Gray selects could also be instructive. Fulham were defensively diligent at Derby County last weekend and could probably consider themselves unfortunate to have not come away with more than blood, sweat – and perhaps a few tears – to show for their efforts. Richard Stearman had his poorest game since signing from Wolves and there is little sign of the defensive calamities that have characterised the club’s return to the Championship ending. Gray’s decision to play Tim Ream at left back and loanee Luke Garbutt in front of him might have brought for the latter at Bolton, but is in no way a long-term solution to the problem.
Such a selection shifts Alex Kacaniklic – now Fulham’s longest-serving player – onto the right flank of a conventional four man midfield. The Swedish winger on his day can be brilliant, but those performances have been far and few between of late. However inconsistent he might be – and he created a couple of good chances for himself at the IPro – it is harsh to judge a player when he’s being asked to play in a position that is foreign to him. The switch to a 5-3-2 – tried briefly by Symons earlier in the system – might exclude the few out-and-out wingers at the club, but it would also represent the best way to play to Fulham’s strengths, although I don’t expect Gray to be too radical this evening.
Something does need to be done in central midfield, however. Jamie O’Hara had a fabulous start to the season playing as a deep-lying playmaker, but his form has tailed off in recent weeks. He was bullied off the ball by Derby and, although Emerson Hyndman is a prodigious talent, he’s hardly the ballast you need in such a physical league. A midfield enforcer in the mould of a Dickson Etuhu would be perfect – and perhaps afford our overworked centre halves the protection they’ve been sorely missing – but Finnish international Sakari Matilla is the only genuine holding midfielder at the club and seems to be sidelined by a back injury.
Last season’s home fixture with Rotherham was also a meeting of two sides horribly preocuppied with the drop. Since then, Fulham have signed Rotherham’s man-of-the-match that night, although Ben Pringle has struggled to recapture such sparkling form in west London, and the Millers have replaced Steve Evans with Neil Redfearn. Tonight’s game could see a return for one of Roy Hodgson’s 2010 Europa League heroes as Irish international Stephen Kelly is expected to shake off a calf strain and start at right back – in place of Frazier Richardson – for the visitors.
Jokanovic would dearly love to watch his side add to the solidarity home clean sheet they have mustered in the league this season, but that will be far from a straightforward task. Apart from the ‘self-inflicted’ wounds that Gray described the Derby goals as, Rotherham put four past Bolton on Saturday, which followed hot the heels of an impressive 2-0 win over promotion-chasing Hull. Neil Redfearn, who didn’t get the chance to build on his impressive start as caretaker of a young Leeds side, has lifted the south Yorkshire side out of the drop zone – and their confidence in forward areas should mean that Jokanovic will be able to make a qualified assessment of his new employers, defensive frailities and all.
Tonight also marks an opportunity for Fulham fans to pay their respects to Jimmy Hill, who died so sadly of Alzheimer’s a couple of weeks ago. Much has been written about Hill as a footballing pioneer – and he certainly was – but his impact at Craven Cottage shouldn’t be understated. As well as his high-profile campaigning for the abolition of the maximum wage which meant that Fulham fans were able to enjoy the talents of Johnny Haynes for the duration of his memorable career, Hill came to the rescue of a club whose very existence was in danger in the 1980s and steadied another rock ship as chairman. Whilst we might not all agree with every decision he took or each opinion he espoused, every Fulham fan owes Hill a debt of gratitude – and I hope that is reflected in the tribute we gave him this evening.
MY FULHAM XI (5-3-2): Lonergan; Fredericks, Garbutt, Ream, Stearman, Hutchinson; Hyndman, Christensen, Cairney; McCormack, Dembele. Subs: Lewis, Burn. Richards, Parker, Kacaniklic, Woodrow, Smith.