It seems like a very long time since we have had competitive football on our screens and I’m sure many of you join me today with extreme Fulham withdrawal symptoms. It happens every year. No matter how badly the previous campaign has gone the, “thank goodness that’s over,” attitude lasts about five minutes before we are desperate for the excitement/misery to start all over again. This season is no different and I suppose the fact that we are playing under the floodlights at Craven Cottage against the title favourites in Newcastle United in the league opener only adds to the occasion. And once again Fulham fans are all dreaming that, surely, this year will be better than the last! The way the club has been in freefall over the past four or five seasons hasn’t been easy to watch but this year we have a proven manager in the Championship unlike the previous two seasons. Results didn’t exactly fall into place perfectly when the appointment of Slavisa Jokanovic was made last year but with a full preseason to make a start at shaping his squad we can be more confident about what lies ahead of us.
I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the starting team on the opening day of the previous two campaigns just to see the differences in set up and it brought me straight back to the Magath Bingo era. It was like a lucky dip every week about who would start and I don’t mean that to be in anyway disrespectful of the players, more just how clueless Magath was about what his system was! On 9th August, 2014 we started with a 2-1 defeat away to Ipswich in a game that quickly brought us all to the realisation that the Championship is no easy ride.
Starting 11: Joronen, Stafylidis, Hutchinson, Hoogland, Bodurov, Burgess, Parker, Hyndman, David, Dembele, McCormack.
Subs: Bettinelli, Burn, Eisfeld, Roberts, Foderingham, Woodrow, Rodallega
Last year we had Kit Symons at the helm and because he has been at the club for so long I reckon the majority of Fulham fans thought that it was a match made in Heaven. Symons has given a lot to the club over the years in playing and coaching, but unfortunately he wasn’t just ready for management yet. However, we had high hopes of a promotion season coming onto the campaign but started with a draw away to Cardiff.
Starting 11: Lonergan, Voser, Burn, Hutchinson, Richards, O’Hara, Christensen, Pringle, Cairney, McCormack, Smith
Subs: Bettinelli, Bodurov, Kacaniklic, Mattila, Hyndman, Woodrow, Dembele
Both seasons we had a defence that very few people had faith in so I guess it’s a case of third time lucky!
With McCormack finally leaving for Villa in the longest transfer saga we have had for some time there is now a major question mark over who our main source of goals will be this year. I’m sad to see him go given that his goals have kept us up over the past two seasons but his agent has been pushing for a move practically since he arrived and I’m happy to just move on now. Jokanovic has a few weeks left to pick his man but for the opening games of the season it will be interesting to see who he goes with up top. We don’t have a player of McCormack’s style in our squad so there will be no like-for-like switch tomorrow night but I don’t think this will particularly bother Jokanovic as he is keen to play in a system that doesn’t require your main man dropping back as much as Ross did. I would like to see Cauley Woodrow get the nod over Smith but we will just have to wait until tomorrow night to see how Jokanovic sets up.
I think we might be in for a couple of surprises but tomorrow night I would like to see a starting eleven looking like this-
Starting 11: Bettinelli, Odoi, Kalas, Madl, Sessegnon, McDonald, Parker, Cairney, Aluko, Ayite, Woodrow
Many of you might look at that and doubt our ability for promotion and I’d agree, but Jokanovic has already made it clear that he isn’t done in the transfer market. I do however think that we have a much better defence that the past few seasons and Aluko has already mentioned in an interview that the team have been working on organisation and pressing, two attributes that haven’t been typical of Fulham for years! The likes of Madl, who looked like our best defender last year, and Kalas, who help Middleborough gain promotion last year, are both massive upgrades on Burn and Hutchinson from the opening day last season. Odoi has looked very competent in preseason and I reckon Sessegnon has done enough to excite us all in the games he has played so far. He is very young so I would rather that we found an experienced head in there for now, but I reckon that he will get the nod tomorrow night ahead of Malone who has been training with the U23’s for a few weeks.
In midfield Jokanovic has added both power and experience in Kevin McDonald while we have Parker, Tunnicliffe and Christensen who are capable of slotting in beside. Now that McCormack is gone I think that Tom Cairney is going to be our most important player and I also think that the signing of Floyd Ayite is a fantastic one. From what I have seen in preseason it looks like we finally have a quick and creative winger who loves a run at a defender.
There are undoubtedly still gaps in the team and we don’t have the depth that a promotion side needs yet but with four or five promising players supposedly about the sign this might be sorted come the end of the window. For now, though, Jokanovic can’t be thinking about the players who haven’t signed yet and his sole focus will be on the season curtain raiser against Newcastle tomorrow night. Newcastle have invested well but are still looking uncertain at the back so it is important that Fulham put them under a lot of pressure. I’d be happy with a draw but once again that optimism has crept in and I honestly belief that tomorrow we could bring Newcastle down to Earth much like Ipswich did to us two seasons ago!
Here are some of my predictions for the season ahead-
Final place- 6th (if we get the right signings in the next couple of weeks)
Top goal scorer- Floyd Ayite
Most important player– Tom Cairney
Most reliable player- Michael Madl
Young Player of the Season- Cauley Woodrow
Will Jokanovic last- Yes
I can’t wait for tomorrow night and for the season ahead. We have an ambitious manager who knows what he is doing so that along with the optimism that I just can’t help but have anyway, I feel that this season will at last be an exciting one.