Where last season’s international breaks were a blessed relief from the torture of following Fulham’s prolonged fight against relegation from the Championship, the week that slowly dragged by interrupting Slavisa Jokanovic’s quest to drive up standards at Craven Cottage has seemed like punishment for the unexpected pleasure we’ve all enjoyed since August. Even the Serbian, who bows to no-one in terms of his preparation and focus, will have been surprised by the imperious nature of Fulham’s progress in the early weeks of the season – and there’s a good chance he will be much happier tonight than he was before the closure of the summer transfer window.
For one thing, Craig Kline – the controversial data analyst who has managed to fill plenty of column inches without anyone outside Motspur Park being much the wiser as to who he is and what the ‘both boxes ticked’ philosophy precisely means in footballing terms – won’t come across Jokanovic’s radar again until the new year window approaches. Secondly, he’s got a striker to supplement Fulham’s previously meagre attacking resources – and it’s one with a Championship scoring record to rival Ross McCormack. Chris Martin arrives on the back of a goalscoring return for Scotland last week – which surprised even the on-loan Derby forward – and should go straight into the starting line-up for the visit of Birmingham City on Saturday.
As Frankie has already detailed on these pages, Fulham’s squad suddenly has a pleasing depth about it. Jokanovic has selection headaches right across the pitch. He publicly spoke about the difficulty of selecting a goalkeeper last week, with David Button’s excellent form rather making his inclusion ahead of the recovering Marcus Bettinelli a little less of a talking point. How a defence that was already excelling with Michael Madl and Tomas Kalas striking up quite a partnership is reorganised to include Ragnar Sigurdsson as well remains an open question, whilst there are new additions in the shape of Stefan Johansen and Lucas Piazon to find space for in what is already an intensively competitive battle for places in midfield.
The bodies added over the closing weeks of that summer window will prove pivotal in the weeks ahead. Jokanovic alluded to the fact today that a brutal stretch of the season is directly in front of Fulham now – they face seven matches in just 21 days against a quality of opponent that will tell us much about whether August’s form was an early season fluke or something that can be sustained beyond the dying embers of British summer time. Gone is the importance of numbers 1 to 11, success in the modern game comes down to utilising a strong squad and keeping the bit-part performers motivated to make the most of their opportunity. The onset of injuries and suspensions means resources can be stretched at the most unfortunate of moments.
The Football League announced their nominees for August awards this morning and there was much consternation amongst the Fulham Twitterati that Jokanovic’s name didn’t feature. The Serbian will care not a jot that he wasn’t shortlisted for manager of the month – and not because of the curse that award brings with it, either. Fulham’s strong start has caught the pundits by surprise and Jokanovic will be delighted to remain below the radar for as long as possible. It suits his uncomplicated and focused style that demands his players concentrate solely on what is ahead of them – which is a must in such a competitive league.
There was, though, praise for Tom Cairney, who is thought to be in with a good chance of taking the player of the month award. It still perplexes plenty of observers that the classy midfielder can’t find his way into a Scotland squad crying out for the kind of creativity Cairney provides in abundance, but Jokanovic won’t be worrying too much about Fulham’s playmaker putting his feet up during the international break. I still maintain that he’s found too often on the periphery of things operating from the advanced right-sided role, but he has delivered with devastating effect in front of goal so far – none more so that when he clinched the win at Ewood Park so dramatically – and you sense he is becoming an increasingly important influence within the dressing room as well.
There was an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm around the Cottage as the team trained this morning, which after two desperately dire seasons, was badly needed. The fans are adjusting to heading to games with an unusual sense of expectation – and the players too are chomping at the bit to get going. That desire was in evidence in Denis Odoi’s interview with Alex Harris of the Daily Star this morning and Jokanovic will want Fulham to start on the front foot against the Blues come the weekend, something which was curiously lacking in their last home league encounter with Cardiff City. Don’t fret – that interminable international break is nearly a thing of the past.