Just when Fulham’s season was starting to click into gear, along comes a striking striker to threaten Slavisa Jokanovic’s best laid plans. The news that Chris Martin, who only a few weeks ago was making encouraging noises about turning his loan from Derby into a permanent move, has made himself unavailable for selection as he wants to return to his parent club was not what Fulham would have wanted heading into arguably their two most important matches of the season.
After a slow start at Craven Cottage, Martin’s importance to the team that Jokanovic has been gradually building can’t be overstated. He has contributed goals but, more importantly, has offered a physical presence to occupy defenders and bring his team-mates into play. Rather like Bobby Zamora in 2010, the Scottish international has become a focal point the team can depend on – and the way he has popped up with crucial goals has sparked Fulham’s push towards the play-off places.
The sorry saga illustrates the extent of player power in the modern game. Martin clearly thinks that by downing tools he can succeed in riding himself of what he now feels is a burdensome contract – and return to Derby, thereby boosting one of Fulham’s promotion rivals and breaching the terms of a deal agreed back in August by all three parties. Just because he doesn’t feel like staying in London – for whatever reason – is no justification for breaching his contract and it was good to see a passionate Slavisa Jokanovic, clearly feeling wronged by a player he has put a lot of trust in, aggressively defending Fulham’s position in his interviews last night after the ridiculous abandonment of our game at Reading.
Perhaps due to Jokanovic’s unique brand of English, the Serbian head coach comes up with some especially memorable phrases. The latest of which came in the midst of a discussion about Martin’s desire to return to Derby, when he insisted that ‘this is not a train station’ because players couldn’t come and go as they pleased. It was an aggrieved man who spoke about Fulham’s status as London’s oldest professional football club and the fact that they deserved the respect of a player they had offered a significant opportunity to. Jokanovic, who might also be looking for serious backing from the Fulham board in January in light of Malaga’s overtures, doesn’t look like the kind of man you would want to make angry – or the sort of unassuming gentleman who would have reacted favourably to Martin knocking on his door and requesting the annulment of the deal.
The simple facts of the matter are that Fulham have paid a substantial fee – believed to be around £2m – to take Martin, who had reportedly led the player revolt against Nigel Pearson at Derby, on a season-long loan. Under the terms of loan transfers ratified by the EFL clubs in the summer, any revocation of that arrangement would need to have the full agreement of Fulham, Derby County and the player himself. Therefore, Fulham hold the all the cards either. They clearly have plenty to lose – especially as Jokanovic was seeking to strengthen his striking options even before Martin decided he’d rather be somewhere else – but a bit of hardball won’t go amiss here.
Nobody will have been particularly impressed by Steve McClaren’s comments after Derby’s fixture this afternoon. He laughably managed to keep a straight face when insisting that both ‘managers should stay out’ of the situation before telling BBC Radio Derby just how much he’d want Martin back in the Midlands. You can certainly see why the Rams would want a player of Martin’s pedigree back at the club to spearhead their own promotion push – but only serves the underline their stupidity in agreeing to loan him out in the first place.
Usually players get their way in these situations. Nobody will be all that surprised if Martin finds his way back to the IPro Stadium before too long – but Fulham must put their own needs first. Backing the head coach who has worked wonders to have his side in with a realistic chance of making the play-offs after a radical overhaul of the squad in the summer is now essential. That means Jokanovic needs to be given every opportunity to bring in strikers who will fit his system and offer Fulham the best chance of making the top six – and only when those players are fit and firing should Martin’s return to Derby be countenanced.
Sticking to your guns will be tough, but there’s an unconsidered upside to all of the turmoil. The presence of more than 3,000 Fulham fans at the Madjeski Stadium, braving the cold and the fog, showed just how much of a feelgood factor around the club at the moment. Rather than tearing things about, Martin’s stance will bring an already close-knit squad together – and the supporters will rally behind a club standing in sync with their outspoken head coach. Should Jokanovic get what he wants during January, there’s every chance Fulham fans could be looking at the moment Martin forced the issue as a pivotal one in the club’s promotion push.