Fulham’s return to league action this afternoon pits them against one of the Championship’s surprise packages in Barnsley, whose quiet ascent up the division has been masterminded by one of the game’s most promising young managers in Paul Heckingbottom. The Tykes sit in eighth place, just four points off the play-off places, and have kicked on impressively after their former defender assumed the reins from Lee Johnson and guided them to success in both the Football League Trophy and the League One play-offs last year. The fact that Barnsley, without the operating budgets of the bigger clubs in the league, are now comfortably moored above mid-table and have established themselves as potential promotion contenders must rank as one of the stories of the season.
The Yorkshire side have, according to Heckingbottom, become ‘victims of their own success’ as he comes to terms with the departure of Sam Winnall, after the striker – who had scored eleven goals in eighteen league appearances this term, left yesterday to join local rivals Sheffield Wednesday, who have quadrupled his wages. Heckingbottom is honest enough to expect suitors to circle for some of their other key players in short order, including the impressive playmaker Conor Hourihane, who leads the Championship’s assists charts by some ditance, and has had played a part in nine Barnsley goals in his last eight games.
The Reds’ resilience and diligent organisation has been a key part of their steady rise and, even without Winnall, Fulham can expect their own play-off ambitions to be seriously tested afternoon by a team capable of mixing it with the very best in the league. Heckingbottom could well pair the on-loan Newcastle striker Adam Armstrong with Tom Bradshaw, whose remarkable goalscoring exploits with Walsall took him to the brink of making Wales’ squad for Euro 2016 last summer only for his dreams to be dented by an untimely calf injury. The Barnsley manager has new injury concerns – so the only absentees will be Saidy Jaidi, who is at the African Cup of Nations with hosts Gabon and long-term knee injury victim Sessi D’Almeida.
The big news from Slavisa Jokanovic’s press conference yesterday was the potential return of striker Chris Martin, after his fortnight-long stand-off with Fulham about a potential return to his parent club Derby. The Scottish striker made few friends amongst the Craven Cottage faithful by downing tools and refusing to play in two of Fulham’s most crucial games over the festive period, but there is no doubt that the Whites were weaker for his absence, effectively beating Cardiff City in the FA Cup on Sunday without a recognised striker. If Jokanovic has persuaded Martin that he can be successfully reintegrated into a squad that remains desperately short of quality up front, he has played a blinder.
Perhaps the more crucial development, though – and this is certainly not to underestimate the importance of Martin in Jokanovic’s system – is the return of Tomas Kalas to full fitness. The on-loan Chelsea defender looks a class above the Championship and Fulham have sorely missed both his composure and commanding presence whilst he has been nursing another hamstring injury. His last absence coincided with Fulham’s seven-game winless streak that dented their excellent start to the season and Jokanovic’s side looked very jittery without the Czech international at the heart of the defence. Whether he will be paired with Ragnar Sigurdsson or Michael Madl, with whom he started the campaign so well, is Jokanovic’s only lingering selection dilemma.
After the disappointment of another painful defeat at the hands of Brighton and Hove Albion on Bank Holiday Monday, Fulham now enter a run of fixtures where they need to pick up a series of wins to make up ground on the league’s chasing pack. Leeds’ impressive victory over Steve McClaren’s Derby County at Elland Road last night raises the prospect of the top three in the Championship table pulling away from the rest – with Fulham now also at risk of becoming detached from the sides targeting a play-off berth. Barnsley certainly won’t be easy to play through, and they gave Jokanovic’s side a real scare at Oakwell back in October, but they will represent another reasonable barometer of where the Whites stand at a crucial stage in the season.
MY FULHAM XI (4-1-2-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Malone, Kalas, Madl; McDonald; Johansen, Cairney; Aluko, Piazon, Martin. Subs: Button, Sessegnon, Sigurdsson, Christensen, Parker, Humphrys, Smith.