The overriding emotion after the final whistle at the Madjeski Stadium was one of bitter disappointment. Fulham had fallen agonisingly short of reaching Wembley after a remarkable season – and the pain was etched on the players’ faces. For this correspondent, that despair quickly gave way to panic as Reading supporters invaded the pitch. some rushed towards the away end goading the travelling support and a few Fulham fans sprinted down the gangways to give them a piece of their mind. It wasn’t the nicest of ways to end an evening that had began with such promise.
Losing a tight game hurts, especially when so much was riding on the outcome of the tie. If you are anything like me, the same questions have been spinning around in your mind since Tuesday. Did Slavisa Jokanovic get his team selection right? Perhaps not. Was it a penalty? That depends who you ask. Could Marcus Bettinelli have saved the spot-kick? Quite possibly. Should Fulham have created more chances given the amount of pressure they applied as the clock ticked down? Yes. Would anything have beaten a clearly inspired Ali Al-Habsi? I doubt it. But once the agony of defeat subsided a little, it is worth reflecting on what has made you proud to follow the oldest professional team in London.
For a start, the way the travelling fans responded to the pathetic stewarding, policing and incitement after the final whistle by some of the pitch invaders, with a rousing chorus of Fulham songs. The way Tom Cairney insisted on bypassing a police line to commiserate with the away fans. How the likes of Tomas Kalas, Tim Ream – who was magnificent throughout the ninety minutes – Kevin McDonald and Bettinelli, who took his opportunity splendidly after spending most of the season on the substitutes’ bench, also braved their way through a raucous pitch invasion to reach the away end when it would have been easier and safer to sprint towards the dressing rooms.
Then there’s how the season itself panned out. Forget for a second that Fulham failed to reach the play-off final. The idea the Whites would make the top six at all appeared preposterous at Christmas and laughable after a frustrating defeat at Birmingham. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side made up eleven points on Leeds – and were the best side in the Championship in the calendar year of 2017 – during an extraordinary second half of the season run to gatecrash the play-off positions in the first place.
To be competing at the top end of the table was a refreshing change after two seasons of scrapping for lives at the other end of the Championship. How Jokanovic, a man who is now fully committed to the Fulham project, managed to fashion a competitive side from the off having made fourteen signings in the summer remains something of a mystery. To lose the club’s two top scorers in Moussa Dembele and Ross McCormack during pre-season, completely reshape the side’s style of play, and finish the season as the league’s top-joint scorers was a remarkable achievement.
The football was a joy to watch. Yes, Fulham had to win ugly on occasions – as every team does – but there was a confidence about the way Jokanovic’s side embraced his adventurous, possession-based philosophy. Astonishingly, given the club’s historically woeful on the road, it proved most successful away from home. That fantastic win at St. James’ Park will live long in the memory. More than once, I bumped into longstanding Fulham fans who purred that this football was as good as the Jean Tigana days. Given the way the Frenchman had his team playing, that’s high praise indeed.
Then there’s the characters we have been introduced to this season. Kalas was a revelation at centre back – such a reassuring presence at the heart of a previously creaky defence – and looked every inch a Premier League performer. The emergence of Scott Malone as a marauding full-back to compliment the pacey Ryan Fredericks on the other side established the former Cardiff defender as one of the captures of the campaign, especially as Fulham had swapped him for Jazz Richards. Kevin McDonald added ballast to the midfield with a bravery that was second to none, whilst Stefan Johansen’s boundless energy introduced a balance to the centre of park that arguably proved to be the turning point in Fulham’s campaign. The willing running of Sone Aluko bamboozled many a defender, while the goals provided by Floyd Ayite and Neeskens Kebano were critical.
Jokanovic’s decision to elevate Cairney to the captaincy and restore him to a position from where he could dictate proceedings was a masterstroke. The playmaker might not be the most traditional of captains, but he leads by example – and his knack of grabbing vital goals sustained Fulham’s promotion push. Nothing illustrates that better than the two strikes against his former clubs – Blackburn Rovers and Leeds United – in stoppage time. Cairney’s influence on the field was clear, but he has also been a wonderful ambassador for the club and their foundation in their charity work too.
Perhaps the most pleasing part of the season was Jokanovic’s progressive attitude to giving young players their head. The most obvious example of this came in the shape of Ryan Sessegnon, who made his debut at Leyton Orient in the EFL Cup and never looked back. The teenager belied his tender years with a succession of mature performers and, as his head coach’s trust increased, Sessegnon weighed in with a number of memorable goals. While the England youth international is the clearest example of the success of the work of Steve Wigley, Huw Jennings and Malcolm Elias in the academy, the memories of Dennis Adeniran scoring at Brisbane Road and celebrating with his father behind the goal remind us that there are many more.
Fulham might have fallen short at Reading at Tuesday night and, yes, it was a horribly painful blow – but thanks to the guidance of Jokanovic, his coaching staff and a number of key men behind the scenes, the club is moving in the right direction again. The planning for the next campaign has already began and I’m excited for what the next season might bring.