If this article leaves you with a lingering sense of deja vu, I can only apologise. I wrote something similar after Saturday’s narrow defeat by Sheffield Wednesday but, after the hysterical overreaction to last night’s elimination from the League Cup at the hands of League One Bristol Rovers, there are some points that are worth stating.
The narrative is easy enough to understand. Fulham’s fine end to last season with a fluke. Slavisa Jokanovic might be a lucky coach but he could also be a very devious man. He might be getting restless given that, like Roy Hodgson, he rarely seems to put roots down in one place. The two defeats on the bounce show that he’s been found out at this level and, what’s more, he escalated a quarrel he might be having with Fulham’s board to such an extent that he refused to make all bar a token change against Rovers as he wanted to make a point about how he has been sidelined by the club’s streamlined recruitment strategy.
Personally, I think that the outrage is a little far-fetched. Let’s consider a few facts. Fulham, with a trip to one of the early season pace-setters Ipswich Town on Saturday, made eleven changes for a League Cup. It wasn’t like this was unprecedented – Jokanovic had mixed and matched his sides in this competition last year to varying degrees of success. Whilst a youthful team dispatched Leyton Orient and edged past Middlesbrough after extra time, they were knocked out by Bristolian opposition last year.
The eleven that Jokanovic picked included one debutante, two players starting only their third senior fixture and two more who had played four games in English football between them. Only Marcus Bettinelli, who was appearing for the first time this season, Michael Madl and Neeskens Kebano had made more than ten appearances in the black and white. Where Jokanovic’s wholesale changes had a sixteen year-old pulling the strings in central midfield, Darrell Clarke rotated only three players from Rovers’ win at Bury at the weekend and the divisional gap between the sides evaporated.
The visitors were defensively superbly organised, battled for everything and had veterans of attritional football – if Liam Sercombe, who I watched put everything he had into Conference games with Exeter City when he took his first steps in the senior game, isn’t too offended by that description. Clarke’s side also benefited from generous officiating when the assistant referee failed to spot that Sercombe was well offside before he played in the impressive Ellis Harrison for what turned out to the game’s decisive moment.
Of course, the reaction on the messageboards and across social media has been as measured as ever. One correspondent claimed it was the worst Fulham performance in living memory, which was quite a stretch considering the Whites were abject in Cup defeats by Orient, non-league Yeovil and Hayes as well as capitulations at the hands of Chester City and Port Vale. I would argue that the dreadful defeat by Sheffield United in the FA Cup – which included Rene Meulensteen withdrawing Hugo Rodallega to leave Fulham without a striker and then laughing with Ray Wilkins as his side failed to break down the Blades – was far worse than last night.
As ever, some fans also felt the players were worthy of brickbats. One suggested that Aboubakar Kamara was the worst forward to wear a Fulham shirt. Harsh on a guy who looked quite bright against Norwich and Leeds when he had hardly any service to speak of. It’s also inaccurate in the extreme – I’d put Bjorn Runstrom, Ahmad Elrich and David Elm well ahead of Kamara in those stakes from the Premier League years alone – and that’s before we get to discussing the relative merits of Aidan Newhouse or Tony Thorpe, who cost the club markedly different sums of money. Some supporters saw fit to coat some of the younger players – I’ll assume the gentleman alongside me in the Riverside Stand was unaware that Matt O’Riley was sixteen or that Tayo Edun had recently won the European Under 19 Championship with England.
Jokanovic’s lack of substitutions to influence proceedings, especially after Rovers recovered from a real Fulham flurry at the start of the second half, was puzzling but perhaps you don’t have to resort to conspiracy theories to explain it. With a squad that now looks a little stretched due to injuries would there have been much value in risking the likes of Kevin McDonald, a holding midfielder, Stefan Johansen – in central midfield – or the recently recruited Rui Fonte if they are all in line for a start at Portman Road. Surely league points would take priority over securing thirty more minutes of Carabao Cup action.
The idea that all the Academy products are useless and that Jokanovic is a fraud doesn’t ring true to me at all. I fully admit I’m from the generation that went to Fulham to enjoy an afternoon or evening with my mates in full recognition of the fact that the football wasn’t going to be of great quality. It gives me great pleasure to be able to watch some of the club’s finest young talent at Craven Cottage – and I’m sure Jokanovic and Huw Jennings would have learnt a bit more about some of those players in a senior football setting last night. Fulham have progressed to such a degree since I started watching them that instead of dreaming about a giantkilling, we are now hunted prey in these competitions. That’s a position I relish.
Nobody, least of all me, wants to gloss over what was a poor result or a testing start to the season. But allow me to point out that from the four corresponding league fixtures last term, Fulham amassed three points. Jokanovic’s charges have had probably the most testing start to the new campaign of any Championship side – and also have a number of new faces to fit into their squad. I can certainly understand people’s frustration following last night but this correspondent refuses to subscribe to the notion that it’s all doom and gloom already. At least allow Jokanovic some breathing space – after the miracles he worked last year, he’s surely worthy of that.