In amongst the mumbling and grumbling this week, a few people have picked out some of Fulham’s new signings to suggest they just aren’t good enough. Far be it for me to suggest that supporters are supposed to encourage their team’s players rather than to denigrate them – I’ll just suggest that far more respected observers of the game than this correspondent have spilled plenty of ink in outlining just how long it takes to get used to the physicality and unforgiving pace of the English game.
Aboubakar Kamara has come in for plenty of criticism following Tuesday night’s humbling at the hands of Bristol Rovers. It is fair to say that he hardly pulled up any trees but he was totally starved of any service and, as desperation crept in, he seemed to create the game’s two best chances through sheer bloody-mindnessness. Kamara, a barrel-chested physical specimen with plenty of pace, reminds me of Barry Hayles, who took no end of stick as he took seven games to get off the mark having arrived at Craven Cottage at a cost of £2m. Nobody needs me to tell them what a cult hero he became.
There’s even an example of how misleading a new arrival’s start can be from last season. Stefan Johansen’s debut against Birmingham was so far short of the standard Slavisa Jokanovic expected that he was hauled off after just 32 minutes. The Norwegian was slated on social media and the various Fulham forums for several weeks but became the lynchpin of a midfield that powered the Whites into the play-offs. His boundless energy, knack of finding either the net or a killer pass complimented the defensive discipline of Kevin McDonald and the creativity of Tom Cairney. Think where we might be without him.
Fulham’s Premier League years are full of similar tales. Ask Chris Baird what his first few months at Craven Cottage were like. Booed by a large proportion of his home crowd simply for pulling on the white shirt, Baird’s professionalism and versatility eventually won out – and he even decked Jimmy Bullard long before the rest of us had tired of his cheeky chappy persona. The boy from Ballymena is now immortalised in song, but his early displays were nervy ones far removed from the performances that helped Fulham to their highest ever league finish and a European final. There’s also Bobby Zamora, who took fearful stick before blossoming into Britain’s best striker as Fulham went to Hamburg twice, and another European hero Zoltan Gera suffered at the hands of the boo-boys at the start of his Fulham career as he was keeping Clint Dempsey out of Roy Hodgson’s first choice side.
Nobody would now question Gera’s contributions in a Fulham shirt. His whole-hearted displays were a vital ingredient in that magical European run as he and Zamora struck up an almost telepathic understanding that sent fear shivering through the continent’s defences. He scored crucial goals against CSKA Sofia, Basel, Shakhtar Donetsk and all-too-forgotten brace against Juventus before that magical moment against Hamburg. His renaissance owed much to circumstance – Hodgson had to reshape his side following ‘banjoing’ of Andy Johnson by Amkar Perm – and finding his best position behind a lone striker.
Which brings me back to Kamara. At Amiens last year, he had most of his success as a forward who played in very close proximity to an advanced attacking midfielder, most regularly Charly Charrier, or as a wider forward in a front three. He is now adjusting to a new system where none of Fulham’s central midfielders is station quite as close to the lone striker as they were with Amiens. Indeed, the closest thing Fulham have to a playmaker, Tom Cairney, is deployed in a much deeper role by Jokanovic to dictate possession. Wingers who drift inside don’t provide as much width as the full-backs who tend to bomb on from defensive positions. All of this needs readjustment and Kamara, who still doesn’t speak much beyond basic English, made some intelligent runs against Norwich and Leeds. He might not be the answer but to write him off after three appearances seems exceptionally harsh.
Forwards seem to be judged by very high standards these days. There were even some around me last weekend who didn’t think Rui Fonte’s debut was up to much. I recall how despised Mick Conroy seemed to be the Fulham fanbase towards the end of the 1995/96 season and just how a much younger Gary Brazil divided the fanbase when to my eyes he seemed to be the only real player of quality in a struggling side. Jokanovic did supremely well to reshape his squad into one that sneaked into the top six last year – but it didn’t happen overnight. There were bumps in the road, especially in the first half of the campaign.
Social media and the internet allow everyone to be a critic these days. There’s the instantaneous analysis of matches and the amount of football broadcast across the globe means we can all be scouts as well. To outsiders, Fulham remains a remarkably friendly football club. That might be a source of scorn to some but as supporters the least we can do is to reserve judgement on players who are still getting used to their new club. They might even reward us by following in a few famous footsteps and write the next chapter in Fulham’s unique history.