Even as the close season gets shorter with pre-season tours, summer tournaments and the sensationalist madness of the transfer window, the two and half months between Fulham’s play-off heartbreak and the start of a new campaign has seemed like an eternity. Rumour-mongers suggested, with varying degrees of certainty, that first Slavisa Jokanovic, then Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney would leave the Cottage before another ball was kicked – and, thankfully, all of that proved untrue. That Fulham have kept together the nucleus of the side that surprised everyone by sneaking into the top six after a superb second half of the season means there is certainly optimism in the air to accompany the traditional early August nerves.
Much of the feelgood factor is brought by Jokanovic himself. He’s a perfectionist and demonstrably a winner, who doesn’t mind pushing the regular boundaries of head coach – as seen by the way his post-match comments have challenged the board to acquire the players he craved. The Serbian has also reinvented the way Fulham play – sometimes with dangerous consequences, as he admits this morning – and made them one of the most attractive sides in the country to watch. It’s no surprise that the Craven Cottage faithful yearns to sing his name, although we should bin the ‘He comes from Serbia’ song. It implies something about Jokanovic – and, indeed all his compatriots – that coach doesn’t appreciate – and anyone in any doubt as to its validity as a terrace anthem should consult Nemanja Vidic’s autobiography.
There have been criticisms of Fulham’s recruitment this summer: most notably over the time it has taken to bring in players and Jokanovic’s lack of options at centre forward. Whilst everyone would have liked to assemble the squad at the start of July and give the head coach six weeks to drill them in his philosophy, agents and players don’t want to commit to a move that early – preferring to hang on until the end of the window, when the frenzied August activity is ramped up. Just ask Diego Rolan. The point about a lack of strikers is fair – especially given that Jokanovic agrees with Jean Tigana that you probably need at least four forwards to get out of the Championship – until you remember that the sum total of his striking options last August was Matt Smith and Cauley Woodrow.
Largely down to the way Jokanovic set up his side, brimming full of adventure and creativity, Fulham still finished joint top-scorers at the end of the last campaign. Woodrow has seen his stock rise following a successful stint at Burton Albion that saw the Brewers avoid relegation, whilst the Whites have welcomed the rapid French forward Aboubakar Kamara into their ranks this week. People scoffed when it was suggested that Neeskens Kebano, Floyd Ayite and Sone Aluko could perform as false nines following the January transfer window – but Fulham’s best football during the run-in came when this was tried following Chris Martin’s suspension after he was sent off against Norwich City.
Jokanovic’s selection dilemmas are not profound. David Button will step in for the injured Marcus Bettinelli and Ryan Sessegnon should start from left back, whilst Kevin McDonald, Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen will reform the central midfield unit that made Fulham purr last year. The only mystery is in the combination of the front three and whether Jokanovic would be willing to throw Kamara in from the off after four days training at Motspur Park. It would be a bold move – and Fulham might prefer to use his electric pace as an impact option against tiring defenders later in the game.
The Canaries will be hoping for a far better season under new coach Daniel Farke, recruited from Dortmund in May, and what better way to lay down a marker for their promotion push than recording their first league win at Fulham since 1986. The early signs are encouraging – Norwich were unbeaten in their eight pre-season outings – and Farke has brought in three players from Germany as well as adding useful Premier League loanees in the shape of Angus Gunn and Harrison Reed. Marley Watkins is an excellent capture from Barnsley having starred at this level last year, whilst Fulham fans will need no introduction to James Husband, who enjoyed a couple of excellent loan spells at the Cottage recently.
The side that Norwich start with this afternoon will be far from Farke’s first choice eleven, however. Harry Toffolo, Jamal Lewis, Alex Pritchard, Louis Thompson and Timm Klose are all ruled out through injury and Steven Naismith is suspended. Josh Murphy and Russell Martin will undergo late fitness tests on calf and leg problems respectively, but creative hub Wes Hoolahan will be back on the bench having missed much of the pre-season programme through injury. Jokanovic hinted during his press conference at the tactical flexibility that Falke, as a fellow continental coach, has used both previously in his career and during the summer.
While Scott Malone, who conceded two penalties in an entertaining draw with the Canaries in October when Alex Neil’s side were setting the Championship pace, has moved on to pastures new, the referee who generously awarded those spot-kicks will take charge again this afternoon. Let’s just hope we are talking about an intriguing game of football come 5.30pm rather than an even performance from James Linington. Like a little kid before Christmas, I can’t wait.
MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Button; Fredericks, Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Aluko, Ayite, Kamara. Subs: Norman, Odoi, Cisse, Norwood, Piazon, Kebano, Woodrow.