I’m not sure how you would work it out, but the Championship has to be one of the toughest leagues in Europe. It is ultra competitive, as we saw yesterday with a direct Millwall side posing Fulham plenty of problems, and anybody stands a chance of beating anyone else (I give you Burton’s victory over Slavisa Jokanovic’s side in September). There’s also the sheer weight and frequency of the fixtures that mean injuries and suspensions can prove very costly – and the stakes are so high that the pressure is intense.
Perhaps that’s why after the reverse at Wolves a couple of weeks ago there were those amongst the Fulham fanbase who were giving serious consideration to the idea of ditching Slavisa Jokanovic. Dan wrote at the time that he felt that was madness – and I haven’t spoken to a match-going fan who can come with a reason why the Serbian should be sacked – but, as the men who count the money never tire of telling us, football is a business now. And, to borrow a phrase from West Brom’s statement when they ran a mile from the odious Tony Pulis, it’s a ‘results-based’ one these days. If Jokanovic, who came so close to leading Fulham out at Wembley after that unbelievable end to last season, doesn’t manage to inspire some sort of promotion push than a parting of the ways could come at the end of the season.
But this week has shown us that dismissing the man who has got Fulham playing the best football since Craven Cottage witnessed Jean Tigana’s French revolution would be as big a mistake as, say, employing a stats fanatic with no experience in English football, as your assistant director of football. The Serbian certainly hasn’t become a bad coach overnight and Fulham’s prospects of reaching the Championship play-offs look an awful lot better after the Whites picked up seven points in a week where they hosted one of the promotion contenders, travelled to the league’s early pacesetters and won a thriller and then beat Millwall for the first time at this level since before Margaret Thatcher took up residence in Downing Street.
Jokanovic also tells us whether he can satisfied or not after each Fulham performance. It always reminds me of the pained high school teacher during parents’ evening trying to tell parents that their beloved boy or girl isn’t the angel they envisaged. Fulham’s head coach is such a stickler for the standards he set in his own playing career that he’s rarely ‘satisfied’ – and the last two games provided good examples of this. After the almost coronary-inducing end to that goalfest in south Yorkshire, Jokanovic told the press that, whilst it might have been a great game to watch for the fans, he’d have preferred a much less stressful evening.
The fear was always that Fulham, who looked like they could score at will when going forward at Bramall Lane, would grant the coach his wish – or wise – by struggling to break down a stubborn Millwall side. You could tell by the way some in the Hammersmith End began booing as Fulham nearly played themselves into trouble at the back that some fans felt Neil Harris’s men should be swept aside in an instant. That’s the danger of the sublime football we saw last season – those sort of standards are incredibly hard to maintain, especially when your opponents have had a whole pre-season to mug up on the things you do well.
People should also recognise that Fulham were markedly weaker yesterday than when they took the field in south Yorkshire. Tim Ream – undoubtedly Fulham’s most improved player during Jokanovic’s time at the club – was missing after succumbing to a knock picked up against the Blades. Denis Odoi, who had been an excellent left back against Derby and Sheffield United, reprised his central half role from Reading and Leeds. Kevin McDonald, arguably the most pivotal performer during last season’s surge to the play-offs, was missing from the base of the midfield and Stefan Johansen, promoted from the bench to the starting line-up, lasted only 45 minutes. Floyd Ayite’s hamstring injury is likely to get him out until much closer to Christmas at the very least.
In the circumstances, Fulham coped well with an aerial bombardment from a Millwall side who were desperate to end their six-game winless streak. On another day, the Whites could easily have been punished for allowing Tom Elliott two free headers inside the penalty area – one thudded against the far post – and affording the silky George Saville the freedom of Hammersmith and Fulham at times in the second half. There were plenty of hairy moments, not least when Aboubakar Kamara made a clumsy challenge inside the penalty area during stoppage time, but Fulham ground out an important home win for only the second time this season.
They perhaps should have made their possession count earlier in proceedings. Sheyi Ojo, cruelly mocked for that ‘go faster’ hairdo by the excellent travelling supporters, wasn’t quite as clinical as in Sheffield but he has certainly shown why Fulham were so pleased to conclude that loan deal with Liverpool. A moment of magic, when he decided to try and chip Jordan Archer from outside the box seemingly because nothing else was on, almost put the Whites ahead and his movement and willing running injected energy into the hosts’ play. Having Tom Cairney pulling the strings makes such a difference – twice two sumptuous through balls might have released Ojo and Neeksens Kebano, but Archer and Shaun Hutchinson just about snuffed out the danger.
Harris was convinced there was an element of fortune about the award of the penalty, but Conor McLaughlin clearly pulled back Rui Fonte, who had struggled to get much change out of the Millwall defence until that point. Given the baffling penalties that Fulham have seen awarded against them – the phantom penalty at Burton still sticks in my mind – you could understand Jokanovic’s bullishness on that point after the final whistle. He won’t have been happy at how Fulham ceded the initative in the second half, even if both Kamara and Tayo Edun showed both an appetite for the fight and an aptitude at this level that might lead to more first-team outings over the festive period.
Fulham’s lowly league position has been caused by a failure to bank points in August and September unlike the early pace setters. They’ve struggled to break down resolute defences at Craven Cottage and, as a result, only just climbed back into the top half of the table. Few would have expected seven points from a home game against Derby, who demolished Middlesbrough yesterday to move into six, a midweek trip to Sheffield United and a south London derby. The manner of this scrappy and yet gutsy three points was almost more important. It showed Fulham have the stomach for a fight.