There’s been an awful lot written about Slavisa Jokanovic over the past couple of weeks. Some of the hyberbole following last week’s defeat to Brentford about how the Serbian was a few results away from the exit door seemed laughable at that time and, as I’ve written before, the brickbats the Fulham head coach has received simply because his side haven’t found it easy to start the new campaign in the same imperious manner that they finished last season, showed a distinct lack of recognition for where he’s taken the club in his two years in charge.
Saturday’s victory over Birmingham, which – even accounting for that shocking second half Blues’ penalty miss – was much more comfortable than the previous home win against Millwall, meant Jokanovic marked his hundredth game in charge of Fulham with a victory. He made a decisive decision after the Griffin Park debacle, bringing back Marcus Bettinelli in goal, and was rewarded with Fulham’s first pair of consecutive clean sheets at Craven Cottage since the club’s academy graduate started his spell between the sticks back in October 2014. The two most recent wins at the Cottage suggest that Fulham are able to grind out results, something that is vital if they are to climb one of the tightest Championship tables in recent years.
Jokanovic’s landmark is also a pertinent moment to took a look back at the side he inherited when he was finally prized away from Maccabi Tel Aviv just after Christmas in 2015. That Fulham side, which had been rudderless following the sacking of Kit Symons two months earlier, hadn’t won in nine games or kept a clean sheet in three months. The club was a bit of a basketcase – soon to be hit with a transfer embargo for breaching the Financial Fair Play regulations having failed to adjust to the reality of life in the Championship and an unbalanced team, dangerously dependent on the goals of Ross McCormack, flirted outrageously with relegation from the Championship until Jokanovic strung together a four-match unbeaten run to give the Whites some real breathing space.
The enormity of the job the Serbian and his staff did that summer to reshape a squad into one that could challenge at the right end of the table shouldn’t be underestimated. Fulham unearthed real bargains in the shape of Sone Aluko and Scott Malone as well as borrowing Premier League pedigree like Lucas Piazon and Tomas Kalas. Giving Tom Cairney the freedom to dictate play from a central position whilst adding Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen created the divsion’s leading midfield, whilst promoting the precociously talented Ryan Sessegnon to the senior squad at sixteen was an act of genius. Some Fulham fans outrageously label Jokanovic a failure for failing in the play-offs. Such a brutal judgement ignores both the stupendous nature of Fulham’s late surge to the top six, overhauling an eleven point gap to Leeds United, as well as the mesmerising quality of the football that the men in white played.
When you factor in that Jokanovic is a head coach in every sense of the word, with decisions about recruitment clearly taken above his station by the owner’s son, the job he’s done is all the more remarkable, As Lydia wrote this week, the shortness of the modern manager’s tenure means you’re probably only ever a couple of games from the crisis. That Jokanovic even made it to a century whilst navigating one of the toughest leagues in continental football is surprising, especially when you consider that Shahid Khan has had seven managers in the three years since he bought out Mohamed Al-Fayed.
Jokanovic’s century has seen some fabulous Fulham moments – from his first win which came at Loftus Road through to the late winners from Moussa Dembele at Preston and Emerson Hyndman at the Hammersmith End against Cardiff that helped kept the Whites afloat and then the humblings handed out to high flying Huddersfield and Reading by the Thames before Christmas the following year, Cairney’s critical equaliser against Leeds in injury-time and the incredible wins at St. James’ Park, Carrow Road and the Kirklees Stadium. But my abiding emotion from Jokanovic’s time in the Fulham dugout has been the pride at the construction of a pathway from the club’s award-winning academy to the first team that has seen the likes of Bettinelli, Dembele, Hyndman, the Sessegnon twins, Dennis Adeniran, Tayo Edun and now Luca de la Torre blossom at the club that gave them their footballing education. There’s something very special about watching your club’s brightest young talents prosper in the senior side and Jokanovic has shown no fear in offering the young men nurtured by Malcolm Elias, Steve Wigley and Huw Jennings their opportunity.
Jokanovic’s achievements, even if he has yet to repeat the promotion he engineered with Watford, and record compare favourably with his Fulham predecessors. He’s secured 39 wins from that first century of games, which when you consider where the Whites were when he stepped into the building is remarkable. There’s no doubt his stamped his philosophy throughout the football club and, whilst a perfectionist like the Serbian will always demand more from his players, Fulham fans have plenty to thank the head coach and his staff – including Stuart Gray, Javier Pereira, Alberto Escobar, Jose Sambede Carreira, Marco Ceserani and Ally Harris – for. This correspondent still fervently hopes they’ll all be around for at least another hundred games.