It was two years ago this evening that Fulham’s prolonged search for a permanent successor to Kit Symons finally concluded. With the club having slipped to twentieth in the Championship and looking locked in a relegation battle, they announced that Slavisa Jokanovic, who had previously guided Watford to the Premier League, had agreed to leave Maccabi Tel Aviv and take over at Craven Cottage.
The appointment was something of a coup given that Fulham had long since seen their own hopes of bridging the gap to the top six – the reasons why Symons had been sacked – evaporate. The Whites, without a win for more than two months, also faced a transfer embargo during the January window having breached the Financial Fair Play regulations and would spend the rest of the season fighting against relegation.
In the circumstances, having taken over a seriously unbalanced squad and making and mending with loanees and other club’s cast offs, Jokanovic did brilliantly to settle the ship. He finally got the best out of the promising Moussa Dembele, whose partnership with Ross McCormack made Fulham one of the division’s most dangerous propositions going forward, and when he followed up a late win at Preston North End with another last-gasp victory over Cardiff at the Cottage, the Whites moved comfortably away from the drop zone.
The Serbian, a real perfectionist who demanded high levels of commitment from his players, saved his real miracle for the close season. In three months he totally reshaped the squad and surprised many by selling the mercurial McCormack, Fulham’s focal point in attack since their relegation from the top flight in 2014, for more than £12m to Aston Villa. That proved an inspired decision – as did a swap deal that saw Scott Malone replace Jazz Richards – and the arrival of Sone Aluko on a free transfer from Hull City. Both of those new signings enjoyed inspired seasons and a shaky defence was shored up by the borrowing of Tomas Kalas from down the Kings Road.
It took a while for Fulham to hit their stride, despite the opening day defeat of Newcastle, but when they did they were devastating. The Whites possessed arguably the best midfield in the league with the miserly Kevin McDonald protecting a new-look back four and Stefan Johansen forging a mightily impressive partnership with Tom Cairney, who revelled in dictating the play from a deeper central midfield position.
Jokanovic also promoted sixteen year old Ryan Sessegnon to the senior squad after an impressive professional debut at Leyton Orient and, by the end of an outstanding campaign, the teenager was one of English football’s hottest properties. He scored a memorable brace – that should have been a hat-trick – as Fulham hit four at league leaders Newcastle United and showed a maturity that belied such tender years.
The Whites also shrugged off a saga involving Chris Martin, who attempted to terminate his loan spell from Derby County during January, and – sparked by Cairney’s curling equaliser against Leeds – made up an eleven point gap on the Yorkshire side to beat them to a play in the top six. After putting together title winning form in the second half of the season, which saw the Whites completely outplay Huddersfield on their home turf, the defeat to Reading in the play-offs from a hotly disputed penalty really rankled.
Some fans began to call for Jokanovic’s removal this term after Fulham made a slow start to the new campaign, struggling to put points on the board after being affected by early season injuries to key players. Five wins in seven, including inflicting Cardiff’s first home defeat of the season yesterday, have seen the club’s continued faith in their head coach rewarded and the Whites currently sit six points behind the play-off places.
In two years at Craven Cottage, Jokanovic has transformed Fulham from a side who were fighting to avoid another damaging drop into one with genuine promotion aspirations. He has fully imbued his own philosophy at all levels of the club, ensuring that his side plays some of the best football seen by the Thames since the Jean Tigana days, and given the cream of the crop from one of the country’s leading academies their chance in senior football.
In the mad world of the modern game, Jokanovic’s two years in charge make him the Championship’s fifth longest serving boss. The Serb has spoken about wanting to lay the foundations for success at Craven Cottage, a place where he’s stayed longer than anywhere else in his nomadic management career to date. Let’s hope there are plenty more memorable moments to come.