All Fulham fans would have felt more than a bit cheesed off at the final whistle this afternoon. After the bewilderment that understandably followed that lethargic – and almost criminal – second half showing, came the anger at what seemed a careless concession of a winning position. Having been so on top of Queens Park Rangers for much of the first half, Slavisa Jokanovic’s side were slovenly after the break and paid the price. The head coach insisted nobody was in any mood for partying in the build up to the derby, but his players appeared to have a bad hangover in the last thirty minutes – and Jokanovic won’t settle for that.
The frustration is compounded by the fact that Fulham’s outside chance of overhauling Cardiff and reaching the second Championship automatic promotion spot probably vanished with that Pawel Wzsolek equaliser. It was always likely to be long shot – on account of the incredible run of form that Neil Warnock’s team are on, as much as anything – and the Bluebirds will have to falter in the manner of Devon Loch to allow the Whites to avoid the agony of the play-offs now. But once the disappointment wears off, Fulham fans should realise that this isn’t a time for anger, but recongition.
Jokanovic’s side set a club record of sixteen competitive fixtures without defeat this afternoon. This wouldn’t have been the way that they would have wanted to bring up the record – and the Serbian was almost curtly dismissive of the accolade during his post-match press conference – but it is a testament to how imperious the Whites have been since the turn of the year that people were beginning to consider the possibility of automatic promotion. In a league as unforgiving as the Championship, with its demanding schedule and rich variety of opponents, Fulham’s climb into the top six has been outstanding.
Regular attendees at Craven Cottage have now become dangerously blase about the ridiculous ease with which Jokanovic’s side stroke the ball around, passing opponents into submission. There’s a hypnotic quality to that precise and silky passing that hasn’t been seen on the banks of the Thames since Jean Tigana’s team stormed to the First Division title in 2000/2001 and there can be no denying that Fulham in full flight are a joy to watch. The fluidity of their football, allied with a real potency in the opposition’s penalty area since Aleksandar Mitrovic arrived on transfer deadline day at the end of January, makes the Whites a force to reckoned with – as the top six have discovered to their cost during this outstanding run.
Fulham might not have been able to hold onto all three points against a spirited Queens Park Rangers side this afternoon but they will most likely be heading into the play-offs come May as one of the division’s most feared sides. Such an outcome felt far-fetched when the Whites slipped to seventeenth in the table after being swept aside by Wolves with the merest of efforts back in November – at a time when the club appeared beset by backroom rows about statistics and transfer recruitment. Jokanovic and his staff, who have stayed true to their footballing philosophy throughout some dark times in the early part of the season, deserve great credit for getting Fulham’s promotion push back on track.
One famous former Fulham chairman is remembered for his ‘You lucky people!’ catchphrase. Tommy Trinder’s time at the helm has long since past into history and, even if this side won’t be as revered as that Tigana team or the squad that Roy Hodgson took to incredible heights at a few years ago, there’s a real satisfaction from watching Jokanovic’s side in full flight. Tim Ream must be one of the most improved Fulham defenders since Rufus Brevett – such has been the American’s transformation in becoming the club’s first choice centre half. Ryan Fredericks has become a revelation as an offensive full back, whilst plenty of column inches have already immortalised Ryan Sessegnon’s coming of age in one of Europe’s toughest leagues.
Then there’s the majesty of the holy trinity in Fulham’s midfield, finally restored to full working order since the turn of year following the injury lay-offs experienced by Tom Cairney, whose class at the heart of this team must be unquestionable. The captain’s eye-catching touches, exquisite range of passing and goalscoring contributions often hog the headlines but the importance of Kevin McDonald at the base of the midfield – doing the unheralded hard graft in front of the back four – can’t be overstated. Then there’s the energy of Stefan Johansen, now coming back to the type of performances that made his first year at the Cottage so memorable – and you can’t overlook the invaluable performances of Oliver Norwood, as good as an understudy as you’ll find at this level.
Hopefully, they’ll be more telling contributions from Fulham’s three January arrivals before the season’s out too. It seems as if Matt Targett has been a part of this side for years rather than weeks such has been the seamless way he has slotted into the left back role and struck up a great understanding with young Sessegnon down the left. On the opposite flank we’ve seen flashes of brilliance from Cyrus Christie – those outrageous assists at Bristol City and Preston will live long in the memory – that bode well for the future. And there can’t be many superlatives left to describe Mitrovic’s instantaneous impact since he was reunited with Jokanovic and started banging in the goals.
Fulham have always liked playing with a certain style – and Jokanovic’s teams have definitely been watchable over the last eighteen months. The club’s eclectic history shows that they don’t make it easy for themselves and, in true Fulham fashion, we might have endure the added drama of the play-offs in order to return to the top flight. It certainly makes a welcome change from scrapping for our lives at the wrong end of the table and, with a bit of luck, that could even be a long overdue return to Wembley before this campaign comes to end. This isn’t a time for dismay, but to get behind the boys as they bid to wrote yet more Fulham history.