The level of euphoria that greeted the announcement of Aleksandar Mitrovic’s return to Craven Cottage on a permanent transfer last night might have been unprecedented. It took a while to get over the line – even the player himself pronounced himself ‘relieved’ to ‘officially become a Fulham player’ in his comments to FulhamFCTV – but Tony Khan, who told Mitrovic in the aftermath of the Whites’ play-off final win at Wembley, that he wanted to buy him after that stellar loan spell, had finally got his man. The lure of London, a regular spot in a Premier League side and the chance to be coached by his compatriot Slavisa Jokanovic proved irresistible.
Mitrovic’s desire to return to the banks of the Thames was so great that he didn’t even countenance talking to any of the other clubs who made their interest in signing him known after the World Cup. The fact that a loanee could quickly development such a bond with his club might be surprising, but Mitrovic felt his four month spell with Fulham featured the best football of his career and those twelve goals in twenty games proved pivotal to our promotion charge. It seems odd to describe a Serbian international as a typically English centre forward, but no other description can accurately encapsulate all of Mitrovic’s qualities. At a stroke after his arrival on loan from St. James’ Park in January, he added a presence in the penalty area that Fulham had lacked all season and you could sense the dread among the Championship’s defenders as they faced the prospect of one of the hardest marking jobs in the division.
From the off, Mitrovic and Fulham were the perfect fit. As a strong and determined forward, he was the perfect foil to Fulham’s pretty – and sometimes predictable – passing football. There seemed an extra potency to Fulham’s attack with him in the side; and he was much more than a mere target man as well. Yes, his occupying of defenders created space for others – chiefly the phenomenon that is Ryan Sessegnon – but there was an intelligence about Mitrovic’s play, hinting at finesse rather than mere brute force. His strength, first touch and clever lay-offs reminded me of a combination of Brian McBride and Bobby Zamora – and they can be no higher compliment than that.
Some have baulked at a fee that could head north of £20m for a player who has had to prove himself in the top flight. Mitrovic will be the first to admit that things didn’t go his way at St. James’ Park, but there are plenty of Newcastle fans who believe the Serbian got a raw deal under Rafa Benitez. He scored ten top flight goals in 40 appearances for the Magpies and a strike rate of one in four doesn’t strike you as terrible, especially when you consider that many of those games saw him come on as a substitute. At 23, a hungry Mitrovic has plenty of time to improve and he’ll know he has some unfinished business in the top flight. His international goalscoring record of seventeen goals in 40 games for Serbia suggests quality and Mitrovic will want to prove people wrong.
Whereas he definitely didn’t feature in Benitez’s plans, Mitrovic has always looked the perfect fit in Fulham’s fluid system. Jokanovic will design his plans for the Premier League around his talisman and with wide players of the calibre of Sessegnon and a World Cup winner in Andre Schürrle, as well as attacking full backs pushed forward, you’d better believe he will get chances to improve on that Premier League goalscoring ratio. His relationship with the head coach will prove crucial too – Mitrovic has already jettisoned that spiky temperament that saw him get into a good deal of trouble on Tyneside and channelled his aggression into his own performances.
Mitrovic’s arrival is the latest development in this summer’s transfer business that suggests Fulham will be far from content to just seek survival during their first season in the top flight. A conservative estimate of the club’s spending since securing their return to the Premier League totals their incomings at around £82m, with more to come – and potential the signing of Swansea centre back Alfie Mawson today. Mitrovic will certainly beef up a Fulham attack that looked a little anemic for the Premier League. Last night, the beaming smile on the Serbian’s face told you all you needed to know: he’s very happy to be home.