I only met Stuart Gray twice. One was in the Madjeski Stadium car park, when in a jovial mood, we celebrated the coolness of Lucas Piazon’s measured finish that had rescued a point for Fulham’s ten men at Reading at the start of last season. The other time was at Motspur Park where he spoke briefly about how he’d managed to make watching the Whites defend set plays a much less stressful experience. He was passionate, open to discussion with the fans and clearly a deep thinker about the game, who was enjoying his time at the club.
It came as something of a surprise therefore, considering the remarkable upturn in fortunes of Fulham during the two and a half years that Gray spent at the club, when he left during the summer. While all the focus was on the flowing football and attacking intent that had helped the Whites became something of an irresistible force in the Championship, Gray quietly got on with the job of turning a defence that had been shambolic into a miserly unit that complimented the way Jokanovic wanted his side to play.
It involved hard graft on the training ground, an emphasis on fitness and decision-making as well as communication across the back line. Kevin McDonald’s arrival as a holding midfielder – playing a deeper role than he had at any point in his career – made a decisive difference, both as an organiser and as an outlet to receive the ball of the back four. McDonald’s positioning was crucial, as was the recovery speed of the likes of Ryan Fredericks, Scott Malone and even Matt Targett, when the Southampton left back fitted so seamlessly into the back four after signing on loan last January.
The training ground drills weren’t quite as repetitive as the ones that Roy Hodgson employed to drag his embattled side away from the Premier League drop zone, but practice, partnerships and positioning were a hallmark of the hard graft at Motspur Park. Gray’s wealth of managerial and coaching experience throughout the Football League proved invaluable to a coaching staff that had largely cut their teeth on the continent, aside from Jokanovic’s canter to promotion from the Championship with Watford. The remarkable renaissance of Tim Ream and the emergence of Denis Odoi as a ball-playing centre half owed much to the first team senior coach’s tutelage and patient cajoling.
There was a consistency to the Fulham back line that remained even once Odoi displaced the successful 2016/2017 partnership of Ream and Tomas Kalas. The Whites were comfortable holding a higher line than you might have expected given the centre halves’ lack of pace – and the extraordinary unbeaten run that almost carried them to automatic promotion was built not just on possession football but defensive diligence. The fact that the jittery, panic-stricken defending of corners and free kicks gradually became a thing of the past certain helped too.
Now, linking Fulham’s alarmingly leaky defence to Gray’s departure might be a bit of a stretch. His meticulous organisation and attention to detail could well be sorely missed, but Jokanovic has had other factors to deal with. Even setting aside the obvious step in class when it comes to the opposition in the Premier League, Fulham have had to integrate a whole host of new players and seen several signings beset by injuries. The early-season goalkeeping situation couldn’t have helped and the fact that Jokanovic has fielded six different back fours means the consistency that the best teams count upon hasn’t been obtainable.
It’s just a hunch, provoked by Fulham’s shambolic second half collapse at Goodison Park, but Gray’s surprising summer departure might have left a bigger hole than Jokanovic could have initially appreciated. Good defences make strong teams – and Fulham’s gung-ho style leaves little margin for error at the highest level.