Even if you didn’t want to, it was easy enough to construct a case for Slavisa Jokanovic to go. Fulham were bottom of the Premier League after twelve games and the early sparkle of their performances had long since dwindled out. It appeared as though his bold possession-based game and attacking philosophy had brutally met its match in the unforgiving world of the top flight. He couldn’t decide on his best back line, never mind his bad eleven, and there was an alarming lack of fight from a side that used to put their bodies on the line. And yet, when the news came on Tuesday morning that he’d be replaced by Claudio Ranieri, there was a sense of shock and profound sadness.
The bond between Jokanovic and the Fulham fans was forged firstly in a moment of genuine turmoil for the football club. Fulham’s senior officials had badly bungled the follow-up to sacking Kit Symons and the Serbian arrived in south west London with the Whites in serious danger of plummeting into League One. Jokanovic couldn’t even strengthen a badly unbalanced and threadbare squad with a transfer embargo to navigate through in his first few weeks. His response told us a lot about the character of the man – he grinned and bore it and gradually hauled his team away from the relegation zone, not through the scintillating football that we came to know and love, but at times seemingly through the sheer force of his well.
The serious surgery undertaken on his squad in the summer of 2016 troubled some, with the departure of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele leaving his side looking light in the forward areas, as a host of new faces arrived in double quick time. Scott Malone soon established himself as a world-beating, offensive full back whilst Sone Aluko began to dazzle on the wing. The assured first steps of Ryan Sessegnon into senior football at the tender age of sixteen were encouraged by Jokanovic, who – following a promising League Cup debut at Leyton Orient – handed the teenager a first league start at Elland Road. Just as he would going forward, the steely Sessegnon hardly let anyone down.
Jokanovic’s forward-thinking style took a while to transmit itself to the team, with unsteady starts to the campaign in both of Fulham’s last two Championship seasons. But his boldness was eventually rewarded with some of the most spellbinding football ever produced by a Fulham side, including the one that decimated the First Division under Jean Tigana all those years ago. You might point to the aftermath of that desperate December afternoon in Sunderland as the moment when Fulham’s fortunes definitively turned – but, for me, the fearlessness with which Fulham poured forward to beat Sheffield United by the odd goal in nine, showed just how bold Jokanovic’s charges could be.
There were so many magnificent moments during the 23-match unbeaten run that almost carried the Whites to automatic promotion that it is impossible to pinpoint just one. The impacts of Aleksandar Mitrovic, who terrorised Championship defences almost instantly after his arrival on a pivotal January loan from Newcastle United, and Matt Targett, who seemed to have had years of experience of playing behind Sessegnon, were crucial in reviving Fulham’s fortunes. Some of those away days were legendary – the euphoria of Mitrovic’s late winner at Preston North End was something to be held, whilst the majesty of Kevin McDonald’s long-range effort at Millwall will live long in the memory.
Nobody wanted to be in the play-offs, of course, and it seemed like Fulham’s history would repeat itself when the side subsided rather meekly in the first-leg at Derby. But, then came the second half revival on one of the great nights at Craven Cottage, with Sessegnon’s predatory instincts and an iconic header from Denis Odoi swinging a tight tie Fulham’s way. I don’t need to recount the wonder of Wembley to any Fulham follower: the ecstasy of Tom Cairney’s gorgeously crafted goal, and then the bloody-mindedness of a spirited rearguard that resisted Aston Villa’s search for an equaliser after Odoi’s dismissal – typified by Oliver Norwood’s superb challenge shortly after stepping off the bench.
Jokanovic is his own harshest critic. He will be smarting at just how easily his side was prized open by English football’s elite and how frail Fulham looked against Cardiff and Huddersfield, two of their rivals in what now looks like a battle royale to escape relegation. The decision to replace the Serb with Claudio Ranieri may yet prove to be a masterstroke. But my sense is that Jokanovic had earned a little more faith through the glorious football his team had played over the past three years. The fact that Shahid Khan had spent more than £100m in supplementing the squad this summer ultimately counted against Jokanovic, but the coach who imbued Fulham with a distinctive identity and a sense of adventure will always be remembered fondly as a Fulham hero. He deserves nothing less.