If you are anything like me, you probably used the weekend to forget all about the fine little mess Fulham Football Club have gotten ourselves into. The romance of the FA Cup, in which we played a bit-part role last month in capitulating to a spirited Oldham Athletic side roared to victory at Craven Cottage by their magnificent supporters, stands in stark contrast to the monotony of the Premier League, where even the most noble of ambitions is soon sacrificed as you desperately try to cling on to a seat at English football’s top table.
There’s no point revisiting the hole Fulham fell into after that glorious day at Wembley in May – we’ve had our fill of the £100m problems with the club’s summer recruitment, whether Slavisa Jokanovic was given enough time to try and figure out a way of playing in the Premier League or even if Claudio Ranieri was the right replacement when the powers-that-be decided to pull the trigger. The predicament is pitiful now – remaining in the top flight will require the sort of escape that Steve McQueen would blanch at, never mind Roy Hodgson.
The defeats, especially the most recent reverse at the hands of a revitalised Manchester United, are becoming a little too routine now. I’m reminded of that wonderful scene in The Lion in Winter, where three brothers were locked in Henry II’s dungeon awaiting their execution. Richard tells them to take their fate like men only for Geoffrey to protest, ‘You fool!
As if it matters how a man falls down.’ The reply is wonderful: ‘When the fall’s all that’s left, it matters a great deal’.
Fulham’s fall has been far from glorious to date. A defence that has looked dazed and confused ever since they emerged blinking into the unforgiving light of Premier League football has hardly improved under Ranieri’s tutelage, which was supposed to be the main reason for his appointment. To what extent the Italian can be fairly blamed for that – given that there’s probably only one proven Premier League centre back amongst all the defenders on Fulham’s books – is question that might never be satisfactorily resolved.
Ranieri’s attempts to remake a misfiring side in his own image have floundered largely because Fulham have been too busy shooting ourselves in the foot. The glee that greeted a couple of clean sheets either side of Christmas proved fleeting – and the manager’s preferred method of accruing points, boring the opposition into submission, dates from the last century. It is so far removed from the flowing football that brought the Whites back to the promised land, we might as well be on another planet. You could stomach it for salvation, but at the moment it feels like Fulham’s agony is prolonged.
Ranieri’s demand for more fighting spirit was probably designed to get everyone pulling in the same direction – but it has had the opposite affect. It provoked some literal fisticuffs in the case of Aboubakar Kamara, but not enough bite from a side that still looks far too easy to play through. The presence of Andre Schurrle, who produces the odd moment of effortless brilliance and then glides through games as if unhurried by the gravity of the situation, only serves to infuriate at this point, especially when two of the club’s most successful battlers – in Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegon – are confined to the sidelines.
Fulham have barely managed to put together a compelling ninety minutes under Ranieri – but the closest they came was in a stirring second half comeback against Brighton. They wiped out a 2-0 half-time deficit by scoring four without reply in a display that married some of last season’s flair with plenty of fight. Cairney and Sessegnon featured prominently, as they did when combining to set up Aleksandar Mitrovic for the stoppage-time winner against Huddersfield back in December. It is inconceivable that any other manager would conclude that they wouldn’t form part of Fulham’s best side.
And that leads to my final point. Caution is understandable if you are trying to hold onto a result against the top six, who seem light years ahead of what Fulham can muster at the moment. But, with the Whites sitting some eight points from safety and time ticking away, some ambition and adventure are required. Ranieri’s rearguard isn’t good enough to grind out results so taking on the opposition is the only way Fulham will glimpse survival now. The question is whether Ranieri is willing to deviate from his classical Italian method.
If Fulham are going to fall through the trapdoor, as appears ever so likely now, they might as well give us something to remember aside from atrocious defending. These might be our last few months of seeing Sessegnon in a Fulham shirt. Let’s at least go out in a blaze of glory.