Fulham’s players reported back to Motspur Park for the start of pre-season training this morning – and they won’t be the only ones wondering what lies ahead. The nucleus of Scott Parker’s probable first team knows the Championship well, but it remains to be seen how many of his elite performers will run out in the black and the white at Oakwell in August.
There are so many unknown unknowns. Fulham’s summer acquisitions don’t usually arrive early and the picture is complicated this year, both by relegation, and the fact that the conclusion of what are usually complicated deals could be predicated on who is leaving Craven Cottage. There is plenty of speculation that many of those who arrived last summer – the likes of Fabri, Andre-Franck Zambo Anguissa and Jean-Michael Seri are searching for new places to ply their trade – whilst the futures of Ryan Sessegnon and Aleksandar Mitrovic, two undoubted assets should they be available to Parker after the transfer window, are up in the air.
Sessegnon, who has a year to run on his current contract, has reportedly already told Fulham he would like to move on. The teenager, whose meteoric rise stalled somewhat as the Whites shambolic return to the Premier League petered out, has long been tipped to join Tottenham, although there are also rumours that he might move abroad on a Bosman. The severity of the hamstring injury he picked up as England’s Under-21s crashed out of the European Championships last night might also impact on an impending move. Sessegnon’s potential is not in question and, while it would be lovely to see him park personal ambition to remain with the club that gave him his breakthrough, the cut-throat world of professional football doesn’t work like that.
Mitrovic’s future is even more intriguing. You would suspect that there will be no shortage of suitors for someone who relishes a physical battle and has an eye for goal. He has looked every inch a Premier League for virtually all of his time at Craven Cottage and has a strong international scoring record. The Serbian is on a big-money deal at Fulham, with the club tabling an even more lucrative offer to try and tempt him to SW6, and the Whites would be looking to at least double their money should he head to pastures new. Mitrovic has already proven to be a goal machine in the Championship – although Fulham will certainly need another forward, even if he remains on the books.
We know little about Parker the manager, despite him overseeing an uplifting period in charge towards the end of last season. He is highly regarded in the footballing fraternity, one of the outstanding candidates when he undertook his coaching badges towards the end of his playing career, but does he have the nous to navigate the notoriously choppy waters of the Championship? His tactical acumen must still be a work in progress and a good start in August is a necessity.
The Fulham rebuild, similar to the one that Slavisa Jokanovic conducted a couple of summers ago, is complicated by the fact that the brightest stars from the Fulham academy are being linked with moves away. The couple of appearances Harvey Elliott made from the substitutes’ bench late last term don’t appear to have been enough to convince him to put pen to paper on a professional contract, whilst Cody Drameh, a highly-rated young right back, looks set to join Eintracht Frankfurt. There remains a doubt over the long-term future of Matt O’Riley, who must be pushing for a promotion into the senior picture, whilst the likes of Luca de la Torre will be wondering whether they will get the opportunity to impress this summer.
The composition of Parker’s first team is still a little bit of a mystery, even without new arrivals to add to the mix. Will Marcus Bettinelli recover from injury to reclaim his place in goal? Does Marek Rodak’s outstanding form for Rotherham over the past two seasons allow him to usurp the firm fans’ favourite? What does Fulham’s most miserly back four look like? After a season of chopping and changing on that front to spectacularly poor effect, some consistency would be welcome. Will Cyrus Christie prove the competent Championship right back he appeared on his arrival last January or do the likes of Steven Sessegnon and Marlon Fossey get an opportunity to realise their potential?
The retention of Tom Cairney, a classy performer at this level, was a real boon following relegation. The skipper will prove a key cog in driving Fulham’s promotion hopes, but is it as simple as simply reuniting him with Stefan Johansen and Kevin McDonald? Will teams have worked out how to nullify that trio in the year that has passed? Has time taken its toll on McDonald’s legs? Or will Parker look to go with a different system as he eyes unlocking opposition defences?
Fulham have been in need of a genuine right winger for the best part of three seasons – it was instructive that Aboubakar Kamara, who appears unlikely to have a future at the club following his spectacular fall from grace in the winter, filled that role in the play-offs. They may require some reinforcements on the left flank too, if Sessegnon departs, and that could see some reinvention of how the Whites attack. Parker has shown that he wants to play with a bit of verve and panache in the Jokanovic style – but what that looks like, and who fills those roles, is obviously still up for debate.
It appears that this is the ‘wait and see’ period of Fulham’s summer. The usual fevered speculation has been replaced by hackneyed rumour-mongering – this morning’s papers predict another punt on Dwight Gayle – and with the sports pages digesting another World Cup slip-up by England’s cricketers and Wimbledon on the horizon, Fulham will continue to go under the radar as befits our new second tier status. Parker probably won’t mind that – his hard work starts on the training ground.