After narrowly missing out on automatic promotion, Fulham prepare to take on Cardiff City in the Sky Bet Championship Play-Offs.
Fulham were within touching distance of the final automatic promotion spot heading into the final day of the Championship season, but Scott Parker knew his side needed a helping hand from those above if they were to go up via the automatic promotion places.
Following a draw against Wigan Athletic it wasn’t to be however, and following a fourth-placed finish, Parker’s side must now prepare for the possibility of a further three games if they wish to return to the Premier League.
The Fulham manager has revealed that he and his side are feeling positive about the Play-Offs, despite missing out on automatic promotion.
“We knew the challenge that was ahead of us,” Parker says speaking ahead of Monday’s Semi-Final first leg against Cardiff City.
“We knew there might be some last minute twists and turns in the league table, but we also knew on the final day that it wasn’t really in our hands to get automatic promotion.
“I said to the lads to focus on ourselves and to put ourselves in a position where if the automatic promotion spot became available, we could take it, but if not we were safely in the Play-Offs.
“That’s been the message throughout, and as great as it would have been to get automatic promotion, there are two ways to get promoted out of this division and if it’s via the Play-Offs, we just have to be prepared for three more games.
“Because of that I don’t feel not making second place has been any sort of psychological blow to me or the team.”
After losing consecutive matches to Brentford and Leeds United after the restart, Fulham go into the two-legged Play-Off Semi-Finals against Cardiff unbeaten in seven matches – their longest run without a defeat this season.
Neil Harris’ side however, arguably go into the game with greater momentum, having recorded three wins out of three in their most recent outings, scoring eight goals in the process.
Harris insists though, that the pressure is on Fulham.
“I think there’s pressure on both sides,” Parker responds.
“Cardiff were in the Premier League with us last year, and I think they – like us – are a team that are expected to be up and around where they are and a team that were expected to make the Play-Offs.
“It’s a massive game for both of us, and we look forward to the challenge that lies ahead. It’s two games against a very good side, there’s no doubt about that.
“There’s a certain ingredient you need to bring to a football match to win a football match, and if you can bring that, then I have no doubt that we will win more than we lose, I’ve thought that all season. At times we have fallen short, but I think the main focus now has to be us and what we can do, how we can influence the game and how we play. We need to show up when we step over that line and if we do, we’ll be fine.”
Like Cardiff, Fulham were playing their football in the Premier League as recently as last season, and having reached the top flight via the Play-Offs in 2018, it’s an occasion they’re no stranger to.
“Of course having played in Play-Off games before helps,” Parker admits.
“We’ve got some players who were in this position just a couple of seasons ago and that definitely helps understand what you need to bring to the game to win it, as well as advance to the Final. Experience is important.
“There’s no underestimating the teams that are in the Play-Offs, I wouldn’t expect anything less from the Championship. We’ve got to show up on the day.”
After winning just seven Premier League games last season, Fulham were relegated back to the Championship, and Parker was quick to work with the players to ensure success this season.
“For us to have won 23 games in this division, which is a really tough division, after losing most weeks in the Premier League last season is really impressive.
“The players have responded really well psychologically and if you look at where we are now compared to where we were, you have to say fair play to the squad.
“We’ve worked hard on the mental side of the game this season. We’ve given players a good understanding of what’s needed to win football matches along with how important momentum can be. But I’ve also tried to create a positive culture and environment here.
“There were times last year when losing games brought doubt amongst the squad and there was often some uncertainty, but this season we’ve just tried to break it down and make things more simple for the players and with that we’ve really developed as a team.
“We have a psychologist that works with the team and I have someone I work with personally as well, it’s something that I whole heartedly believe in. Everyone works differently, everyone thinks differently and we have players that come from a range of different cultures. You have to manage that appropriately and I think the psychological side of the game is really important.”
The Fulham manager will of course be hoping that his top scorer – and Championship golden boot winner – Aleksandar Mitrovic continues his run of form, having scored 26 goals in 40 appearances this season.
“He’s been a real focal point of everything we’ve done and of played a huge part in where we are now.
“It’s no secret that we’ve probably needed goals from elsewhere on the pitch at times, but recently those goals have come and that’s really pleasing to see.”