We are almost at the point, post Scott Parker’s favoured beer and a Chinese, where Fulham will be confronting the daunting reality of a Premier League campaign. The first team squad will be returning to trainig next week with the memories of that magical night at Wembley, where the Whites finally vanquished Brentford, still firmly in their mind but also with some scores to settle from their last time in the top flight. Nobody needs reminding of how badly it unravelled two seasons ago, but you’d better believe the abject nature of Fulham’s capitulation still stings the club’s hierarchy.
The summer silly season has been extended somewhat by the coronavirus pandemic having elongated the domestic campaign. I took a decision to try and keep the Fulham faithful appraised of the latest tittle tattle from the tabloids, however outlandish it might appear, because strengthening the squad will definitely be necessary ahead of the step up to the Premier League. Just how much – and, indeed, how much money the Khan family will spend – remains something of an open question as both Parker and Tony Khan have talked about the importance of keeping a tight knight unit together this time around.
We’re well versed in the mistakes that Fulham made two summers ago, but in retrospect Slavisa Jokanovic’s laudable attempt to repeat the adventurous football that characterised that stylish surge through the play-offs at the highest level seems naive at best. The Premier League appeared quicker and even more brutal than when we had left it and, far too often, in trying to play out from the back, Fulham were the authors of our own misfortune. Parker’s approach for much of the campaign just gone has been similarly possession-based, but there was a gritty realism about the way his side began to win ugly towards the end. You had to admire it – even if it wouldn’t win many marks for artistic impression.
Reinforcements over the coming weeks are vital, but the way in which the Whites hung onto leads got me wondering whether Parker’s more pragmatic approach might be more suited to the primary objective over the next nine months: simply staying up. Aleksandar Mitrovic could certainly do with more support in the final third – the Serbian has at times looked horribly isolated despite scoring 26 goals and more fluidity will be necessary – but a stiffer spine and a more cautious approach could reduce some of the yearning gaps that opposition sides galloped through for fun when we last dined at English football’s top table.
There are understandable question marks about just how many Parker’s preferred first eleven at this point would be able to prove themselves in the Premier League. A week ago I suggested Marek Rodak had a fine claim to the club’s player of the season award for the way he had seized his chance in goal. He’s certainly been one of the finest Championship custodians and appears to have all the attributes to step up to the next level, even if it likely to remain one of the division’s busiest goalkeepers. Michael Hector has no Premier League experience to his name but if he can continue the assured form he showed in the second half of last season he might make a decent fist of life in the top flight.
The really interesting element of Parker’s pre-season preparations will be how his midfield shapes up. Securing Harrison Reed’s permanent future at Craven Cottage has to be Tony Khan’s first order of business (£8m seems like a steal for someone who added ballast to ball-playing ability in the engine room) even if the Southampton loanee hasn’t had much experience of the top division either. Josh Onomah’s outstanding conclusion to the campaign displayed the potential that prompted Parker to make such a play for him as the Ryan Sessegnon negotiations dragged on last summer and his second taste of life in the Premier League will be intriguing. The x-factor remains Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who Khan junior appears keen to reintegrate to Craven Cottage after a stellar season in Spain with Villarreal. If the Cameroonian international stays, and can replicate the form he hinted at during Parker’s caretaker tenure towards the tail end of our time in the Premier League, then there might be some serious physicality in a three-man Fulham midfield.
That would afford some protection to a defence that is clearly in need of an overhaul. Despite Joe Bryan’s heroics at Wembley, there are still concerns about his defensive capabilities, which presumably is why Fulham are looking to entice Antonee Robinson down to London with such extravagant personal terms. There’s also a need for a new right back – maybe Matty Cash? – to come in on the other flank, especially as Jokanovic’s side sorely missed the pace of Ryan Fredericks. I did have to chuckle when I saw Timothy Fosu-Mensah come off the bench for Manchester United tonight – his loan spell with Fulham was, like so many others that year, a profound disappointment. I’m sure the recruitment team are looking for a commanding centre half to slot in alongside Hector but those are plenty of new faces to fit in with the big kick off less than a month away.
Parker’s mindset will undoubtedly be a little less adventurous than Jokanovic’s, even if he wants his side to take good care of the ball. How Tom Cairney, who also has a point to prove in the Premier League, will be utilised this season will be fascinating. The skipper showed his battling qualities against Brentford when he was deployed in a deeper role, not quite as a ball winner but more of an orchestrator than the advanced playmaker in the classical 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid of yesteryear. His eye for a pass will be even more valuable in terms of prising open Premier League defences and, as a proud man, he’ll want to do far better than two years ago.
In summary, this is going to be a year where steel replaces style as the watchword as Fulham seek to try and establish a foothold in the top flight once again. The performances might not be as dour as some of the ones we saw away from home under Roy Hodgson all those years ago, but making Fulham tough to beat will be uppermost in Parker’s mind. Away from the boardroom and discussions about new faces, the hard yards will be run on the Motspur Park training pitches. Parker’s already surprised a few with the way he outwitted Thomas Frank a couple of weeks ago and that tactical acumen could come in handy in the months ahead. It won’t be easy, but arguably Fulham are better placed than at the start of their last Premier League adventure.