Many a modern manager would have interpretation last night’s glorious victory as a personal vindication, but Scott Parker’s first words to the television cameras last night were about his backroom staff and his family. It is difficult to overstate just how completely he has turned Fulham’s fortunes around in little more than a year. Handed a poisoned chalice for his first chance in manager, Parker inherited a broken, rubble bereft of spirit and quality, who were dropping like a stone out of the Premier League. To return his charges, with renewed energy and desire, at the first time of asking is a magnificent achievement.
Parker has taken far more than his fair share of criticism over the course of a long and challenging season. When the setbacks came – and there were plenty, from that opening defeat at Barnsley to home reverses against the same opposition, Hull and Reading – there were a throng of critics, assailing a lack of tactical acumen, the apparent absence of a Plan B and concluding he was too passive to make changes. All along the way was the drumbeat that an expensively assembled squad should have been seriously in the automatic promotion equation – even though Fulham were in the shake up right up until the final ten minutes of the season.
There were those who felt Parker would be found out in the play-offs, especially against Brentford, who have helped the upper hand in that most curious of rivalries for the best part of a decade. The Griffin Park grapevine gurgled with confidence as Emiliano Marcondes’ ill-advised assertion that Fulham were ‘scared’ in the run-up to Wembley – on the back of two derby defeats in the regular season – looking more than a little foolish now. But Parker kept a laser like focus on the finish line and delivered a tactical masterclass when it mattered most.
Not many of the talking heads felt Fulham were fit to surprise Brentford on the biggest stage, with the in-vogue Thomas Frank portrayed as a touchline innovator in spite of the Bees’ Devon Loch-like collapse when automatic promotion was in front. But reputations count for little in one-off encounters and Parker’s players delivered a performance full of commitment and composure, sticking to a meticulously-devised tactical plan that nullified Brentford’s crisp and inventive football, restricting their lauded front three to a single shot on target before what turned out to be a late consolation.
All of Parker’s key decisions paid off handsomely. There was some debate towards the end of the season about Joe Bryan’s position in the side. He was dropped after Fulham’s collapse at Elland Road seemed to end any hope of catching the drop two, but his restoration to the starting can’t be questioned now. The moment of magic that caught David Raya unaware at his near post might have come from Fulham’s eagle-eyed analysts, but the execution of an audacious plan from fully 35 yards out in a deadlocked promotion decider at Wembley was magnificent. Bryan’s second showed all of his attacking qualities, a desire to get forward, break beyond the last line of defence and – after a delicious one-two with Aleksandar Mitrovic, on whose fitness Parker gambled for extra two – a finisher’s instinct not often found in left backs.
On the other flank, three right backs have been tried during a long season. You sense Steven Sessegnon’s time should come eventually, but Cyrus Christie has put in a terrific shift over the past few weeks – and did again last night when he came off the bench. You felt for the Irish international when he was left out, but the more defensively-minded Denis Odoi was the perfect choice to nullify Said Benrahma, who only once eluded the Belgian’s clutches in a mature performance. Indeed, it was Odoi who popped up in the final third regularly – emphasising just how conclusively he had won that individual battle. Of course, Denis ended up on the crossbar afterwards – paying homage to that glorious victory against Aston Villa two summers’ ago.
In midfield, there was a slight tactical tweak that seemed to really flummox Brentford. Tom Cairney, so often the orchestrator of Fulham’s fluid football, played in a much deeper role and played his part to perfection, winning tackles, distributing possession and covering every blade of grass to keep the Whites on top. He was still adventurous enough to feed the vital pass through to Bryan that gave the full-back a chance to break into the Brentford box with three minutes to go, but his match awareness was magnificent.
Harrison Reid wasn’t as pivotal as he has been during the run-in but his combativeness alongside Cairney created two distinct advantages: there was amble protection for the magnificent Michael Hector and Tim Ream, but it is also freed up Josh Onomah to operate in the sort of advanced role that allowed him to display all of the characteristics that flickered so brightly in his early Tottenham days. You can sense the confidence surging through Onomah now after that brilliant goal at Cardiff, but his purposeful running, both with and without the ball, clearly unsettled Brentford as he pressed high up the pitch from the outset.
In the absence of Mitrovic, Parker made a big call in playing the unpredictable Aboubakar Kamara as a lone forward, with Bobby Decordova-Reid out wide. It was the right decision, as with Neeskens Kebano recovering to operate on the other flank, Fulham’s front three were interchangeable and their movement gave the Brentford defence plenty of problems that wouldn’t have encountered against a more direct striker. Kamara’s individual performance, crammed full of ceaseless running and a selfless work ethic, is worth extra praise. His development since he arrived at Craven Cottage a couple of years ago has been incredible.
Parker also had the confidence to address what Fulham’s summer should look like in his post-match remarks, insisting that there will be no repeat of the post-Wembley largesse that disrupted the harmony within a close-knit squad as Slavisa Jokanovic prepared for the top flight. He will know what he needs to try and mount a survival mission – no easy feat in the modern game – with defensive reinforcements clearly the priority, but Parker should also take some time to savour the enormity of an outstanding success.
For many years, people within football have whispered encouragingly about his football intelligence and he was widely regarded as one of the young coaches to watch when he completed his coaching badges whilst still on Fulham’s playing staff. Last night, on the biggest stage of all, we saw those coaching credentials come to the fore. Another English young manager in the top flight can only be good for the game and, after all the debate about his methods and inexperience, you can only conclude that Fulham’s future is in good hands.