Cast your mind back to the beginning of October. After Fulham’s second half capitulation at Coventry, you didn’t have to spend too long on social media or across the various internet message boards to find Fulham fans wondering whether Marco Silva was the right man to take the Whites back to the top flight. The fragility that had undermined Fulham’s last season in the Premier League – and surfaced in worrying defeats by Blackpool and Reading – had resurfaced. Fulham had a soft underbelly, the balance wasn’t right and the head coach himself looked a bit blindsided after Coventry had scored four goals in fourteen minutes.
The grumbles weren’t restricted to that performance. Silva had gone his team selection wrong, dropping Tosin Adarabioyo and Jean Michael Seri before the international break against a side who were flying at home. Perhaps he didn’t understand the intensity of the Championship, having never before managed in England’s second tier. The man himself made clear his discontent in a caustic interview with the club’s official website after the final whistle, when his visceral anger at his side’s failure to carry out his half-time instructions carried through the camera. He pledged to put it right – and how he did.
Nobody outside Fulham’s tight-knit unit will know precisely what Silva and his coaching staff put their charges through during the international break that followed that forgettable trip to Coventry, but there can be no doubt that a few home truths were told. The fixtures after the fortnight off weren’t exactly kind either. I was worried about the prospect of playing Queens Park Rangers, buoyed by a brilliant start to the season under Mark Warburton and with Stefan Johansen returning to Craven Cottage. Would the Whites – who wilted under pressure from the Sky Blues – be up for the cut and thrust of a local derby?
They delivered the most emphatic of answers. Silva’s decision to return to Marek Rodak between the sticks after Paolo Gazzaniga had gifted Coventry a route back into the previous contest was decisive – with the Slovakian’s sensational form coinciding with Fulham’s resurgence. The defence appears much more comfortable with him in goal, he commands the penalty area far more convincingly than the Argentine and isn’t averse to berating his back four when it needs doing. At the other end of the pitch, Aleksandar Mitrovic started a six-game scoring streak that has similarly powered Fulham’s progress and Silva’s progressive passing football was no longer dogged by errors in either penalty area.
The squad went from strength to strength after coming through the adversity of Lyndon Dykes’ second half equaliser. Harrison Reed’s cajoling of his team-mates in the aftermath of that setback was significant. Silva highlighted his side’s character to go on and put QPR to the sword. Fulham had to show patience against a dogged Cardiff side, with Tom Cairney’s return from a frustrating year on the sidelines to lash in the opener almost written in the stars. The sight of the skipper close to tears in front of an adoring Hammersmith End will remain with everyone who witnessed such a special moment.
Mitrovic demonstrated his predatory instincts once again after Cardiff failed to clear their lines and another important three points were in the bag. Perhaps Silva’s biggest achievement has been rejuvenating the big Serbian, who looked destined to leave SW6 in the summer having been frozen out by Scott Parker as the Whites went down with a whimper. All the talk suggests that Mitrovic is merely a Championship-level poacher, but that ignores both the fact that he netted eleven times in Fulham’s dreadful 2018/2019 campaign and that he is fulfilling a far more prominent role in Silva’s side. This is almost an entirely different Mitrovic: he looks leaner, hungrier and leads the press from the front – something both Parker and Rafa Benitez proclaimed he was ill-suited for. Like a prime-Bobby Zamora, Mitrovic now drops deep to link the play with deft touches and flick ons, even spraying a sensational 40 yard ball for Harry Wilson’s opening goal at Blackburn. The tabloids claimed over the weekend that his pay packet may reach £100,000-a-week: but, having scored 20 goals at an astonishing rate, he’s definitely worth every penny. Mitrovic and Fulham could well be in for a record breaking season.
I have felt since the start of the season, viewing the style and openness that Silva imbued upon his new side, that Fulham would give someone a battering before long. Huddersfield felt the sting of our forward line on that first August away day, but poor old Blackburn were on the receiving end of their worst-ever home defeat in midweek. Previous Fulham sides, particularly one managed by the risk-averse Parker, might have sat back on a two-goal cushion but Silva wants his Whites to be relentless. The most pleasing element of that sublime showing was the fact that the goals were shared around, with two great finishes late on from Rodrigo Muniz following a brilliant brace from Neeskens Kebano, who is finally getting a regular run in the first team. The joyous celebrations between Muniz and Mitrovic after the final whistle at Ewood Park emphasised the fantastic camaraderie in the camp.
The win at London Road yesterday was almost more pleasing than the seven-goal romp in Lancashire. Peterborough United were more than just plucky hosts: they stuck diligently to a clever gameplan and grew in confidence as they had some joy on the counter attack. Darren Ferguson’s side might have mustered three or four goals, with Rodak’s resistance proving vital to the kind of gritty win that is the hallmark of a successful Championship campaign. Fulham will play far better than that, but those slender victories are worth their weight in gold in such a topsy-turvy division.
Silva, who spoke of the need to remain humble in the wake of the huge Blackburn victory, won’t allow his players to rest on their laurels. They have Bournemouth in their sights ahead of Scott Parker’s return to the Cottage in December. Whilst everyone wants to reel in the Cherries, the Whites have now opened up a six-point gap on West Bromwich Albion, who are stuttering somewhat after an excellent start. The cushion is closer to seven points when you factor in Fulham’s absurd +30 goal difference. If the Whites can maintain this new-found consistency, then a swift return to the top flight may be just around the corner.