Scott Parker’s departure from Craven Cottage dragged on desperately. But when a young head coach whose early promise gave way to unimaginative and turgid finally made the move to Bournemouth that he had been angling after for an age, Marco Silva was the compelling candidate to replace him. It was something of a surprise that the Portuguese coach, bruised by his brutal sacking at Everton, was willing to contemplate rebuilding his career in England’s second tier but after an outstanding interview, Fulham owner Shahid Khan didn’t want to meet anyone else.
Silva was passionate from the outset, brimming with desire to prove himself in English football, and had done his homework. He stressed that there would be a reset of Fulham’s footballing philosophy, with an accent on adventure after the safety first approach adopted by Parker. He was clear about keeping Aleksandar Mitrovic – who certainly would have left SW6 if Parker had remained at the helm – and building an expansive side around the Serbian striker, after convincing the number nine in an early phone call that brighter days lay ahead. What most impressed the Fulham hierarchy was his detailed dossier on the club’s squad, with plans for the promising academy prospects, which went well beyond the obvious stars, such as Fabio Carvalho, who had flourished when he was finally released on senior football with the Whites already down. Nobody could quite have predicted Jean Michael Seri’s redemption story back in July.
Silva’s single-mindedness was also on display in the way that he made it clear that he knew what had derailed the tenures of previous occupants of the Craven Cottage hotseat. He stressed that he wanted the final say in acquisitions and immediately identified the proven pedigree of Welsh winger Harry Wilson as a creator for Mitrovic. You can’t quibble about the Liverpool wide man’s productivity in his first season beside the River Thames – he has added exceptional quality along the right flank and darted dangerously in on that wand of a left foot. There’s clearly room for Wilson to improve in the top flight, but his promising link-up with Neco Williams hints at a promising Premier League combination.
Silva’s back-room team made an immediate impact upon their installation at Motspur Park. Luis Boa Morte was more than just a link with the last Fulham side that stormed away with the second tier – he is an outstanding coach in his own right; you only need to observe his influence over Neeskens Kebano, who is enjoying the most productive season of his career, to confirm this. The way in which the Congolese winger has terrorised full backs throughout this campaign – typified by a totemic display in the promotion-clinching win over Preston – has been a real tonic in such trying times. Other backroom figures have played a pivotal role too. Bruno Mendes is credited with Tom Cairney’s early return from a serious knee injury, Goncalo Pedro has both improved Fulham’s stamina and kept the key men fit despite a raft of coronavirus postponements cramming fixtures into shorter windows and Antonis Lemonakis has been key in crafting a brilliant variety of inventive set pieces.
The transformation of Fulham’s football in such a short space of time has perhaps been overlooked given how serenely the Whites have surged to the top of the table. They have been setbacks, of course, but the Whites have delivered several superb showings – especially away from home. The seven-goal shellackings handed out at Blackburn and Reading will live long in the memory, but Silva’s stylish side also hit four at Nottingham Forest – whilst at home Fulham spanked Bristol City and Birmingham City 6-2 in quick succession and cruised past West Brom with ease at a time when the Baggies appeared to be genuine promotion contenders.
The biggest contrast between Silva and Parker was in the way the new man emboldened his side to go out and take the game to the opposition, whilst remaining miserly at the back. Much of that is down to the chemistry between Tosin Adarabioyo and Tim Ream, an absolute revelation at the heart of the defence even at the age of 34, whilst at the other end of the field, Mitrovic looks like a man reborn. The Serbian has always been at his best when he has a point to prove and he has played this season as if he wants to ruin Parker’s reputation. He reached the staggering 40 goal mark with a brace against Preston, but more than the glut of goals, Mitrovic’s all-round play – from the range of his passing to his hold-up play and dropping deep to dictate proceedings – has been magnificent, indicating that he can certainly make his mark in the top flight – as his outstanding performances in Serbia’s World Cup qualification demonstrate.
There are still plenty of points to ponder for Silva as he plot a route to Premier League safety over the summer, but it is worth reflecting on the fact that this is one of the most successful Fulham sides in the club’s history. They have played with verve, electricity and always looked to attack the opposition, which represents a welcome change from the recent past. Fulham have scored 98 goals in 42 matches – and could yet compile a final points total in the high nineties. Given that the current financial fair play restrictions prevent the amassing of a squad packed with top tier quality like the one Jean Tigana had at his disposal and that finances have been stretched by a pandemic, these are achievements not be sniffed at. Silva has Craven Cottage purring in delight again – and London’s original football club will be back at English football’s top table come August. Prolonging their stay is now the Portuguese perfectionist’s new priority.