Thirteen years ago tonight, Fulham came back from the dead to beat Juventus in arguably the greatest night of the club’s history. Followers of the Old Lady might not remember Clint Dempsey’s deft chip dropping into the top corner of the Hammersmith End net with as much fondness as Craven Cottage lifers, but it was iconic moment that build the belief that sustained a remarkable run all the way to the Europa League final for London’s oldest professional football club. Whoever enticed Roy Hodgson to SW6 won’t have made a better appointment in their life.
Hodgson, currently considering a return to his boyhood club Crystal Palace after the Eagles dispensed with the services of Patrick Vieira, belongs in the special pantheon of Fulham coaches. Such a list must also include the likes of Jean Tigana, who masterminded the Whites’ return to the top tier of English football in such style, Slavisa Jokanovic, whose adventurous approach delivered a 23-match unbeaten run on the way back to the Premier League, Micky Adams – the man who began the ascent up the Football League pyramid before being harshly cast aside by Mohamed Al-Fayed, and Alec Stock, who took Fulham to Wembley in 1975. Chris Coleman, already a legend for his playing career at Craven Cottage, must be worth a mention in dispatches for the way he preserved the club’s Premier League status and led the pre-season relegation favourites to ninth in the top flight in his first full season in management.
It is probably too early to discuss Silva in such terms but his impact at Craven Cottage has been considerable. His desire to attack opponents was evident from the outset and the quality of Fulham’s flowing football as they secured an immediate return to the Premier League after a dispiriting relegation was sublime. Many still had doubts about Silva, who had failed to convince at Everton after becoming distracted whilst in charge of Watford, at the top level. The way the Whites have achieved amongst English football’s elite has quietened the detractors at a stroke. Silva has imbued his side with the confidence to take the game to any opponent and his ability to convince top quality players to make the move to the Cottage has added excellence to an already tight-knit group.
Silva’s arrival in the wake of the acrimonious departure of Scott Parker, who had fallen out with several key players prior to resuming his flirting with AFC Bournemouth, caught plenty of pundits by surprise. He was the outstanding candidate for the Fulham hierarchy on account of a detailed analysis of the club’s performances in the top flight as well as clear plans for most of the club’s category one academy stars. The fact that Silva planned to make cult hero Luis Boa Morte his number two was just an added bonus. But this wasn’t a punt in the dark for the Khan family and their closest advisors – they felt persuading Silva, who had achieved success all across Europe, to prove his worth in England’s second tier was a coup akin to when Al-Fayed, acting on advice from Eric Cantona, tempted Tigana to try his luck in the First Division.
Fulham did consider other eventualities. They wondered about keeping faith with Scott Parker even after his side had disintegrated in the final ten games of a frustrating Premier League season with survival in sight. Parker’s ostracising of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Tim Ream as well as his plans to consign other key players to the scrapheap put paid to any serious consideration of the former club captain staying on. More than the personalities, Parker’s pragmatic style was painful to sit through for the supporters, stifling the creativity of some of Fulham’s some stylish footballers, even if it did deliver that magical Wembley win over Brentford.
Parker is apparently in the running for the England under-21 head coach role once Lee Carsley, who will bring his squad to Craven Cottage at the end of the month, calls it quits following the forthcoming European Championship cycle. His continued appearance on such shortlists is a tribute to the tireless work of his representatives, especially after he was binned by Club Brugge having managed just two wins in twelve matches. Being the worst manager in FCB’s history could sit along such honours as leading the Cherries to a 9-0 defeat at Anfield or managing to leave out one of Europe’s most potent marksmen whilst the Whites were struggling to score goals. At least he can spent some of his pay-off on a few more cardigans.
Palace’s decision to show Vieira the door after twelve matches without a win and no shots on target in the last three fixtures was less surprising than Parker popping up at a Champions’ League club. But the pair were both probably fortunate to find themselves in plum jobs. Two defensively minded midfielders struggled to add adventure in the final third and Vieira did benefit from the strong foundations bequeathed to him by a combination of Hodgson and Steve Parish in his first season. The Frenchman did not impress when he put his name forward for vacant Fulham job – seemingly considering that the position should be his on account of his playing success with Arsenal – and the Whites’ decision to push the boat out to secure Silva now seems like such a lucky escape.
Steve Cooper, then coming off the back of a play-off final defeat with Swansea, had the pedigree of producing fine young players at Liverpool and delivering youth success with England’s under 17s. Ironically, two of his proteges at Melwood – Harry Wilson and Neco Williams – ended up playing vital roles in Fulham’s promotion under Silva. Cooper looked set for the sack after Nottingham Forest’s big spending earlier in the season and, despite a late defeat to Newcastle United last night, he may still keep the City Ground club above the drop zone. But Silva’s sterling work, still largely going under the radar in a season when bigger clubs have stumbed significantly, has been sensational.
He is ambitious, for sure, but for the second week running reaffirmed his commitment to the Fulham cause in public after being widely linked with a Tottenham job that isn’t even open for applications yet. Silva kicks every ball on the sideline, which is why the supporters love in, but demands high standards from a playing squad, who are just as keen on the man who has made Fulham fans dream again. Everyone will have been disappointed by the defeats to Brentford and Arsenal in back-to-back London derbies, but the fact that they will not plunge the Whites into a relegation battle remains remarkable.
In a little over twenty months, a man who was written off as a failure has guided unfancied Fulham back to the top flight and into the top half as well as the last eight of the FA Cup. There’s every prospect of even better to come. Whoever suggested Silva when the shortlist to succeed Parker was being put together deserves one hell of a bonus.