If I’d have suggested after the frustrating afternoon at the Etihad, that Fulham would be returning post the international break, with a spring in their step, then a few Hammyend readers might have questioned my sanity. After an underwhelming transfer deadline day that saw João Palhinha nearly leave for Bayern Munich, the Whites were soundly beaten by Manchester City and VAR – and there was more concern about Marco Silva’s future as we read regularly about the German giants would return for Palhinha in the new year. But Thursday night’s news that both Palhinha and Harrison Reed had signed contract extensions has buoyed both the supporters and Silva – meaning that there will be a bit of buzz around Craven Cottage for this afternoon’s visit of Luton Town as the Fulham faithful pays tribute to Mohamed Al-Fayed at the first home game since the former chairman’s passing.
Silva, in good form as he approaches his hundred match in charge, even had a message for the cynics who were quick to suggest that all Palhinha’s new deal might have done is raise the asking price in January. “I knew that first thing that when he signed a contract, some people start to talk about break clause and all this stuff, it is just for us to laugh a little bit. I like to laugh sometimes with this situation.” For those who don’t know him well, the Fulham head coach is rather whimsical and we’ve said for months that the silly speculation surrounding the Whites should prompt smiles rather than scratching of heads. Nobody would begrudge Palhinha, who established himself as one of the best enforcers in Europe during a sensational first season in SW6, a move to a top side but it felt as if Bayern Munich would not only be getting our Portuguese prince of tackling on the cheap but also removing any hope of building on a brilliant return to the top flight. If all the extension does is strengthen Fulham’s bargaining position whilst giving us a few more months of excellence from the former Sporting schemer, it is money well spent.
There’s a danger that the reliabiity of Reed gets overlooked in all that discussion about Palhinha and that would be unfair to one of Fulham’s most improved players under Silva. The former Southampton midfielder was one of the few players – perhaps alongside his near namesake Bobby Decordova-Reid – to emerge with his standing enhanced from a miserable relegation season under Scott Parker, having proven that he belonged in the top flight. His reading of the game and energy made him the perfect shield for an overworked defence, but Silva spotted that the boy from Worthing had more in his locker. I was sceptical that Reed should be anything other than a ball-winner but, redeployed as something closer to a box-to-box midfielder, he has become one of the country’s most consistent midfielders and is a fine foil for Palhinha. His elevation to the club’s leadership quartet suggests that he could become a future Fulham captain – and hearing that he was ‘buzzing’ after putting pen to paper on a four-year deal was wonderful news.
Silva, who has sounded a discordent note on Fulham’s recruitment policy in recent months, even professed himself pleased with his squad – pledging to do the fans’ proud. This correspondent would have preferred another striker and maybe a bit more cover in central midfield, especially given the knee injuries that have interrupted Sasa Lukic’s best spell since the Serbian signed for the Whites and meant Tom Cairney barely lasted fifteen minutes in Manchester, but the boss seems lifted by the arrival of Alex Iwobi, whom he worked with at Everton whilst Timothy Castagne is a cracking signing. Much is made of Raul Jiménez’s top flight goal drought, but the former Wolves forward was banging them in for fun over the past week having returned to the Mexico squad, which can only boost his confidence.
Luton offer a timely litmus test for our season, especially as it is difficult work out quite where the Whites stand after an August that seemed to provoke every emotion. Edging past an Everton side who haven’t impressed at all looks worse in retrospect – and Fulham were extremely fortunate that Sean Dyche’s boys looked like they wouldn’t be able to finish their dinner on the opening weekend – whilst the batterings handed out by Brentford and Manchester City, even though both teams were helped by the officials, had us all worrying. The optimism comes from a brilliant battling performance at Arsenal, where Silva’s side showed superb spirit to grab a late point despite Calvin Bassey’s red card, and progress past Spurs in the League Cup when Fulham appeared to have been transformed into excellent penalty takers.
The Hatters might travel to SW6 without a Premier League point after a tough start, but Rob Edwards’ side shouldn’t be dismissed as cannon fodder. They’ll view a game against a Fulham side yet to hit their stride as an opportunity to get some points on the board – and the returning Elijah Adebayo, who scored against us at Kenilworth Road, and Cauley Woodrow, no stranger to stunning the Cottage when he came back with Barnsley, will be eager to prove their own points against their old club. Edwards will only have to pin the words of Garth Crooks on the dressing room wall to inspire a response from his players, whilst the Hatters should be boosted by the return of their inspirational leader Tom Lockyer with shrewd loan signings Sambi Lokonga and Teden Mengi in line to make their debuts.
Luton’s journey back to the top tier against all the odds – especially after their disgraceful treatment at the hands of the football authorities some fifteen years ago – has been one of the game’s most uplifting stories. Edwards, a clever coach, will have his side well-drilled to stifle Fulham’s flair and anyone who appreciated Ross Barkley’s terrific talent when he burst on the scene at Goodison Park will be hoping the man who engineered Forest Green Rovers’ remarkable promotion from League Two can coax the midfield maestro back towards his brilliant best. It would be very Fulhamish for the Whites to hand the Hatters their first points of what has been a testing season, but Silva ensured his side were far from a soft touch last term – and he has already warned his charges about the dangers of underestimating this afternoon’s opposition.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Leno; Tete, A. Robinson, Diop, Ream; Reed, Palhinha; Wilson, Willian, Pereira; Jiménez. Subs: Rodak, Castagne, Bassey, Harris, Iwobi, Traoré, Decordova-Reid, Vinicius, Muniz.