Every Fulham fan would have been dismayed to learn after Marco Silva’s press conference yesterday that Tom Cairney is still not back in full training seven months after his last first team appearance for the Whites. We all know the difference our peerless playmaker makes when he is fit to play those precise passes through midfield, but equally we have become accustomed to the fact that the management of persistent knee problems mean the likelihood of him being an ever-present again in a gruelling Championship campaign is close to zero.
Cairney’s wretched run of injuries has undoubtedly hampered Fulham’s performance in recent years. On song – and part of the formidable midfield trio alongside Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen, who have sadly both departed this summer – he was simply unplayable. He played his best football in that mesmerising season under Slavisa Jokanovic when the Whites won 23 games on the trot and, bounced back from that not being enough to secure automatic promotion, to triumph in the play-offs. In his emotional post-match interview at Wembley, it became clear that Cairney had been playing through the pain barrier for some time – which makes his consistency all the more remarkable.
Cairney’s place in Fulham folklore is assured as the only man in history to lead the club to two Wembley triumphs. Nobody needs reminding just how effortlessly he tucked away the beatifully crafted goal to beat Aston Villa, but his contribution in the tussle with Brentford two years later should not be overlooked. Deployed in a deeper role, the Scottish midfelder might have eschewed some his attacking instincts but grafted to prevent Brentford from playing and played a pivotal part in a memorable victory.
It is fashionable these days to question Cairney’s leadership credentials – as he is far from the conventional vocal captain – but instead he leads by example on the field. While he may have struggled to replicate his best form in the top flight (and injuries have clearly robbed him of the chance to shine at times – he was outstanding in Fulham’s first league win against West Brom last year), he is the ideal number ten in a possession-based Championship side. His vision, range of passing and ability to turn defence into attack effortlessly are all vital attributes that Marco Silva would love to call upon regularly. The numbers remain staggering – Cairney’s scored 37 goals, made 28 more in 217 appearances since Fulham signed him from Blackburn for what now looks like a bargain £3.5m back in 2015.
Silva stated yesterday that Cairney is probably still a few weeks away from a possible return to the side. That gives the Portugese head coach a headache as to who to use to fill a position that has been pivotal in the success of his previous sides, as he likes to use a number ten behind a loan forward. It may be that Fabio Carvalho, impressive in his cameos towards the end of last season, seizes a chance to shine. But no one could doubt how crucial Cairney is to Fulham’s fortunes – and he will be as desperate as anyone to end a hugely frustrating spell on the sidelines.
It will be doubly disappointing as Cairney seems to be the perfect player to thrive in Silva’s ideal system. The former Everton and Watford manager will be the fifth boss that the Scottish international has worked under at Craven Cottage. He had to endure being shoved out on the right under Kit Symons, before shining in the central role he made his own once Jokanovic took charge. Claudio Ranieri was never sold on Cairney’s importance and you felt that his creative talents were somewhat shackled under Scott Parker. The man himself knows just how long a Championship campaign is – and let’s hope he can make his mark on Silva’s first season when those injury issues abate. A prolonged period away from the treatement is precisely what Fulham and Cairney crave.
After a dreadful weekend, Fulham’s position is precarious. The Whites are eighteenth in the Premier League, seven points adrift of safety and with a worse goal difference than Brighton, whose precious win over Tottenham last night only deepened the gloom. Anyone who watched the car crash that was the 2018/2019 season will be filled with a sense of deja vu.
Tony Khan, Fulham’s Director of Football, is about to oversee immediate relegations from the top flight and, amongst everything else, you wonder, why he seeks so much responsibility at Craven Cottage alongside his other ventures in the shape of American football and wrestling. The brutal reality is that businesses are based on results and neither the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham are achieving them at the moment. Success requires both time and hard work and with Khan’s outside interests it seems very difficult for him to give this fantastic football club time and knowledge we need?
The story of Fulham’s last promotion to the big time is already well known. More than £100m was splashed on an entirely new squad, assembled late in the summer and Slavisa Jokanovic paid the penalty for not getting immediate results. A horribly unbalanced side didn’t prove competitive under three managers and the chance to establish ourselves in the top flight vanished in the blink of an eye. The heart and soul of the side that had so stylishly played their way out of the Championship was torn out in favour of new arrivals on big wages, which cost a great deal in terms of cohesion and harmony. There’s no doubt the team needed strengthening that summer, but turning our backs on the likes of Oliver Norwood and Matt Targett – two loanees who have gone on to star in the Premier League – left Jokanovic without two players who understood the identity Jokanovic had built and what he was trying to create.
Jokanovic was gone in November and Claudio Ranieri’s dreadful reign lasted just 106 days. It fell to Scott Parker to see Fulham through painfully to the end, managing wins over Everton and Bournemouth when the day had long since been cast. A novice manager then had to set about trying to change the club’s mentality with an eye on an immediate return. The summer’s transfer business appeared impressive, with experienced Championship performers in the form of Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro arriving to bolster Fulham’s attacking options. But both failed to hit the heights of their previous seasons – and Knockaert is now on loan at Nottingham Forest. Cavaleiro has been pressed into service as a makeshift forward, a position the club has failed to strengthen, with Aleksandar Mitrovic showing the first signs of strain after two-and-a-half unstoppable seasons.
The Serbian striker’s record since coming to Craven Cottage has been remarkable. There’s no doubt he has been short of those standards in recent months and is suffering from a shortage of confidence, but that is understandable after arguably the lowest point of his professional career and a recurrence of the injury that saw him sit out a significant portion of the run-in last season. Parker has such a paucity of forward options at his disposal and definitively ruled out a new arrival after the dispiriting draw at the Hawthorns on Saturday. It is difficult to see where the goals will come from to keep us up.
Successive managers have spoken about Fulham’s frustrations in the transfer market. It is clear that Tony Khan has a huge say on the incomings and outgoings at the football club – but we keep falling short. I have no doubt that he has the best intentions for Fulham, but I believe it is time for him to either give the club his full attention or step aside and allow someone else to fulfil that role. His AEW venture appears to be a great success – and that is to his credit – but Fulham risk squandering another shot at the top flight.
The fans who live and breathe Fulham have been venting their frustration all over social media. Tony Khan tweeted earlier in the season that we would have killed to have been a yo-yo club before he took over his current responsibilities, which shows just how misguided he is. We do not expect miracles or constant success, but commitment to the cause and hard graft from the eleven on the pitch all the way up to the boardroom. I do wonder what the Khan family thinks when seeing Fulham cut adrift from safety with half of the season remaining. A businessman would probably conduct one of those root and branch reviews and consider whether an experienced football figure could make a difference. If Tony stepped aside, giving him more time to grow those outside ventures, he’d remove the vitriol at a stroke – and the club could benefit from a fresh viewpoint.
Fulham are on something of a roll and it promises to make an already tight Championship very interesting indeed. Since the lamentable loss to Reading on New Year’s Day, the Whites have claimed thirteen points from a possible fifteen, keeping four clean sheets in the process. The arrival of Michael Hector and the outstanding form of Martin Rodak are certainly the driving force behind Fulham’s new found stubbornness at the back, something that will need to continue if Scott Parker’s side have genuine ambitions of making it into the top two.
Back in August, I was concerned about the defence and the fact Fulham had not strengthened in the summer. The club acted on that in January and, you could argue that last month might go down as one of our strongest windows in recent history, after securing Bobby Decordova-Reid and Ivan Cavaleiro permanently and bringing in Hector as well as Terence Kongolo. We look more organised from back to front, tougher to play through and there seems to be a real togetherness in this squad.
The fact that the Whites are now level on points with Leeds and just four points behind West Brom is remarkable considering the gap between us a few short weeks ago. This, though, is no time for complacency. We can’t afford to consider the job done and expect the likes of Leeds to fade away. Fulham still have trips to Elland Road, the Hawthorns and the City Ground to come in probably the toughest run-in of any of the top sides and I fully expect that the top four or five teams could alternate in the leading positions before the final sprint to the line in May.
The advantage of Fulham’s recent upturn in form is that the situation is now firmly in our own hands. Character and seizing the opportunity is what it will come down to now. The squad has the chance to prove their promotion credentials at the Den on Wednesday night, with Millwall eager to make up for their disappointing display against the Baggies at the weekend and revive their own play-off push. It won’t be easy, but Parker and the team could lay down a marker in south east London with a big performance.
This squad might well be stronger than both the one that reached the Premier League under Jokanovic and, certainly, the side that struggled in the top flight last season. We can hope to learn from the mistakes made as we prepared for our return to the Premier League, but it is vital not to get carried away at this point. We all know the Championship is an unforgiving division and, with a third of the season still ahead of us, there is a lot of football left yet. The key will be consistency – and it is likely that we will have to marry the grit Fulham have shown of late with some of the silkier football that has become our trademark in order to be celebrating at the end of the season.
Fulham’s miserable defeat at Barnsley this afternoon wasn’t the way anyone would have wanted to start the new campaign – but the manner of the opening day reverse should sharpen minds amongst the club’s hierarchy as we head into the final hours of the summer transfer window. It’s clear that Scott Parker’s squad needs more bodies if we are to mount a credible promotion challenge – and I would be identifying at least three more additions as vital.
Fulham have the same defence that conceded 81 goals last season – the highest both in the Premier League and across all of Europe’s top flights. I question the confidence they have in each other and there is a dire need for more depth to challenge the players Parker already has at his disposal. As we have seen since Alfie Mawson has arrived, he’s partial to an injury and we will be very fortunate if he can play through a gruelling 46-game schedule. If he stays fit, Mawson will be an integral part to our success but I feel it is important to have a new face playing beside him.
I am not a fan of Denis Odoi playing right back as he has put in his best performances playing in the centre alongside Tim Ream. That leaves us with Cyrus Christie or Steven Sessegnon as our right back and if I had to pick between the two, I would edge towards young Sessegnon to start. I do feel there are some quality right backs we could try and sign to give further options in that position. The likes of Jayden Bogle from Derby or Darnell Fisher from Preston come to mind – they might not be cheap, but they would bring proven quality in a position where we’ve struggled to replace Ryan Fredericks.
Kevin McDonald was pivotal to our success two seasons ago under Slavisa Jokanovic in the 2017/2018 promotion season. He captained the side in the absence of Tom Cairney at times and was arguably the real leader on the pitch in any case. He has never been blessed with pace but relied on his excellent reading of the games. There are signs already that he may struggle to replicate those heady days these season. I would like to see a new holding midfielder brought in with less mileage on the clock to supplement the passion and hunger McDonald provides. You can’t honestly consider Ibrahima Cisse capable back up in this position – and a quality deputy to McDonald is a must before the window closes.
Time is running out for Fulham to strengthen our squad in order to put together a serious challenge for the top six this season. The first-team set up looks light on numbers already and a couple of injuries could cause us real problems. With only two additions over the summer, Scott Parker is right to consider us light in both defence and in the midfield. I really hope Parker doesn’t suffer the same fate as Jokanovic by being shown the door too early as I still believe we are suffering a hangover from his dismissal.
The last time Fulham were relegated from the Premier League, the club embarked on a summer firesale and were fortunate not to drop down another division. To date, the mass exodus that many might have feared following last season’s underwhelming tilt at the top flight hasn’t happened yet. Indeed, Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic have committed their future to Fulham – despite the drop.
The long-rumoured departure of Ryan Sessegnon hasn’t happened yet, but you can bet your bottom dollar that Daniel Levy is craftily plotting a miserly late raid to secure the teenage winger with minutes left in the transfer window. Today’s suggestion that Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa is close to making the switch to Spain may have raised a few eyebrows, especially as it leaves Fulham woefully understocked in a crucial position. Anguissa might have been a big disappointment last term, but the prospect of seeing him in the Championship was tantatilising – and possibly too good to be true.
We all know just how good Kevin McDonald can be at the base of a midfield. The Scotsman, arguably the true leader of the side that Slavisa Jokanovic guided to such unforgettable success at Wembley last May, has all the attributes to reprise his all-conquering role as a holding midfielder: reading of the game, an uncanny ability to intercept the ball and excellent passing from deep positions, but there is the nagging doubt that Father Time might just have caught up with McDonald. In terms of the senior squad, the only alternative to the former Wolves midfielder would be Ibrahima Cisse, who has scarcely featured for the first team in the past two years.
Parker’s pre-season preparation suggests that he is keen on adopting the 4-3-3 that brought Jokanovic so much success. In that system, the holding midfielder is crucial – both in terms of sitting in front of a fragile back four and giving the likes of Tom Cairney and, even the industrious Stefan Johansen, the license to roam dangerously in the opposition’s final third. With Fulham’s fragile defence, that screening role becomes all the more vital.
A goal differential of minus 47 leaves nobody in any doubt as to why Fulham were relegated. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising that, just over a week away from the big kick off in Barnsley, we are still awaiting defensive additions. Parker has plenty of possibles to pick from in central defence but nobody has made a compelling case to partner Alfie Mawson. Like McDonald, we will have to wait and see whether Tim Ream can reprise his outstanding 2017/2018 form. Even if he managed it, there would be a distinct lack of pace in Fulham’s back four.
The other position that desperately needs strengthening is right back. Fulham struggled to adequately replace Ryan Fredericks when he left for West Ham last summer. Fredericks’ pace was an asset in both boxes and neither Cyrus Christie or Timothy Fosu-Mensah pulled up any trees last season. Christie could be competent back in the Championship, but I feel it is time to bring in a fresh face to provide the proven quality we are currently lacking. Both Steven Sessegnon and Marlon Fossey are fine prospects, but it is asking an awful lot for them to come in and power a promotion push. If Anthony Knockaert is going to line up on the right flank, then right back becomes an even more critical position – as the Frenchman is probably not going to provide all that much protections.
As Frankie wrote earlier, the additions of Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro have sent a serious message to the rest of division. The prospect of a fluid front line of Knockaert, Cavaleiro and Mitrovic is truly mouthwatering – and all three of them have Championship pedigree. Plenty of Championship defenders will be worrying about facing one of the best front threes in the league. Reuniting the three musketeers in Cairney, McDonald and Johansen offers plenty of creativity and grit, which means the defence is the only area left to fortify.
There’s no doubt that Fulham will be entertaining over the course of this season, but a couple of late acquisitions can give Scott Parker the sort of squad depth that should be able to cope with a gruelling 46-match schedule. If a new right back and a centre half sign in the run up to the Barnsley game, then a promotion push is most definitely on the cards.