Even if you didn’t want to, it was easy enough to construct a case for Slavisa Jokanovic to go. Fulham were bottom of the Premier League after twelve games and the early sparkle of their performances had long since dwindled out. It appeared as though his bold possession-based game and attacking philosophy had brutally met its match in the unforgiving world of the top flight. He couldn’t decide on his best back line, never mind his bad eleven, and there was an alarming lack of fight from a side that used to put their bodies on the line. And yet, when the news came on Tuesday morning that he’d be replaced by Claudio Ranieri, there was a sense of shock and profound sadness.
The bond between Jokanovic and the Fulham fans was forged firstly in a moment of genuine turmoil for the football club. Fulham’s senior officials had badly bungled the follow-up to sacking Kit Symons and the Serbian arrived in south west London with the Whites in serious danger of plummeting into League One. Jokanovic couldn’t even strengthen a badly unbalanced and threadbare squad with a transfer embargo to navigate through in his first few weeks. His response told us a lot about the character of the man – he grinned and bore it and gradually hauled his team away from the relegation zone, not through the scintillating football that we came to know and love, but at times seemingly through the sheer force of his well.
The serious surgery undertaken on his squad in the summer of 2016 troubled some, with the departure of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele leaving his side looking light in the forward areas, as a host of new faces arrived in double quick time. Scott Malone soon established himself as a world-beating, offensive full back whilst Sone Aluko began to dazzle on the wing. The assured first steps of Ryan Sessegnon into senior football at the tender age of sixteen were encouraged by Jokanovic, who – following a promising League Cup debut at Leyton Orient – handed the teenager a first league start at Elland Road. Just as he would going forward, the steely Sessegnon hardly let anyone down.
Jokanovic’s forward-thinking style took a while to transmit itself to the team, with unsteady starts to the campaign in both of Fulham’s last two Championship seasons. But his boldness was eventually rewarded with some of the most spellbinding football ever produced by a Fulham side, including the one that decimated the First Division under Jean Tigana all those years ago. You might point to the aftermath of that desperate December afternoon in Sunderland as the moment when Fulham’s fortunes definitively turned – but, for me, the fearlessness with which Fulham poured forward to beat Sheffield United by the odd goal in nine, showed just how bold Jokanovic’s charges could be.
There were so many magnificent moments during the 23-match unbeaten run that almost carried the Whites to automatic promotion that it is impossible to pinpoint just one. The impacts of Aleksandar Mitrovic, who terrorised Championship defences almost instantly after his arrival on a pivotal January loan from Newcastle United, and Matt Targett, who seemed to have had years of experience of playing behind Sessegnon, were crucial in reviving Fulham’s fortunes. Some of those away days were legendary – the euphoria of Mitrovic’s late winner at Preston North End was something to be held, whilst the majesty of Kevin McDonald’s long-range effort at Millwall will live long in the memory.
Nobody wanted to be in the play-offs, of course, and it seemed like Fulham’s history would repeat itself when the side subsided rather meekly in the first-leg at Derby. But, then came the second half revival on one of the great nights at Craven Cottage, with Sessegnon’s predatory instincts and an iconic header from Denis Odoi swinging a tight tie Fulham’s way. I don’t need to recount the wonder of Wembley to any Fulham follower: the ecstasy of Tom Cairney’s gorgeously crafted goal, and then the bloody-mindedness of a spirited rearguard that resisted Aston Villa’s search for an equaliser after Odoi’s dismissal – typified by Oliver Norwood’s superb challenge shortly after stepping off the bench.
Jokanovic is his own harshest critic. He will be smarting at just how easily his side was prized open by English football’s elite and how frail Fulham looked against Cardiff and Huddersfield, two of their rivals in what now looks like a battle royale to escape relegation. The decision to replace the Serb with Claudio Ranieri may yet prove to be a masterstroke. But my sense is that Jokanovic had earned a little more faith through the glorious football his team had played over the past three years. The fact that Shahid Khan had spent more than £100m in supplementing the squad this summer ultimately counted against Jokanovic, but the coach who imbued Fulham with a distinctive identity and a sense of adventure will always be remembered fondly as a Fulham hero. He deserves nothing less.
Fulham have sacked Slavisa Jokanovic and replaced him with Claudio Ranieri as they attempt to arrest their alarming start to the Premier League season.
Jokanovic, who led the Whites to promotion via the Championship play-offs last season, was dismissed following Sunday’s defeat at Liverpool with Fulham bottom of the Premier League. The Cottagers had taken just five points from their first 12 games of the new campaign.
Ranieri, who led Leicester to the Premier League title in 2016, will take charge of his first match after the international break when Southampton visit Craven Cottage on Saturday 24 November. The Italian has signed ‘a multi-year contract’ to take over the London club.
Fulham chairman Shahid Khan said: ‘Claudio is risk-free and ready-made for the Premier League, and particularly so for what we need at this moment at Fulham. His recent body of work with Leicester City is literally legendary and then you look at Claudio’s experience with Chelsea and big clubs throughout Europe, and it’s pretty evident we are welcoming an extraordinary football man to Fulham Football Club’.
This turned out to be the routine Liverpool victory that almost everybody expected, but a tight and cagey contest turned on fourteen pivotal seconds just before half-time. Slavisa Jokanovic’s rejigged defensive unit had battled bravely before the interval, spurning a couple of chances on the counter-attack, and looked to have taken the lead when Aleksandar Mitrovic powered home Tom Cairney’s cross. As the visitors celebrated what they thought was the opening goal, Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson reacted to the offside flag and sent a quick free-kick out to Trent Alexander-Arnold. The full back’s forward ball released Mohamed Salah, and with Denis Odoi attempting to play offside on the half-way line, the Egytian sauntered in to slot the ball beyond Sergio Rico. Television replays suggested assistant referee Adrian Holmes might have been wrong to rule out Mitrovic’s goal and that Alisson’s quick bit of thinking had seen him strike a moving ball. When your luck is out, it’s well and truly out.
Fulham’s formation might have been conservative, designed to try and remove some of the truly awful defensive mistakes that have characterised their calamitous start to life back in the top flight, but they did pose Liverpool a few problems in a low-key first half. Teenage winger Ryan Sessegnon will feel he should have done much better than merely shoot wide of the far post when a clever flick from Mitrovic sent him clear through the middle of the Liverpool defence, whilst Alisson was almost embarrassed when he nearly parried a Schurrle shot straight back to the Serbian striker.
In between times, Fulham were indebted to Rico for keeping them in the contest. The Spaniard produced a smothering save to keep out Salah as he sought to link up with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino on the edge of the Fulham box and spread himself well to prevent the Egyptian from opening the scoring. The recalled Xherdan Shaqiri proved the most likely source of Liverpool inspiration for much of the first period, twice firing wide from promising positions, whilst also sending a steady supply of chances to Jurgen Klopp’s three forwards. Alexander-Arnold might have done better than waste good positions when he pushed forward on the right – but the turning point on the cusp of half-time put an entirely different complexion on proceedings.
Calum Chambers had enjoyed an encouraging outing as an additional holding midfielder alongside Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who still looks to be getting to grips with the demands of Premier League football. But the concession of that goal to Salah necessitated more urgency in Fulham’s play after the break, especially with Mitrovic horribly isolated up front for much of a fruitless afternoon. The visitors were penned back almost from the start of the second half and were grateful to another splendid save from Rico, who somehow turned Mane’s shot, that looked destined for the top corner, over the bar.
The relief was merely, temporary, however. Fulham seemed to have survived the danger when Alexander-Arnold’s corner was overhit but as the ball broke to Robertson in a crossing position down the left, Tom Cairney made the critical decision to leave Shaqiri unattended at the back post, and the Swiss international handsomely volleyed home his second league goal of the season from eight yards out. From the point on, the result was an inevitably – it was a surprise that Liverpool couldn’t plunder further goals as the belief drained from their opponents.
Fulham were limited, but spirited. There was far more fight soon here than in the spineless surrender at Huddersfield last Monday night. A seventh consecutive defeat could spell the end for Jokanovic, but on this performance that would be particularly harsh. The Serbian should get the international break and the opportunity to prepare his side for another crucial six-pointer at Craven Cottage against Southampton at the very least.
LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Gomez, van Dijk; Fabinho (Keita 90+2), Wijnaldum (Henderson 69), Shaqiri (Milner 82); Mane, Salah, Firminio. Subs (not used): Mignolet, Lovren, Moreno, Sturridge.
GOALS: Salah (41), Shaqiri (53).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico; Christie, Le Marchand, Mawson, Odoi; Chambers, Anguissa (Johansen 84); Schurrle (Vietto 78), R. Sessegnon, Cairney (Seri 63). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Ream, Fosu-Mensah, Kebano.
REFEREE: Paul Tierney (Wigan).
The pressure on Slavisa Jokanovic grew last night after a lackadaisical Fulham side slumped to the bottom of the Premier League table following an abject defeat at Huddersfield Town. The Terriers recorded their first home goal for 659 minutes as well as their first Premier League win of the campaign and fully deserved the three points for their desire and putting together the only real quality on display. Jokanovic delivered a scathing assessment of his side’s lack of fight after the final whistle and questions will be asked about his future with his side now rock bottom of the table.
David Wagner celebrated the best possible anniversary present after Huddersfield marked his third year in charge with a vital win. From the outset, the home side looked the more likely winners: more determined in the challenge, more progressive with the ball and more threatening in the final third. They set the tempo early, with a high-octane pressing game that Fulham struggled to deal with, disrupting the visitors’ time on the ball and their possession-based approach. Town almost grabbed the lead from a move that encapsulated their strong start to the contest, with the energetic Jonathan Hogg snapping in to steal the ball from Aleksandar Mitrovic and Philip Billing smashing the crossbar with a venomous strike from distance.
It became clear that a low on confidence Fulham side were fragile and there for the taking. Jean-Michael Seri barely moved out of first gear in the heart of the midfield, whilst the battling qualities of powerful midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa were entirely absent. There was even an absence of endeavour about the manner in which Fulham conceded. Anguissa afforded Alex Pritchard all the time in the world to turn on the edge of the box and fire a deflected shot that Sergio Rico did well to claw behind. Then, Chris Lowe’s corner was headed out of the penalty area by a combination of Mitrovic and Tom Cairney at the near post. The Fulham captain stayed down nursing a head injury whilst Lowe whipped a teasing ball into the far post where Christopher Schlinder and Timothy Fosu-Mensah contested the aerial challenge, with the ball looping in last off the Manchester United loanee.
It might have been worse before the break but for Rico’s alert reactions when a deft header from Hogg almost crept into the corner. Jokanovic took immediate action at half-time – sending on Cyrus Christie and Kevin McDonald for Fosu-Mensah and Luciano Vietto, but the lack of an attacking substitute to make the difference in the final third was to prove costly. Mooy lashed over as Fulham struggled to deal with a long throw from Billing before Christie at least gave Fulham some attacking intent down the right flank. The Londoners looked laboured going forward for much of the contest – typically their only shot on target, a fine finish from Schurrle, was ruled out for an offside against Mitrovic in the build up.
The Serbian sent their clearest chance – a free header at the far post from a corner – wide, but Huddersfield looked the more likely to add to their lead as time ticked by. Denis Odoi was fortunate not to concede a penalty when he handled just inside the box under pressure from Huddersfield substitute Laurent Depoitre. It was another Town substitute, Isaac Mbenza who had the chance to put the game to bed but he snatched horribly at his shot when he seemed clean through on goal and the ball flew harmlessly wide.
Fulham pushed on in the final ten minutes but only created one real opening. Cairney carved open the Huddersfield defence with a beautifully weighted through ball that sent Schurrle away down the left wing. The German zigged and zagged his way into the penalty area but placed his finish wide of Jurgen Lossl and the far post. Added time came and went with a whimper – and the sight of Ryan Sessegnon, possibly Fulham’s best performer on a forgettable evening, lying face down on the turf in the centre circle for fully five minutes after the final whistle will live long in the memory.
HUDDERSFIELD TOWN (3-4-1-2): Lossl; Zanka, Schlinder, Kongolo (Bacuna 90); Hadergjonaj, Lowe, Billing, Hogg; Mooy, Mounie (Depoitre 56), Pritchard (Mbenza 82). Subs (not used): Hamer, Smith, Sobhi, van la Parra.
BOOKED: Billing, Mbenza.
GOAL: Fosu-Mensah (o.g. 29).
FULHAM (4-3-3): Rico; Fosu-Mensah (Christie 45), R. Sessegnon, Odoi, Le Marchand; Anguissa, Seri, Cairney; Vietto (McDonald 45; Johansen 65), Schurrle; Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Ream, Chambers, Mawson.
BOOKED: Fosu-Mensah, Mitrovic.
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor (Manchester).
After Callum Wilson had fired home his second of the afternoon, putting an imperious Bournemouth 3-0 up at Craven Cottage, it was left to Aleksandar Mitrovic to sum up the mood of the Fulham followers. The Serbian smashed the ball high into the air as it headed back towards the centre circle for the kick off, perhaps the sweetest a Fulham player had connected with it all day, aptly encapsulating the air of depression that has swiftly enveloped the Whites. That glorious May afternoon at Wembley seems a lot longer than six months ago.
The hero of that afternoon, Slavisa Jokanovic, is coming under increasing pressure – and not just because Shahid Khan had parted with more than £100m to make his newly-promoted charges competitive at the highest level. Jokanovic selected his tenth consecutive defence of the campaign and a third goalkeeper, although Sergio Rico was largely blameless on his Premier League debut. The defensive errors appear endemic no matter who lines up at the back for Fulham at the moment and Bournemouth’s easy-on-the eye passing style, with pace in the forward areas, was almost tailor-made to take full advantage of their hosts’ frailty.
Fulham began impishly but were fighting an uphill battle from the moment that Timothy Fosu-Mensah brainlessly bought down Wilson inside the box when there appeared little danger. The Bournemouth forward confidently dispatched the spot-kick and Eddie Howe’s side never seriously seemed like they were about to give up that advantage at any point afterwards. They seemed to have time on the ball and, in the graceful midfielder David Brooks, they had the afternoon’s outstanding performer. It was fitting that the Welsh international, who had starred for Sheffield United in the Championship last season, grabbed the crucial second goal – such was his influence on steering the contest gradually away from Fulham.
The home side struggled for fluency in possession and more than a fleeting side of the Bournemouth goal. Such was their desperation for a route back into the contest, Aboubakar Kamara flung himself to the ground under a challenge from Asmir Begovic and was rightly booked for simulation. Andre Schurrle sent their only shot on the target straight at the former Chelsea goalkeeper from just outside the box, whilst Denis Odoi perhaps should have done better with a free header at the near post when Fulham whipped up a rare head of steam.
The hosts’ did up the ante briefly in the second period, when Tom Cairney added a little more craft to their play when he was introduced from the bench, but typically Fulham the crucial second goal at a point when they were beginning to look a little more threatening. Adam Smith nipped in to steal possession from Jean-Michael Seri and the nippy Ryan Fraser carried the ball deep into Fulham territory before feeding Brooks, who slipped the ball between the legs of a stranded Rico to put the game beyond Jokanovic’s men.
The gravity of their situation only increased a minute later when the unfortunate Kevin McDonald was shown a second yellow card for hauling back Brooks, who looked set to double his tally, after he had capitalised on another mistake from Odoi. Bournemouth did make it three with four minutes to go when Wilson finished clinically after being released by a fine ball from Fraser and claimed his fifth goal in his last four matches. Jokanovic cut a diminished figure in lengthy conversation with his assistant Javier Perreira just before the final whistle – and he will need to work hard to lift his troops ahead of what already looks like a six-pointer with fellow strugglers Huddersfield.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico; Fosu-Mensah, Le Marchand (Cairney 60), Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Seri (Anguissa 80); Kamara, R. Sessegnon, Schurrle; Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Christie, Mawson, Johansen, Vietto.
BOOKED: Kamara, McDonald, Mitrovic.
SENT OFF: McDonald.
AFC BOURNEMOUTH (3-4-3): Begovic; Francis, Ake, S. Cook; Smith, Daniels, Lerma, L. Cook (Gosling 80); Brooks (Stanislas 86), Fraser (Defoe 89), Wilson. Subs (not used): Boruc, D. Rico, Surman, Ibe.
BOOKED: S. Cook.
GOALS: Wilson (pen 14, 85), Brooks (72).
REFEREE: Andre Marriner (West Midlands).