The countdown is on. Scott Parker now has less than a week to put his final plans in place ahead of our Premier League opener with Arsenal at the Cottage. I’m excited about football being back, but I reckon it doesn’t compare to how I’d feel if I knew that I’d be walking through the turnstiles next Saturday morning. I pretty much miss everything about it. The smell of the burger vans, the busyness in the pubs and streets pre-game , the sounds of the fans milling around the stadium. And then there’s the actual football. It’s funny how it can be the worst bit sometimes! But the overall match day experience is something that I miss greatly.
Football just isn’t the same. On a slightly happier note, it looks as though we will have a decision on whether or not every game will be televised in some way. The relevant authorities at first said that it wouldn’t happen but after consultation with the FSA and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport there’s a chance that we will have a U-turn on that decision. It definitely makes a difference getting to at least watch the games on TV as football in the Premier League is running the risk of creating even more of a gap between clubs and their fans.
But anyway, less of my musings and on to the football.
We’ve been given a very tough opening fixture in Arsenal. They are undergoing a bit of a revival under Mikel Arteta and, unless something dramatic happens in the next 7 days, we will be facing one of the best strikers in the league in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Arsenal also have a wealth of young talent in the likes of Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah. Our back line, which is still looking far too weak for my liking, could be in for a tough afternoon. On the flip side, Arsenal have their own defensive frailties, and if I had David Luiz in my team I think I’d be in heart attack territory every week.
For Fulham, I’m hoping that our transfer business isn’t done. With Mawson and Sessegnon possibly heading out on loan, we are now even thinner at the back than we were. I really worry about Tim Ream being one of our centre backs against Premier League opposition. It didn’t work two years ago, so I doubt it will work now! Michael Hector is an upgrade on what we had before but the truth of the matter is that we don’t actually know how he will cope in the Premier League. His career has been spent on loan at clubs in the Championship so there will be question marks over whether he can step up. While he didn’t show his best football post-lockdown, he did make a massive difference to our defence so I’m hopeful that he can build on that against some of the worlds best. Our full-back positions are also questionable. I think I’d be happier if we played Joe Bryan further forward as, while his link up with Mitrovic was brilliant last season, defensively he can be hit or miss – something that we just can’t afford in the Premier League. Obviously we have brought in Antonee Robinson from Wigan and he comes with bags of potential. It will be interesting to see who gets the nod at left back next week.
To be honest, I’m not really worried about our standard of midfield or up front players. I do feel that we could do with another proven Premier League striker to cover Mitrovic and to ease the burden for goals, but I think that we have plenty of talent at that side of the pitch. Our midfield is pretty strong with Cairney, Onomah, Reed, Lemina and Anguissa all battling for spots so the big question really is over Parker and how he copes with the decisions.
Parker has been rewarded for getting us back to the Premier League with a new three year deal, but this will be a new challenge all together. There was zero expectation on him when he took the job on as caretaker boss in 2019, but it’s a different world for him now. I reckon those few months in the Premier League last time around will stand him in good stead. Whatever happens though, I hope that we stick with him. The changes made last time around were the final nail in the coffin for our survival hopes, so let’s do it differently this time around.
I was wrong about Aboubakar Kamara. Let’s bring ourselves back to January 2019 when the news was breaking out of Motspur Park that Kamara and Mitrovic got into a fight during a team yoga session. To this day we don’t have the full details of the bust up, but rumours of an arrest for actual bodily harm and criminal damage for the young French striker were rife at the time. And this had all come just two weeks after Kamara had refused to give the ball to Mitrovic to take a penalty in a crucial game against Huddersfield. Kamara went on to miss the spot, nearly throwing away a valuable win, only for Mitrovic to pop up in injury time with the eventual winner. It was another sign that things weren’t good behind the scenes at Fulham. Jokanovic was long gone and Claudio Ranieri wasn’t having the effect that Shad Khan had hoped.
When the news broke about the Motspur Park fight, my mind was made up. I wrote an article about how we needed to rid ourselves of the maverick striker. For me he was immature and having a huge detrimental effect on a team that was already badly struggling. We needed togetherness, not selfish individuals. I wanted him gone. The club sent him out on loan but I had my doubts about whether or not we would see the striker play for Fulham again. I pointed out that apart from a few impactful games in the Championship in the season before, we hadn’t really seen a striker who could really make a difference in the team. Even when he was causing problems for defences in the Championship, he would ruin a good performance with a blatant dive, or too many off-the-ball incidences. I had lost all patience.
I am so glad that the club saw something that I didn’t. Kamara came back from his loan stint at Yeni Malatyaspor in Turkey and we were told that the squad were happy to have him back. The club decided to nurture him rather than offload him. The combined effort of Mark Maunders, the player care manager, and the coaching staff have helped mould AK into the sort of player who we can trust. He has had an injury hit year, but has looked like a different player, and man, than he was the season before. His talent was so raw when he first came to us and his first touch left a lot to be desired, but that had massively improved. He has always had pace and strength, but now he has the game management and intelligent play that really makes a player a threat. Let’s not forget that he was trusted enough for the Wembley final in 2018, but back then I guess we were still worried that he would do something daft and get himself in trouble in the most important match for the club in years. This time around I wasn’t worried. Well, I was concerned about his fitness, but that was it. We had this crazy record last season were we did very well without Mitrovic in the side and AK was a big part of that early on. Despite not being used a lot, he stepped up and scored 2 against QPR, and has probably made more of an impact than Bobby Decordova Reid when asked to do the same thing.
He scored 4 and made 4 this season. Not outstanding, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story really. He offers us something completely different to our other attacking players, and now that he has improved his game management I think that a solid run in the side will see him provide more goals. He is proof that if you take the time to really nurture a player who is a bit rough around the edges, you can really make a difference. Some of the videos after the final last week show a squad that is united, and AK seemed to be in the middle of everything. One video of him with his arm around Stuart Gray told me everything that I needed to know. The coaching staff have him on side, and he has returned their faith.
I think AK could have a lot of fun in the Premier League next season. He looked so sharp when he came off the bench against Cardiff at the Cottage and then at Wembley, and if we can keep him fit, he could surprise a few opponents next season. I was wrong about him, and I’m so glad about it.
How are we feeling, Fulham fans? Ahead of the first Cardiff play-off I wrote that I was, “….uncharacteristically chilled…” about the whole thing, but that has very much went out the window one week on. Not only is tomorrow night a one game shoot-out for a place in the Premier League, it’s a West London derby. It’s much more than a derby game, and much more than a play-off final. It’s hard to express just how much this game will means to both sets of fans. It’s cruel that it has to be held behind closed doors. I honestly believe that it would be one of the biggest play-off games in history given the just 6-odd miles between the two clubs and the fact that we both finished level on points in the league. Having 85,000 people at Wembley for that would have been absolutely spinetingling.
I’ve watched each of the play-off finals at an empty Wembley this year so far and they are bizarre. The FA Cup final was also strange. No fans in Wembley way, no noise, no atmosphere. Instead we will have to rely on our boys to do the business without our backing.
As completely illogical as this may sound, I’m much more confident knowing that we will be playing in white tomorrow evening. The thought of us playing in blue brought back bad memories of our Europa League final against Atletico Madrid 10 years ago. I’ve never liked us playing in navy blue. It’s just so ‘un-Fulham’. Instead, it’s Brentford who will be playing in blue with a commemorative shirt to mark the end of their time at Griffin Park. In truth, what kit a team wears really doesn’t matter, but I still feel a bit better about playing in white regardless.
On the pitch it’s eleven v eleven and nothing else. Our boys v theirs. Scott Parker v Thomas Frank. All the distractions come to an end tomorrow evening at 1945hrs when the referee’s whistle blows, and then all we can do is stand back and hope for the best. I hate not being able to be at Wembley and because of the increased restrictions in Greater Manchester where I’m based, I’ll have to make do with watching the game at home, most likely from behind the sofa. While I’m nervous, I have full faith in the team that we have. We have the players who can devastate teams on their day, and an awful lot of this squad was with us when we played against Aston Villa at Wembley in 2018. Hopefully our experience will count for something. I’d actually argue that our squad, at full strength, is stronger than it was last time. While we are weaker in the full back positions, everywhere else is either the same or an upgrade, particularly in the midfield area.
There is absolutely no doubt that Brentford have a strong squad. They came very close to taking that second automatic spot off West Brom, but that end of season bottle ended their hopes. Hopefully this will play to our advantage, but they looked good against Swansea. We have to be on top of our game if we are to beat this team, but I believe that we will be. Parker announced today that we have a fully fit squad to choose from, which is hardly believable considering the worries around Mitro and the way Kebano was strapped up after the game on Thursday night. But if they are all fit, then what a boost to us. Kebano is on the form of his life, Harrison Reed has been exceptional since lockdown, Josh Onomah genuinely gets better every game and Marek Rodak continues to be a beast between the posts. We can absolutely do this.
I’m feeling uncharacteristically chilled about tomorrow night. It’s not at all that I think that we will roll Cardiff over, I’m just very relaxed about whether we are in the Premier League or Championship next season. Obviously it would be nice to be in the top league again, but I just think that the Championship is much more fun and I have this dream that when we do go back up, it will be as champions. How nice would that be?
However, that doesn’t mean that I’ll not be nervous tomorrow evening, nor does it mean that I want us to lose, or that I don’t care. I hate watching us lose football matches. While Cardiff was the team that I wanted to avoid in the play-offs, I’d rather face them than a Swansea side who will be absolutely buzzing following the final day of the season. I fancy our chances against Neil Harris’ side, but we have to be aware of the threat they provide. This is a very different outfit that it was under Warnock. While they are still hard to break down, they have much more about them going forward. Lee Tomlin is their most creative player, so I’d say that the key will be in keeping him quiet. Make him struggle to have an impact and we should win over two legs.
Fulham have a very talented squad, but in some positions it’s our more workmanlike players who I would have on the field. I’ve decided to put together my starting eleven for tomorrow night so, Scott Parker, if you are reading, feel free to take some notes.
No surprises that Rodak will start in goal. He has been a revelation since he made the position in between the sticks his own. He is by far the most talented keeper that we have had at the club for years.
I’ll stick with the centre back pairing of Michael Hector and Tim Ream. I do worry about Ream going forward as I think that his best years are behind him, but he has played there all season so it would be a strange move to change that up at the last moments of the season.
I’d have Joe Bryan at left back with Cyrus Christie on the right. Christie has been hard done by this season I think given that he has been very solid pretty much every game he has been in for. I’d reward him for that with a place in the side tomorrow evening. Bryan is much better going forward than in defence, we know that. But I’d still have him in the side tomorrow night. With Denis Odoi on the bench, it means that we have a very good option to come on there, or at centre back, if either Bryan or Ream have an off day.
In midfield I want to see Tom Cairney, Josh Onomah and Harrison Reed. Imagine if we had those three fit and on form all season? Reed has been exceptional in particular since the restart while Onomah has really grown into that role after a poor start. The Cairney situation one is an interesting one. He is an immensely talented player but there have been concerns that our play is much slower when we have him on the field. If he could just make that pass half a second quicker, his role as the heartbeat of the side would be much better. But he is still our most talented midfielder, and our captain, so it would be daft to leave him out.
Our front three is where it gets interesting. We have a wealth of talented and luxury players like Ivan Cavaleiro, Anthony Knockaert and Bobby Decordova-Reid, but none of those three have really lit things up in the way we’d have hoped. The we have Aboubakar Kamara who only made his return from injury in the dying seconds of the game against Wigan on Wednesday night but who was a crucial part of our play-off win over Derby County two season ago. Given that he has played well when fit this season and the fact that he is our quickest player, I’d be tempted to put him in from the start.
Then I think Neeskens Kebano should be rewarded for his contribution over the past few games. Two goals, each a wonderful freekick, and his general play since the restart has been far more positive and impactful than Knockaert, Cavaleiro and Decordova-Reid put together, so for me he gets the nod. And Mitrovic is obvious. Our Golden Boot man. What an absolute joy it is to have a player named as the leagues top goal scorer! He loves it at Fulham, and we love him. SO that makes my front three Kebano on the left, Mitrovic in the middle and Kamara on the right.
We have so many talented players to come on then and change the game if needed. We have far more options there that Cardiff do and with the five-sub rule now, we need to make the most of it.
Tomorrow night is big. It’s just an absolute shame that we’ll have to watch from afar.
One of the stand out performers since the restart for Fulham has been Harrison Reed. The midfielder has been plagued by injuries this season, but the stats show us that we seem to be a better side with him in it so being able to allow him to get fit during lockdown has made a huge difference to our promotion bid.
The first word that comes to mind when I think of his style of play is ‘busy’. He seems to get everywhere on the pitch, and buzzes around the opposition, winning the ball back and more often than not making a positive pass straight away. It can be frustrating when players win the ball but then lose immediately by holding on to it too long or by putting in a loose pass, but you rarely get that with Reed. His calm nature on the ball is what makes him so effective.
Reed has been involved in the league 23 times this season and of those games we have won 12 times, drawn 6 and lost 5. While those aren’t mind blowing stats, if we look slightly closer we can see how important he is in the heart of midfield. I’ll take the example of two of our loses this season. When we played Reading on New Years Day, Reed came off the pitch because of an injury after 19 minutes. We were already 1-0 down at that stage, but a bad start got even worse when he came off the pitch and we went on to lose 2-1. More recently we have our defeat in our first game back of the restart against Brentford. Reed had to come off after 80minutes when the score was still 0-0, but we went on to lose 2-0. There have been 20 matches without him. 10 of those have been victories, 4 have been draws and 6 have been losses. It’s simple really. We pick up more points, whether through draws or victories, with Reed in the side.
Whether we go up or not, we should be trying to make Reed’s move to Fulham a permanent one. It might be that the player himself is waiting to see what league we are playing in before he makes his decision. He deserves a shot in the Premier League but he hasn’t been given it at parent club Southampton, so a move away from them may be on the horizon regardless. We obviously give ourselves a better chance of signing him permanently if we go up, and if we do, we must avoid what happened with Ollie Norwood. Not signing him from Brighton when we went up last time was one of the many nails in our coffin that season. Hopefully Southampton will prove to be easier to work with than they were when it involved Matt Targett though.
For now our attention turns to West Brom on Tuesday night. If Cairney is back from injury I’ll be hoping to see a midfield three of him, Reed and Josh Onomah. That’s the midfield that is our most balanced and therefore giving the team the best possible chance of taking something from the game. With the play-offs confirmed and the automatics looking more and more unlikely given the form of other teams, all that matters right now is building up momentum.