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The Big One

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.

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Lydia’s line-up for Cardiff away

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.

Defence

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.

Midfield

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.

Attack

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.

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Why we need to sign Harrison Reed

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.

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A Tribute to Tom Cairney

In the modern football world it’s rare to see a player stay at a club for a sustained period of time and continue to play week in, week out. With the high turnover of managers naturally comes a high turnover of players and the idea of a ‘one club man’ seems to be a thing of the past. When we consider this, it’s all the more remarkable to see Tom Cairney hit the double century milestone for Fulham. When we signed him back in 2015 for a reported £3million, I’m not sure anyone could have foreseen just how important he would become for the club over the next five years. But here we are, five years later and able to look back at his 200 appearances for Fulham knowing that we have someone really special at the club. He has been the captain ever since the 2017-18 season and while he has had a great deal of criticism at times, we know that when Cairney plays well, the team plays well. He has been a crucial part of any success that we have had over the past 5 years.

However, it hasn’t always been easy, with Cairney criticised at times for shying away and not really taking games by the scruff of the neck. We know that he has the talent to win games, or save us from defeat at least, so it’s frustrating when he isn’t able to show that on the pitch. Often the criticism is unfair though with people sometimes claiming that he doesn’t care, but I don’t think a player can reach the 200 appearance mark when they don’t care. Even if they were good enough, they just wouldn’t get played! He has changed as a player and as a man whilst at Fulham. Injuries have maybe meant that he has had to play deeper than he would have when he was younger and gone are those iconic knee slides (probably banned by the physio in case he wrecks himself again!) He has also became a father whilst at Fulham and that brings with it more responsibilities and therefore maturity. Things are quite difficult at Fulham right now, but Cairney is the sort of player who can get us through it.

 I love watching Cairney when he is in full flow. He can look so graceful on the ball, and when he is really on it, he must be an opposition manager’s worst nightmare. He has the ability to completely change the game and can keep the ball like the best of them. When he is given freedom to join the attack you just know that in an instant he can either find the right ball to unlock a defence, or to have a go himself. Who can forget those late goals against Leeds in both 2016 and then in 2017? Or that winner against Blackburn at Ewood Park in 2016? One of my biggest frustrations from this season, and last, is that Cairney has clearly been told to play a much deeper role. It often means that we don’t get to see him really own games the way he used to. I fully believe that if Parker starts playing him further up the pitch that things will change for us in the final push in the season.

When Cairney stroked the ball past Sam Johnstone on that famous day at Wembley, I think my head nearly exploded. For it alone he will go down in Fulham history. But there is so much more to the Tom Cairney story at Fulham than that day, I’m proud to have been able to watch him dance around pitches up and down the country in the famous black and white. Long may it continue.

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The Fulham Conundrum

We are in a bit of a mess aren’t we? A squad filled with incredibly talented individuals, on huge wages, but with the apparent inability to take chances or to defend. We’ve had the chances to propel ourselves into the top 2 this season, but we have missed the mark time and time again. Since lockdown, we have suffered defeats to two of our fellow promotion rivals and in both games we had the chances to win but after those were squandered, our age old defensive problems came back to haunt us and BANG….game over.

It would be very easy to point blame at Scott Parker, but in truth I think our problems run much deeper than that. Yes, Parker seems to have survived thanks to some of the talent in his squad rather than any tactical masterclass, but let’s not forget that he is a rookie and still has a chance, even if it’s a slim one, to clinch promotion through the play-offs. We have to be honest though, would he have gotten the job at any other club in the Championship given his inexperience? I’m just not so sure.

Some have said that even with his lack of experience he should have done better with this squad, but I have to disagree with that. Just because a rookie craftsman is given the best tools available, doesn’t mean that he is going to produce the same level of work as someone with more experience. They say that a bad workman blames his tools, well it works the other way around as well. You don’t create a good workman just by providing him with the best tools. It takes a lot more than that. That’s not to say that he won’t be a great manager in the future. I think he can be given how astute he is and how much study he puts into the game. He gives a great deal of thought to detail, but at the minute he is focusing on the wrong details. I fear that this job with the target of automatic promotion has came far too early for him.

You also can’t really account for the sheer amount of individual errors that occur within this squad. We are very good at handing opportunities to our opposition on a plate. The past two matches were incredibly frustrating to watch, especially considering the mistakes made are ones that have been made all season. What I would say is that Parker surely should have made tough decisions earlier about the culprits of those mistakes. Any player can make an error but if it is a common occurrence like it has unfortunately been with the likes of Joe Bryan and Harry Artur, then they need to be taken out of the firing line for a bit. It might be a big call to do that, but that’s what Parker needs to do. That’s his job as a manager.

I believe that the problem lies more with those further up the pecking order. I don’t doubt at all that Shahid Khan has done a lot of great things for this football club. He has put plenty of money into the squad and let’s not forget about the new stand that will make a huge difference to both the club and the surrounding area. But I don’t think any other club in England would have someone as inexperienced as Tony Khan as their Director of Football. This isn’t a new concern, fans have voiced the opinion that we need someone more experienced than Tony to do such a crucial role around the club for a long time. Tony is clearly a very intelligent guy, but he is only in his mid-thirties and is involved in three different jobs. I don’t believe that he can fully focus 100% on each and unfortunately it seems as though the only company that has flourished is All Elite Wrestling. He might disagree, but that would indicate to me that more time is put into that than is put into either the Jaguars or Fulham. If he could solely focus on one, then I reckon he’d have more success. For Fulham, we need a Director of Football who is ONLY a Director of Football.

For now we just have to find it within ourselves to keep supporting the boys, even if it has to be from afar during the pandemic. While the automatic promotion dream looks dead and buried, we can still get promoted. To be honest, I don’t think we are ready for the Premier League next year, but I do fear the financial problems that may come with staying in the Championship next season. Hopefully a victory against QPR tomorrow evening can inject some optimism back into the club.

#COYW