Luton away and the joys of the Championship

Luton away and the joys of the Championship

On Boxing Day, Fulham travel to Kenilworth Road to play Luton Town. For many, the match will be a great chance to pick up three points against a side in 21st position. But for me, the trip to Luton will hold a greater significance.

As an American Fulham supporter, it is often difficult to explain your loyalties to other football fans who follow the big clubs. Relegation is an alien concept to them. Few fathom why one would support a team in the Championship.

Following Fulham’s relegation last spring, the derisory comments flooded in. Mixed in with the banter was a familiar refrain — “you’ll be playing Luton away next season.” The dig was simple. Instead of mixing it up with Liverpool or Manchester City in the top flight, little old Fulham would be facing off against Luton Town — a team that hadn’t appeared in the top division since the early 1990s.

Group chats were even named ‘Luton Away’ in recognition of the relegation. But far from an insult, the Boxing Day trip to Kenilworth Road will be one of the highlights of the season. What the American fan can’t understand is that the away days to old-fashioned, atmospheric stadiums like Luton’s are priceless experiences. And in modern football, these grounds are rapidly going extinct.

Ask most Whites supporters and they’d tell you they would prefer the Championship over the Premier League. Why? The sanitised Premier League experience, the drastic gap between the top and bottom clubs, and the exorbitant ticket prices all contribute to the top flight losing its luster.

In the Premier League, you could never get a day out at Luton Town. Where else would you walk to the away end through a row of houses?

When I take my seat in the away end (unreserved of course, another Luton specialty), I’ll be buzzing for the festive match. Luton away isn’t an embarrassment — it’s the best away match of the season.

Tony Khan: Learning from his mistakes

Instead of the usual mid-summer angst fueled by a lack of signings, Fulham fans were recently treated to a delicious and refreshing set of prudent acquisitions.

On July 13, Wolves winger Ivan Cavaleiro penned a season-long loan deal with an option to buy. Eight days later, Brighton winger Anthony Knockaert did the same. 

Two pacy, direct, dangerous players had been signed, adding a predatory element to the Whites’ strikeforce. The double signing revealed that Tony Khan had learned from the mistakes of last summer and returned back to basics. 

One of the main errors from the misguided business of 2018 was the targeting of players whose styles were poorly suited to the Premier League, and in some cases, had never played in the division. 

But with the capture of Cavaleiro and Knockaert, Fulham have the services of two players who not only know the Championship inside and out, but have thrived at that level. While some may be suspicious that their respective clubs were so willing to ship off the attackers, they hold the title of being superb in the second division but not quite good enough to be a consistent starter in a top-flight squad.

The attribute of experience playing in a certain division can be overblown, and yes, it is not a prerequisite to have played in England to succeed in England. In recent years, just look at the successes of Brede Hangeland, Clint Dempsey, Mousa Dembele, Stefan Johansen, and more at Fulham. 

But there is something to be said for being familiar with the league’s physical requirements, its speed of play, its energy, and its level of commitment. Failing to grasp these or arriving inadequately prepared to step up to England’s game is a major obstacle for any footballer.

Take a look at some of the flops from the past campaign. Andre Schurrle, although formerly of Chelsea, returned to England some five years later without the pace or strength of his earlier days. He was languid, weak, slow, and ineffective, terribly suited to the demands of the Premier League.

Jean-Michael Seri, who evidently splits opinion, clearly failed to live up to his potential. Used to the slower, more leisurely pace of Ligue 1, the helter-skelter nature of England passed him by and left him as a frequent bystander in tough matches.

Luciano Vietto, brought in from Atletico Madrid, was ineffectual for large stretches of the season, often out-muscled and out-hustled to the ball. Clearly, the strength required to cut it in England was too much for the winger.

Sergio Rico, another import from the Spanish leagues, impressed with his superb saves but maddened many with his failure to catch the ball and command his penalty area when under pressure from crosses. Look no further than his capitulation during the West Ham away match to see how woefully unprepared Rico was for life in the Premier League.

And it’s no surprise that the only new arrival that came out of the season with largely positive reviews, and who in fact won the Player of the Season award, was Premier League-tested: Calum Chambers. 

Now, none of this is to say that players from foreign leagues are automatically set out to fail in England — that view would be jingoistic and misguided. But what I would argue is that for leagues as demanding as the Championship and the Premier League, it is vital to bring in reinforcements with knowledge of the division and what it takes to either get promoted or stay up. And that’s not even to say that you need a team chock-full of experienced division players — an even mix will do. But when you end up with a situation like Fulham did last season, mistakes happen.

Look at the squad, and the lack of Premier League experience was striking. Tim Ream had 13 appearances at Bolton. Kevin McDonald played 26 games for Burnley in 2009/10. Cairney stepped onto the field 11 times as a teenager for Hull back in 2009/10. Schurrle featured for Chelsea for a season and a half back in 2013 to 2015. 

Only Chambers and Mitrovic, two of Fulham’s best performers, had played regularly in the top flight in recent campaigns.

Yes, Premier League tested players were also poor- Timothy Fosu-Mensah jumps out, but he had been recently shut out at Palace the previous season, a sign that we shouldn’t have signed him in the first place. And Alfie Mawson, although bright in flashes under Ranieri, had endured a poor start with Jokanovic.

But put together, the lack of Premier League nous and know-how was apparent and came back to bite the Whites. That’s why Tony Khan’s early emphasis on tried-and-tested Championship stars is an encouraging sign for Fulham fans eager to return to the top flight. And if we get there, maybe the club will heed 2018/19’s lesson and lean more heavily on Premier League regulars.

The failure of Jean-Michael Seri

A year ago this week, Fulham pulled off the club’s biggest ever signing. Jean-Michael Seri, a player who was once linked with Barcelona and dubbed the next Xavi, signed for the Whites. More than just a brilliant centre-midfield acquisition, it instead signified something more — a broader statement of intent that Fulham would not only survive in the Premier League, but thrive. 

A year later, Seri has moved to Galatasaray on loan. Fulham finished second-bottom. And supporters are left wondering how the Ivorian turned from saviour to the most disappointing signing in recent memory. 

By all accounts, Seri seemed perfect for Fulham. A diminutive, but combative midfielder, he could dish out superb passes at an astoundingly accurate rate, as well as provide some tough tackling. Combined with passmaster Tom Cairney in Slavisa Jokanovic’s free-flowing side, Seri appeared set to flourish in SW6. He didn’t.

At the end of the day, Seri was so beneath everyone’s expectations that fans began turning against him en masse. When he needed to be precise, his passes were errant. When he needed to be assertive, his tackles often ended up in bookings rather than takeaways. When required to track back, he turned his jogs into leisurely strides and abdicated defensive responsibility. 

Seri was terrible, and no amount of apologising could make up for the signing that destroyed Fulham hearts.

It didn’t start this way. His debut against Palace was lively enough and Seri even notably dispossessed the much larger Christian Benteke with aplomb. The best point came in Jokanovic’s only league win, a 4-2 victory over Burnley, started off by a goal-of-the-season contender by Seri. The Ivorian peeled away, arms aloft, a smile of glee. Little did we know that he would never hit such heights again. 

There was a cute, scooped assist for Andre Schurrle away at Brighton, but cracks were quickly beginning to show. An inexplicable pass gifted Manchester City their opening goal at the Etihad.

With Fulham quickly entering freefall, Seri went missing. Central midfielders are meant to boss possession and constantly dictate the tempo in the middle of the park. When goings get tough, you count on your centre-mid to get the ball moving, calm down the team, and facilitate attacks. But watch most of Fulham’s matches last season, and you would be hard pressed to identify Seri’s contributions. Sure, there were notable mistakes and key giveaways, but often, the most damning indictment of Seri’s performance was that you hardly noticed he was on the pitch.

The speed of the Premier League passed him by. The strength needed to assert yourself overwhelmed him. And the worst thing was he didn’t want to be there.

More than representing a failed individual signing, Jean-Michael Seri encapsulated the Premier League mercenary, a player who was good in theory but truly saw themselves as above the level of Fulham Football Club.

A look back at the 2018 transfer saga that brought Seri to SW6 is instructive, as until the last minute, it appeared certain either Arsenal or Chelsea would snap up the Ivorian. For whatever reason, Fulham pounced, but it’s fair to say Seri thought himself a player of a higher quality, worthy of European football and not a relegation dogfight. 

And when results start to slip, true fighters rise to the occasion. And from the off, Seri was never going to fight for Fulham. Towards the end of the season during Scott Parker’s late resurgence, it’s illuminating that Seri barely played.

Fulham played their best football of the season and turned their its most spirited performances with Seri looking on from the bench. There was a reason for that.

Was Seri the only player who was lazy, underperforming, and weak during the 18/19 campaign? Of course not. But what separated him from the rest of the abject bunch was the insanely high hopes the fanbase had for Seri in the summer. His failures were made all the more deflating by his glowing reputation.

Now, the midfielder will link back up with Ryan Babel in Turkey. He’ll be remembered as a disappointment beyond belief at Fulham. A player of great talent who consistently failed at every task in SW6, Jean-Michael Seri won’t be missed. But he certainly will not be forgotten anytime soon, a potent reminder of a season horribly lost to incompetence.

The Case for Aboubakar Kamara

On the Fulhamish podcast this week, Tony Khan delivered a bombshell of sorts when he definitively stated he wanted to bring back Aboubakar Kamara next season. 

The French livewire splits opinion like none other among Fulham fans. That statement alone is perhaps the only thing we can agree on. But despite his polarising presence, Kamara must be brought back to the squad and will play a crucial role in Fulham’s promotion hopes.

I was as appalled as anyone else when Kamara snatched the ball out of Aleksandar Mitrovic’s hands against Huddersfield, and then went on to miss the penalty. I was shocked to read reports he was arrested on suspicion of actual bodily harm in a January training ground bust-up. And yes, I laughed along with everyone else when that viral video of Kamara missing an open goal in Turkey materialised.

But in the face of his obvious flaws, Kamara offers so much to Fulham. While it is often lazy and ignorant to dispel a player’s talents to just ‘pace and power,’ that is a massive reason why Kamara is such an asset. One of our biggest issues last season in the Premier League was a lack of cutting edge and physicality that could cut it in the top flight. Kamara possessed those attributes, terrorising defences in matches against Wolves, Arsenal, and Leicester City.

And for all the ridicule that is directed toward his technical ability, Kamara’s skill is actually far better than many give him credit for. The goal against the Foxes is a case in point. Kamara uses his speed to latch on to an adventurous Mitro flick-on, and makes his way to the byline. But he shows superb close control to turn on a sixpence, cutting back with a measured approach to leave the Leicester defender hurtling toward the advertising hoardings. Then, Kamara sizes up a shot between the legs of Kasper Schmeichel for an excellent goal.

Yes, his detractors will dispute all that. The shot was all luck, they’ll say. He should have passed the ball across the face of goal. His cutback was fortunate.

But at the very least, the example shows that Kamara is far from a one-dimensional player with no technique or skill. Look back to his time in the Championship. An exquisite chipped finish, nay, a scoop, against Burton. A lovely feint followed by an exquisitely slotted goal against Hull City. Another shot-fake and confident strike away at Nottingham Forest. 

And I’m sure you will find countless instances where the final product didn’t come off for the Frenchman. He is liable to errant, long range strikes, speculative decision-making, and wastefulness. But what attacker isn’t? My view is if you are willing to take risks and if you add energy and verve to an attack, you are a useful option who can make things happen. I’d certainly have an erratic yet energetic Kamara in my team every day over an entitled and disinterested Andre Schurrle.

Let’s also resist the urge to write Kamara out of the history books of Fulham’s promotion. Although for most of the unbeaten run, the winger was out of the team, he returned to the home stretch to fire Fulham up. While Tony Khan focused on the decision to start Kamara in the second leg against Derby, he actually came back at an earlier point.

With Fulham in trouble at home against relegated Sunderland, Kamara came off the bench in a bold move for the injured Matt Targett. It was Kamara’s surging run that led to Lucas Piazon’s equaliser in a huge game for the side’s momentum. It was Kamara’s shot that led to a corner and Denis Odoi’s headed winner against Derby. And it was Kamara’s energy that gave Villa’s backline headaches in the final and led to the celebratory scenes at full-time.

Perhaps the best case for Kamara’s return is not even his own qualities, but rather Fulham’s priorities. The club is desperately short of attacking options, with only Mitrovic, Kamara, and Rui Fonte able to play at centre-forward. If Kamara is loaned out yet again, the club will have to spend major money to fill a need that could easily be met by the Frenchman.

Kamara’s disciplinary issues do raise a concern, but I truly believe most of his actions can be explained by a love for Fulham and a desire for his team to succeed. The penalty incident was an example of a supremely passionate player who deeply believed he would be the best player to score a goal so Fulham could win. It just turned out he wasn’t. 

And when Claudio Ranieri was left with a young player in the aftermath of a controversial flashpoint, he bungled the response. At a time like that, Kamara needed an arm around his shoulder and a stern talking to. Both to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again, but also to reassure Kamara that his team was counting on him to behave.

Instead, after an overblown yoga incident that even disciplinarian Kevin McDonald agreed was a non-story, Ranieri banned Kamara to the youth team. What followed was the disgraceful arrest. But the banishment was completely the wrong approach for a tempermental player who needed guidance, not ostracisation.

In all, if Tony Khan, Scott Parker, and the Fulham players are ready to welcome Aboubakar Kamara back to Motspur Park this summer, then his return is fine by me. In the Championship, a focused and motivated Kamara can tear up the league and complement Mitrovic’s attacking qualities up front. 

Some supporters may hate him, but what they can’t do is claim he doesn’t have an impact on the pitch. And that impact is what makes Aboubakar Kamara so valuable to Fulham.

Why Ryan Sessegnon should stay at Fulham

Back in May, when it became clearer and clearer that Ryan Sessegnon was nearing an exit from Fulham, I tweeted a thread.

I looked back at the biggest moments in Sessegnon’s career to date with Fulham. His emergence into the first-team during the pre-season in Cork. His first senior goal against Cardiff at the Cottage. The brilliant brace at St. James’ Park. The play-off semi-final goal. That play-off final assist.

It brought the memories flooding back, the nostalgia of Sessegnon tearing up the Championship at a young age – the joy and pride of knowing Fulham had the best teenager in the country.

But when I turned the page to the 2018/19 season to compile the best moments, the well dried up. A goal against Cardiff (he has a habit of those). A goal against Wolves. Some tidy assists. And that’s about it.

What became clear, and what is still clear, is that Ryan Sessegnon is not a Premier League player at the moment. This is not meant as a controversial insult or an attack on the youngster. Far from it.

I truly believe that Sessegnon will be one of the best players in the world in six or seven years. His footballing brain is unparalleled. His movement is next level. His technical ability is excellent.

But we must remember that he only turned nineteen in May. In Sessegnon’s first Premier League season, he was largely disappointing. Sessegnon was not the sensation of years past in the second tier. He looked lost. Outmuscled. Out of sorts. Peripheral. Tentative. Weak.

What many seem to forget is what type of player Ryan Sessegnon is. A left-back turned left-winger, Sessegnon never was one to consistently take over matches. He doesn’t grab matches by the scruff of the neck, taking on four players at a time and beating defenders at will with silky skills.

Instead, Sessegnon’s best quality is his decision-making, his exceptional awareness. His knack for being in the exact right place at the exact right time. His absolutely superb finishing abilities in the box, almost Miroslav Klose-esque, but from a teenager who isn’t even a striker. His level-headedness, when the pass and the touch and the strike always seemed to be effortless, perfectly timed, placed, and weighted.

And in the Championship, these skills shone. He could be peripheral for an entire match, yet pop up and slot home a winner and be lauded. But in the top flight, the defences were far less forgiving and uninviting. Sessegnon rarely saw the sight of goal, and when he did, he often fluffed his lines and blew his composure. Remember the costly misses against Everton and Arsenal away? Chances Sessegnon would have easily converted a season before, he seemed bereft of the same finishing acumen in the Premier League.

Opposition defenders bullied him. His touch began to suffer. The final ball failed to materialise.

It was an underwhelming season. And for sure, other factors played a part. For starters, Fulham were terrible. Historically terrible. It can never be easy playing in a side that’s so consistently awful that every match forces the attack to try to come back from conceding two or more goals.

Fulham’s management didn’t help. Slavisa’s poor start was exacerbated by Claudio Ranieri’s disastrous reign. Ranieri perhaps did the most to destroy Sessegnon’s confidence, constantly belittling him as a weak boy in the press, benching him in favour of the underwhelming Andre Schurrle, and throwing Sessegnon to the side when he needed guidance more than anything.

In all, Sessegnon showed he was not ready for the Premier League. For a player who was 18 the entire season, that is okay. His development has been laser-quick and it’s understandable for a player of his potential to hit a roadblock.

But to leave SW6 this summer, which appears to be a certainty after Sessegnon rejected a fresh contract, would be a massive career blunder.

Am I arguing for Sessegnon to sign a lifetime deal at the Cottage and play his entire career at Fulham? Of course not, although in an ideal world it would be superb. But Sessegnon should at the minimum stay another year or two at Fulham, continuing his development with consistent first team football in a nurturing environment.

A move to Spurs, which has been mooted, is puzzling at this stage. Sessegnon struggled to start at times in the abysmal Fulham side. How would he fare in a side that just made the Champions League final? Versatile enough to possibly play both left back and left wing, it is hard to see Sessegnon getting anywhere near the first team. Certainly no shot of cracking the star-studded attack. And even if Danny Rose departs, Ben Davies is the far more likely left back option.

Yes, Mauricio Pochettino has an excellent track record of developing young players. But it’s exceedingly hard to ‘develop’ someone if they are hardly on the pitch. Bench visits and bit-part appearances in the League Cup beckon for Sessegnon. What sort of top-class development is that for a 19-year-old?

Sessegnon is at the stage in his career where playing week-in, week-out is most important for his progression as a player. The harsh reality is that the Premier League will not offer Sess a chance to do that next season, or even perhaps the season after that.

As a result, Sessegnon must stay at Fulham. Play one more season in the Championship. Sign on for another year in the Premier League after you help the Whites get promoted. Stand out at Craven Cottage, and then by all means make your career move to a bigger club.

At the end of the day, everyone at Fulham Football Club wants the best for Ryan Sessegnon. The desire to keep Sess at Fulham this summer is not borne out of jealousy. It comes from a sincere belief that a big-money switch now will only harm his career development. I know that one day, Sessegnon will outgrow Fulham and become one the world’s best. But if he moves this summer, that day may never come for the Englishman.