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Fear and loathing at Craven Cottage – Volume 2: Middlesbrough (h)

The first game of a new season is always a special one in any football fan’s calendar. When you haven’t seen your team play competitively for nearly eighteen months having missed both their promotion and subsequent relegation from the Premier League during that period, having to wait another 24 hours for a 1.30pm kick off on a Sunday feels like a low blow. I suppose we should be thankful that at least we didn’t have to travel down from Teesside for that same kick-off time.

Arriving into Hammersmith the vast majority of fans were robbed of undoubtedly the greatest walk to any football ground in the country by London transport and its “planned engineering works” rendering the district line and subsequently Putney Bridge useless on this wet and windy Sunday morning. The lunch time kick-off gave even the keenest of drinkers minimal time to consume the adequate amount needed to face the prospect of having to play Neil Warnock on the opening day especially when discovering the majority of local pubs weren’t due to open until noon. 

My associate on this Sunday an Arsenal fan so disillusioned with life at the Emirates he was hoping a trip to the Cottage would jump start his love for the game prior to their season opener against Brentford next week. Sporting a Black and White Rage against the machine shirt in an effort to fit the colour scheme the irony that the vast majority of Fulham fans would be Arsenal supporters next week wasn’t lost on me. The pre match meal was a time appropriate fried breakfast on the Fulham Palace Road. The torrential rain only seemed to worsen as we swapped the café for a pub and didn’t relent during the albeit less scenic route to the stadium until the turnstiles were almost in sight.

The season tickets having arrived with barely a day to spare actually worked first time on the turnstiles granting access to the rear of the Hammersmith End and shelter from the now thinning rainfall. The hustle and bustle of the concourse was a sight for sore eyes and the chance for one final beer stood by the river with a close up view of the new Riverside stand was an opportunity not to be missed. My designated seats in H5 were adorned with the infamous clappers on arrival but even ten minutes prior to kick off it was clear to all that they wouldn’t be required to create a raucous atmosphere. The sight of away fans crammed into the Putney end coupled with being shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers signalled that football for the fans was finally back.

Fulham’s line up sprung a few surprises with the game coming too soon for Marek Rodak, so Paulo Gazzaniga continued in goal. Antonee Robinson seems to have edged out Joe Bryan at left back while clearly Tim Ream is being given a chance to bring some experience to a young backline. That youth theme continued through the midfield with the likes of Reed, Anguissa and Cairney all absent while Wilson and Kebano were selected to support Mitrovic in attack.

My reservations around Robinson and Gazzaniga certainly didn’t dissipate when in the first ten minutes the former nearly managed to wrongfoot his own goalkeeper with a backpass leaving half the Hammersmith End with hearts in mouths. Middlesbrough, whose new shirt looked like a nineties throwback to the Ravanelli era offered very little going forward, although despite the statistics showing we registered a total of 16 shots, I don’t remember us creating all that much either.
Wilson’s goal on the half hour mark was certainly the highlight and hopefully signs of things to come from the Welshman. Mitrovic again suffered from any sort of real service and for all his shortcomings defensively Robinson offered very little going forward. The stark contrast between our left and right side in terms of quality was there for all to see.

What was refreshing was Fulham taking the occasional long goal kick. We all want beautiful passing football but over complicating things from the back seemed to become our trademark under Parker. It was nice to get to half time with a lead intact and some sense of optimism among the crowd. Led Zeppelin’s – (Rock and roll) blasting out “It’s been a long time” said what we were all feeling.

The second half was a familiar story in terms of us enjoying possession without ever really threatening to kill the game off or carve out any meaningful chances. With the exception of a Kebano header straight at him I don’t remember Lumley ever having to make a save in anger. 

The beauty of sitting in the Hammersmith End always comes in the second half with the anticipation of every attack unanimously lifting fans to their feet as we enter the final third. The counter balance to this is the complete and utter helplessness and disconnect you feel as the opposition attacks the other end. Something so far away seems so out of your control you can only hope the back four and keeper can perform their duties without having you in earshot to offer your uninformed advice and guidance. Predictably Middlesbrough scored with their only chance and as is the nature of being directly opposite the away fans we had a perfect view of their sickening ecstasy. There may still have been fifteen minutes to go but it never felt like we would be capable of creating that second goal. The introduction of Kamara left me wondering how is he still here and why we desperately need that second striker for the remainder of the season. 

A second half downpour ceased just as the final whistle blew. The long forgotten halftime optimism had been dampened by our inability to hold on to a lead but at least we could now look forward to a dry walk home. Clearly Silva will be given time to build and to judge a man on a team missing so many key players would be harsh but equally it did feel that being back at the Cottage amongst friends somewhat papered over the cracks on a fairly average performance. Whether the combination of being in a stadium full of fans and seeing Luis Boa Morte in the flesh was enough to rekindle my Arsenal supporting acquaintance’s love for the game remains to be seen but his pre-match bet on Wilson as first goalscorer and a 1-1 draw couldn’t have hurt.

Here’s looking forward to a Saturday three o’clock kick-off when the District line and pubs are open but the Heavens are not.

Fear and loathing at Craven Cottage – Volume 1: Charlton (h)

I was somewhere around Stevenage Road at the ridiculously early time of 1.25pm on Saturday when the anticipation began to take hold. The clean slate of a new season coupled with the fact I hadn’t seen a live game in eighteen months had led me to grossly overestimating my time of arrival.

With the exception of programme sellers setting up shop and a few souls clearly as desperate as me to return to a place that inadvertently causes us such pain and suffering, the outside of the stadium remained deserted.

I attempted to waste time with the obligatory purchase of a new home shirt, size small in a bid to stave off any weight gain throughout the season but achieving this feat within a few minutes left me with a good ninety more before a ball would be kicked in anger.

Glancing towards the Cottage gates Charlton had just arrived on their coach with plenty of time to spare. I decided to join the handful of fans eagerly awaiting the home team but gave up after forty minutes as the overcast skies finally delivered on what they had been threatening for a while and hosed it down, with little sign of Marco Silva’s arrival.

This seemed an appropriate moment to slip through the turnstiles and source refreshments before adjourning to my seat for a read of the programme. Just as I am informed that Cottage pies are not available today the paper bag containing my new home shirt perishes from its exposure to the downpour and dumps the pristine white on the dirty floor. I hope this is not an omen for the season ahead and seek solace in my second choice pastry… a Chicken Balti.

The decision to sit in the Johnny Haynes stand is a treat only for pre-season. I suspect I’m one of many displaced fans today finding themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. The opportunity to view a match side on rather than from behind a goal feels a little strange with the only familiarity being the cold black plastic of the seat having not risked splinters by pitching further back on the wooden ones. I sit a perfectly measured distance to get a smell of the turf and manicured bowling green with the added bonus of shelter above from the elements.

The announcement of a delayed kick-off from 3 to 4pm was to be expected given the coach’s no show earlier on. This allowed more time to appreciate the progress made on the new towering Riverside stand. Much of the seating and structure now in place, it occurred that glimpses of the river through the glass on the lower tier may soon be the only way the Thames can be seen from inside the stadium. As the corners are gradually filled in those of us in the Hammersmith end will no longer be able to seek comfort staring at passing rowers on those days when things aren’t going so well on the pitch. The only thing steeper than the Riverside stand in fact is the £3 I was charged for a Diet Coke (minus the lid) .. Oh how we missed this. 

The rain ceased as we crept closer to the revised kick off. Fulham’s line up offered a blend of familiar faces, young prospects and players who we all fully expect not to be here for much longer. In Fabio Carvalho and Tyrese Francois we see glimpses of the riches that exist within our under utilised youth system while the likes of Tim Ream and Anthony Knockaert may again get the chance to prove their worth having been previously discarded. New signing Paulo Gazzaniga in goal gave us two “man buns” in the back line, something that inspired about as much confidence as Gabor Kiraly’s tracksuit trousers.

Aside from the only goal of the game which came courtesy of beautiful combination from Francois and Carvalho around the 30 minute mark, the highlight of the first half was the enthusiasm and banter brought by Charlton’s travelling band of fans, approximately three hundred of whom had made the trip. Naturally the atmosphere was flatter than usual, lone voices trumping anything in the way of a collective sing-a-long. Some would argue that many in attendance were as plastic as the coverings adorning the new seating in the Riverside stand. A point best illustrated by the number of people committing the cardinal sin of trying to drink alcohol at their seat. Something that would suggest they are not perhaps regular attendees but rather there for a nice day out. The inevitable “This is a library” and “We forgot that you were here” seemed fully justified although I will take my hat off and say that “Your ground’s too big for you” was particularly inspired. I draw a line at “Your just a bus stop in Chelsea” though as any cartophile will know Chelsea is very much a club IN Fulham.

To say the performance was a breath of fresh air from last season would be a stretch. Fulham certainly looked lively at times, neat passing from the back but as usual our crossing ability and cutting edge in the final third was predictably woeful. A season at Nottingham Forest has done little to dampen Anthony Knockaert’s enthusiasm but if he had been half as good as the digger currently situated between the Hammersmith and Riverside stands at burying things then Fulham’s advantage would have been much more commanding

Although Charlton gave a good account of themselves, Gazzaniga didn’t really have a save to make. Mitrovic certainly looked leaner than last season, but struggled to splutter out of first gear. The obligatory “Mitro’s on fire” was sung to inspire him, but the man himself barely got warm.  

Fulham were in control for most of the second half without really ever exciting. The final twenty minutes were littered with substitutions and, with ten to go, Silva sent on Bryan and Mawson for Robinson and Ream leaving my preferred back four to play out time. I wouldn’t expect that to be the case against Middlesbrough, with Mawson’s previous fitness injury, but Robinson’s defensive shortcomings should at least bring Bryan into the conversation.

Predictably the game was over bang on the ninety minutes. The advantage of the Johnny Haynes Stand is the swift exit in to Stevenage Road, providing a prompt arrival at my dinner engagement despite the delay to kick off. It certainly wasn’t a game that will live long in the memory, an appetiser for what is to follow next week but one welcomed with open arms by fans who have been desperately hungry for a taste of seeing Fulham in the flesh once again.

Here’s to another season of dreaming #COYW  

Fulham’s Silva lining?

I can’t say the appointment of Marco Silva did very much to excite me in the run up to the start of the new season. Being fairly indifferent as to whether Scott Parker stayed or went, it didn’t feel like a natural step up or a desperately needed change in direction as it did when Slavisa Jokanovic took charge. Reluctantly though we always end up supporting the man in the dugout, no matter how many times your Watford supporting friends warn you of his snake like qualities and general lack of allegiance.  

When appointing a manager in the Championship especially as a side favourite for promotion you need someone with longevity, someone not limited to being good enough to get you up but also capable of implementing a long term strategy aimed at ending this horrendous yo-yo life cycle we find ourselves stuck in. Questions around his loyalty definitely have to be factored in when considering his suitability for the club in its present state and our need for stability. At the same time if he were to stick around he isn’t necessarily a manager naturally out of his depth in the Premier League albeit with a lot to prove. 

When we were last promoted Parker was an unknown quantity and evidently fell into the bracket of being not quite good enough to transition the divisions. At the very least Marco Silva does feel like a name who few other clubs could have attracted to even consider taking a role in the Championship. He was a welcome addition to the regular names that feature on the managerial merry go round at this level. Seeing a shortlist with the likes of Pardew, Lampard, Allardyce and God forbid John Terry is enough to scare any of us into thinking Silva is a pretty decent option. 

On the other hand the illusion of Marco Silva does not perhaps align with the reality of Marco Silva. Upon informing friends and colleagues of our newly appointed gaffer I have been told that they know him as “the man who got Watford promoted” or “the man who kept Hull up” both of which of course are completely inaccurate and untrue but go a long way to showing what some good PR and friends in the press can do for your image. I want to be more positive but it’s hard to buy into someone based on a good 10 game spell at Watford and a few battling performances with a poor Hull team that ultimately wasn’t enough to beat the drop. 

It certainly seems like the feedback from previous players having worked under Silva are positive which is an encouraging sign. He has essentially adopted a squad that on the face of it even in its current state should be good enough to get out of the division so his man management skills will be best measured by his abilities to keep the likes of Mitrovic, Reed and Tosin engaged in the project and playing for him week in week out. Whether or not he is able to get a tune out of some of our more inconsistent performers and forgotten men of the club will be another indicator. 

One of the more positive aspects of having appointed Silva for me is the fact he had previously transitioned from a director of football role into a managerial position during his time at Estoril and in turn may be a more experienced pair of hands than Parker or even Jokanovic in dealing with the internal bullshit and transfer policy that seems to have dogged our club throughout the Khan era. You would at least hope that a man who knows that side of a football club would have probed Fulham on that aspect of the role prior to accepting the position in the first place.

What is for sure is that after three attempts at managing in England, Fulham has to be the last chance saloon (in this country at least) for Silva who has promised so much and delivered very little. It certainly feels like he has something to prove and we can only hope that he is the right man at the right time. I will freely hold my hands up and say I was completely unimpressed when we appointed Roy Hodgson back in 2007, another manager who had something to prove on these shores at the time so who’s to say how this one will pan out. 

Expectations have to be high from the start though as we simply cannot afford to be unsuccessful this season. While Parker was given time to build and we forgave him for his inexperience, Silva needs to hit the ground running which is why it is certainly encouraging to see some transfer activity happen now rather than the obligatory deadline day scramble we have been used to of late. The old adage goes that a manager needs previous experience of the Championship to be successful but Silva only has to look as far as his fellow countryman Nuno Espirito Santo at Wolves in 2017 to see that with a good squad that buys into your style of play anything is possible. 

As the start of the campaign looms I am fully prepared to leave my scepticism at the turnstiles and blindly follow this man into battle. COYW! 

Goodnight Mister Tom?

It’s fair to say the pressing concern for every Fulham fan at the moment is the need for a new centre-back, maybe even two! Right now, we would all settle for a rumour linking us to a new centre-back. In the grand scheme of things any issues outside of that whether it be the need for a second striker to backup Mitrovic or further additions to the midfield pale into insignificance.

That being said I still think there is a conversation to be had around our midfield and specifically the justification for Tom Cairney to start. I cannot be alone in feeling that our captain has somewhat plateaued in recent seasons, perhaps even gone backwards. For much of last season it felt as though he was always going through the motions, never really match fit and a shadow of his former self. Upon viewing the shortlist of our goal of the season contenders I couldn’t quite believe how many times he featured and do wonder whether the 6-8 albeit beautiful goals each year mask the reality of his real contribution.

Cairney managed just three assists last term in 42 appearances. During our previous Premier League campaign, he managed just a single goal and solitary assist in 32 appearances. In fact, his best season for us was in Slav’s first year when were beaten by Reading in the play-offs, managing thirteen goals and ten assists. The subsequent promotion season in 2018 saw both his goal tally and assist figures drop by half. We all know about his qualities but these days he plays like someone who won’t take a risk for fear of damaging his pass completion percentage. I swear there are times during a game when he shapes to play a pass he would once have taken a chance on only to turn back inside and lay it off to Harrison Reed six feet away.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what he needs to do more in the current team as his very role is so hard to define. He isn’t as combative as Reed and can’t seem to beat a man like Onomah can, so perhaps his link up play just needs to offer more than a huge variety of short square balls. By no means am I underestimating his leadership and influence in the squad but is this a season where Fulham can afford to have players who only bring that to the table? And how much do we really lose on the field when he does come off given the likes of Hector and Mitrovic do offer visible vocal leadership as well.

We are only one game into what will be a tough season and Cairney will get game time to hopefully step up in a way that he certainly didn’t last time round in the top flight. With Harrison Reed and Josh Omomah solidifying their places in the midfield we have the likes of Anguissa, Lemina and at the time of writing Seri still on the books as options. There were times last season where I felt Mcdonald or Johansen could offer something different when TC was off his game but the chances of either of these (or Seri) featuring seems highly unlikely.

While Cairney rightly remains a fans favourite and a loyal servant to the club we can’t afford to be sentimental when assessing what value he brings to the team this season. Perhaps more needs to be done to define the role he plays but with the first day of the season severely lacking in creativity Parker will need his skipper to find a new level. It may be seen as somewhat blasphemous to lay criticism at his feet and so early in the season but this really is more of a comment on the last few years rather than the Arsenal game itself.