Collins Column: The Brightest Lights Return

Jack J Collins 10th August 2018

On the eve of the season, Jack J Collins gives his thoughts on the window, the opening day and all things black and white.

So the transfer window is done, Fulham have stunned the world with a mind-boggling acquisition of world talent, and life under the brightest lights of all starts again this weekend against our old friends Roy Hodgson and Ray Lewington as their Crystal Palace side return to the Cottage, in a rematch of the last Premier League game Fulham played, back in 2014.

It seems an age ago that Chris David lashed home that strike in the 90th minute to gain Fulham’s last ever point of the first Premier League era and supposedly usher in an era where the young contingent of Woodrow, Dembele, Roberts, Hyndman and co would bring the good times back to South West 6.

It never happened for them, but eventually a cult icon would rise from the ranks of the academy in the shape of Ryan Sessegnon. Since the 16-year-old was introduced on his league debut against the once-mighty Leeds United at Elland Road, there hasn’t been too much that’s gone wrong for the Whites.

Photo: Rex Features

Sure, there have been periods of uncertainty, but the trajectory has been very much one back to the top since Fulham’s boy wonder made his bow that night. And so it comes to pass, that 1560 days since the Whites were relegated at Stoke City, amongst a myriad of problems that included a psychotic German manager, poor recruitment and a gaping disconnect between the club and the fans, Fulham are once more back at the top table.

The Whites’ manager is now a hardened Serb enforcing a possession-based, exciting brand of football; Fulham have had the most successful transfer window in the club’s recent history; and to top it all off, Shad and Tony Khan, with Alistair Mackintosh and their team have plugged the aforementioned divide through their commitment to the cause. It is, to use a cliche, a wonderful time to be a Fulham fan.

Much of the chat across social media is hugely positive, which is a fantastic thing all around, but it’s important to keep an eye on what’s going on across the rest of the Premier League landscape and to make sure that feet remain firmly on the ground—even with a wave of optimism sweeping the fanbase.

The Premier League is a hugely competitive league and much of the brilliant signing that was done on deadline day was simply what the Fulham squad needed to compete. That’s been achieved now, and to much aplomb, but there’s still plenty of work to be done in getting the signings to bed into the squad, the city and the club as a whole—the importance of having a tight-knit unit cannot be forgotten, especially in the exploits of last year.

That said, there is little room for sentimentality in the selection either. The group of players who made the impossible possible last season will always hold their places in the folklore of Craven Cottage, but if they’re not up to scratch in the top division, then playing them will mean that their achievements could be tainted by not being able to retain top-flight status.

Marcus Bettinelli was a hero last season, but probably won’t start against Palace (Photo: Rex Features)

As ever, there is a balance to be struck. The finest of the crop will remain, and they will be the base of the squad that Slavisa uses to make Fulham’s return to the top flight a successful one. Cairney, Sessegnon, McDonald, Ream and Christie would have surely all started on Saturday but for Ream’s injury, and you would imagine they will be a key part of Slavisa’s squad this season. Expect Johansen, Kamara and Kebano to play key parts too this season, whilst Mitrovic will lead the line after his return on a permanent deal.

There are characters missing there, but there will always be squad turnover, and in a team with as many loanees as Fulham had last season, things were always going to change a lot more than in a club with very few loan signings—that’s just the nature of the game. Cult heroes move on, desired loan players don’t return, and the world keeps on turning. New heroes will rise.

The other thing to bear in mind is that this game is not a ‘win or bust.’ Yes, Palace is on paper a more winnable game than City or Liverpool, but they’re an extremely well-drilled, hard to beat side under a manager that we know sets his teams up well. There’s no negativity here – I think Fulham are capable of winning this game, but equally, with a heavy turnover of players and a raft of early injuries, there’s plenty to be optimistic about, whatever the result is tomorrow.

It promises to be a special occasion, with the Cottage once again gracing the most-watched division in the world, and a first chance to pit Slavisa’s wits, and this team’s talent; against the best that the Premier League has to offer. Enjoy it, get behind the boys, and never forget that the season is never defined by the opening day.