Jack Collins says let’s remember all the good things and stick together as we gear up for the start of the season.
It’s been a funny old summer at Fulham, and there have been a lot of valid reasons for negativity of late. Many, myself very much included, have felt aggrieved about a whole host of matters and it feels a bit like wherever you stand on any of a number of issues, there have been bones of contention.
Whether it’s been the sky-high season ticket prices in the Riverside Stand, the lack of addressing the gaping hole in the team at centre-back in the transfer market, the strange marketing on the away kit, the issues at play in the Manor Solomon deal, or the somewhat shady sponsorship deal with W88 – it’s felt like there’s something for everyone to have a gripe about.
And this piece isn’t supposed to brush any of those issues under the carpet – they’re all perfectly valid issues to at least consider, no matter how you end up feeling about them. But as we head full tilt towards the season opener against Liverpool this weekend, I wanted to think about some positives – because there are plenty of those to discuss as well. And perhaps this as much to convince myself as anyone else.
The promised land
Whether we’re suitably ready for it or not, the Premier League rollercoaster has come back around as quickly as it ever does, and the time has come to face it. And truthfully, in the tidal wave of joy that fuelled most of last season, it’s easy to forget that this was the goal – to get back among England’s elite.
And it’s one we achieved in style. Taking the Championship by storm, there are plenty who will argue that Marco Silva’s swashbuckling Fulham were the finest side ever to have graced the division. Powered by an insatiable Aleksandar Mitrovic, Fulham were irresistible throughout last season – notching a record 106 goals, scoring seven on three separate occasions, and scoring four or more on twelve. That’s more than a quarter of league games across the season – it’s easy to see why we were all having such a good time.
But with all that, comes the jump to the next level. It’s a jump that the players were desperate to achieve, that the manager was desperate to achieve, and that the fans were desperate to achieve. So, having made that ascension, the natural next step is to enjoy the ride at a higher level. Is it going to be the same level of chaotic goalscoring fiesta that we enjoyed last year? Obviously not. But I think that this is where we want to be, as a club – back where we feel we belong.
There’s a different elation at the thrill of survival as there is of winning a title, naturally. But the Great Escape counts right up there as the most momentous, most rewarding of Fulham moments – up in the pantheons of our modern era alongside the Europa League run, and this represents a fresh opportunity to dream that dream, with a team that have endeared themselves to us along the way.
The old guard proving their worth
Which takes us nicely to some of those names, who are hungry to prove themselves in the top tier – to end the chattering background noise. Only today we’ve seen Harrison Reed quoted in The Athletic as saying that while new signings are still imperative, “everyone deserves a chance in the Premier League. We’ve got a good core group that came up from last season that bonded together, worked hard in pre-season and kept our heads down.”
Reed will feel that this is the stage, and the team, where he can prove his worth this time round. He feels like a Fulham stalwart these days, and there are plenty like him who could well have a chip on their shoulder about the perception of this squad about not being good enough to make the step up to the top tier.
You’ll be hard-pressed within the black-and-white bubble to find anyone who doubts the goalscoring prowess of Aleksandar Mitrović, but outside of it much of the press hankering has been asking whether he ‘has the minerals’ to score goals in the Premier League.
Many of those journalists conveniently ignore that he was effectively blacklisted by Scott Parker in Fulham’s last campaign, and that he notched 11 (more than Michail Antonio has ever scored in a Premier League season, for what it’s worth) in the turbulent campaign of 2018/19.
Mitrović has become far more of an all-rounder under Silva, adding his best ever assist tally to his best ever goal-tally last season, and has a team built to play to his strengths. If pre-season is any indication, he looks hungry to carry on for a season where he not only tore up the Championship, but also led Serbia to the World Cup with an iconic last-minute goal against Portugal in their last group stage game. You’d be mad to bet against him.
But these two are not all. Kenny Tete has proved himself a savvy operator at this level and will feel he is returning to a place he is comfortable. Tosin Adarabioyo has grand designs on being a full England international, and he will know this is a stage he needs to shine on if he’s going to make that dream a reality.
Harry Wilson was Bournemouth’s top-scorer the last time he was in the Premier League. Bobby De Cordova-Reid was ours. Antonee Robinson, Joe Bryan, Neeskens Kebano, Tim Ream and skipper Tom Cairney. All will feel that they have not shown their quality for long enough on this stage, or been given the opportunities to do so. This time round, if what Harrison Reed says can be believed, they will have those opportunities.
Added quality here to help
Nobody is arguing that this team is anywhere near the finished article in terms of personnel, least of all Marco Silva, who spoke candidly about the need for new additions after the friendly at home to Villarreal. But it is worth pointing out that the new faces in the camp come with some serious pedigree.
João Palhinha, Manor Solomon and Kevin Mbabu are all players who have competed in the Champions League over the past couple of years – and are all established internationals for their countries to boot. Palhinha, in particular, looks like a remarkably good bit of business.
The defensive midfielder was a colossus for Sporting as they finally ended their 19-year-wait for a Portuguese league title, in an era that had seen rivals Porto and Benfica surge ahead of them in pretty much every sense.
Palhinha missed only two games as Sporting roared to the title, losing only one game all year – and in that game, he was brought on at half time with the club having already been crowned Champions. His partnership with box-to-box dynamo Matheus Nunes was the heartbeat of Os Leões playstyle, with his ability to shield his defence whilst his partner roamed around more freely – something that I think we will see more of at Fulham with Harrison Reed.
And then there’s Andreas Pereira and Bernd Leno, two players who have come in from top Premier League sides and who both have a major point to prove. Pereira had a (mostly) successful time at Flamengo last year, if we discount the Libertadores final, but never really settled in his loans away at Lazio, Granada or Valencia.
At 26 though now, this represents a fresh start in a permanent home and with the backing of a large Portuguese-speaking contingent at the Cottage, a point to prove about his ability to make things happen in the Premier League, and a dead-ball delivery that we’ve seen used to perfection in pre-season, I have high hopes that this is the season he makes his mark.
Leno, on the other hand, has made one – his arrival in the Premier League was greeted by fanfare from Arsenal fans as his shot-stopping abilities quickly earned him accolades. Moved on by Mikel Arteta who wanted a more ball-dominant goalkeeper to build from the back, Leno arrives at the Cottage with not only excellent pedigree, but an opportunity to reinstate his claim to be part of the Germany squad for the World Cup – with his place having been recently usurped by Kevin Trapp of Eintracht Frankfurt and Oliver Baumann of Hoffenheim.
It’s clear that Fulham’s strategy has been about bringing in additions of considerable quality – our five signings so far have 82 Champions League appearances between them – and many of them feel like there is real fire in the bellies – a point to prove. And that feels incredibly exciting in itself.
It’s time to rally together
Part of being a fan is holding the club accountable when things don’t feel right. There’s been a lot of that across the fanbase of late, and we should be proud of it. And part of it is being there on matchday, looking at the positives, and getting behind the boys. We’ll do that too, and we should be proud of it also.
We’re Fulham, and we’re back in the big time. Let’s make it count.