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Why Fulham’s future is brighter without Mitrovic

Written by Alex Mackenzie on 11th September 2023

In his debut piece, Alex Mackenzie says we should be optimistic, despite Mitro’s exit.

I have never felt such an emotionally charged connection to a footballer at Fulham Football Club in my 21 years as a season ticket holder than Aleksander Mitrovic. From his very first game to his final one this season, there was rarely a dull moment. He was a goal scorer through and through, a total unit in stature and the ultimate (loveable idiot at times) personality. He defined an era for the club in such a way that no other player during my time has a fan has ever come close to.

Sure, we had great teams, made up of great players like Bobby Zamora in a starting eleven with Danny Murphy and Brede Hangeland, and we had Louis Saha with Barry Hayles and Steed Malbranque. But Mitrovic, he just really stood out to everyone that wasn’t a Fulham fan, a proper one-man symbol of the Fulham team.

A big hole

That is why this team now will feel bereft. The whole club was built around him; he was someone we looked to when we needed a goal, and he was someone who lifted everyone around him when he scored one, more so than when any other player scored. Everyone loved singing Mitro’s on fire.

But like a lot of great players for Fulham, eventually he left. And that is something that we as Fulham fans must and have learned to come to terms with, but why are we finding it harder than usual?

The main reason is what I alluded to earlier: he was a Fulham representative of the highest order. People looked at our club and thought Mitrovic. He scored more goals in one season than any other player in the second tier, and he proved he could do it in the Premier League too. If it weren’t for the ban, then he would have got 15+ goals, which is mightily respectable. But I’ll be the first to say it: I’m kind of glad he is gone. The team will feel it now, but the I reckon our long-term future is brighter.

Far from perfect

I know – it’s a controversial view and very much not what most readers will be feeling right now. But I have been going to watch Fulham for more than 20 years, and there have been players who I have loved unconditionally. Mitrovic, sadly, never became one of those (I said I had an emotionally charged connection, but I didn’t say which emotions). And when he saw red in Manchester in the quarter final of the FA Cup, I was texting my mates straight away to say we might sell in the summer.

Simply put, his conduct on that day wasn’t what Fulham traditionally stand for. Quality players have seen red for Fulham, and quality players (Zidane, Rooney etc) do rash things, no doubt about that. But this was unlike anything I’d ever seen. He completely lost control, and I felt in that moment he was always at risk of being sold. Big players can handle big pressure, and Mitrovic let himself and the club down int that moment. No matter how justified the outburst was, you can’t behave that way.

When he returned, I was so happy to see him shining again, but a big part of me lost love for him in that moment. I’m sure some big European clubs lost love for him in that moment too. So, when Al-Hilal came along, I knew that the outcome might have been completely inevitable. In fact, it was when we signed Raul Jiminez that I knew Mitro would likely be leaving.

There’s an old saying in football coined by Sir Alex Ferguson. I’m sure you are familiar with it: no player is bigger than the club. And despite Mitrovic being almost too focal to live without, that phrase sprung to mind, and I had a reason to mention it. He was bigger than Fulham in many ways, it is after all a club record fee. But he forced his way out by not training properly and he lost the respect of the board and in my view the manager, although Marco will not say that publicly.

But just look at why Marco Silva stayed away from Saudi, and you can tell, Mitrovic and Marco didn’t agree on the new investment the Pro League was making in European football. Marco mentioned that he told Mitrovic privately what he thought of the move. It would be easier to say that he didn’t want him to go publicly, but clearly there were some elements of the conversation he didn’t want to disclose.

A great deal

The board will have wanted him to stay or sell at the right price. But £50m is – and I’m sad to say this – a ridiculously generous fee for a player of Mitrovic’s ability. Fernando Torres cost £50m. Erling Haaland cost £51m. Luis Diaz cost £49m. Raheem Sterling cost £47.5m (last season). Gabriel Jesus cost £45m. The list goes on and on. It’s quite staggering when you think about it.

Mitrovic is not quite as decorated as any of those players. He’s certainly a great goal scorer; he can hold up the ball well and can sometimes dribble the ball well, plus occasionally find a pass. But he isn’t Haaland, and we sold Mitrovic for £1m less. He certainly isn’t Raheem, and he was more £3 million cheaper. I know that the rise of Saudi influence in the game is a blip, but when you consider the way the player was acting throughout the summer, the reputation he had with referees and his general all-round ability, this is not a deal to turn down.

Raul’s short-term potential

The issue though, was not justifying the deal, it was always about finding a replacement and living without him. As soon as Raul Jiminez came in, I knew that he was an instantly more traditionally recognisable Fulham centre-forward. He links up play beautifully, he can score from anywhere, and he plays with integrity. This is a player that I can get behind and fall for because he is technically gifted and will be brilliant for our forward-thinking wingers and central attacking midfielders.

Watching clips of Jota and Jimenez tear teams to pieces at Wolves can be something we look to replicate at Fulham, if Pereira is up to the task. And he can turn the ball in behind to Wilson or Willian within the coming weeks, he will just need time to learn his teammates’ traits. He is also another South American to add to the group and the signing of Traore will help him remember when he played some of his best football as he integrates into the team.

A lot of people will say that the head injury has impacted him, and they might be right. But an injury like that will sometimes make you wilier, more street-wise and smarter as a centre-forward. Mitrovic was always going up for everything and making a nuisance of himself, at times to the team’s detriment, but mostly to good effect. Raul Jiminez will not throw himself about quite like that, he will be foxier and smarter with his positioning in holding up the ball and getting in behind, he’ll be silky smooth and irresistible to the eye, and that is the way this Marco Silva team is going. We needed Mitrovic in the Championship, and he needed to prove himself in the Prem. And Fulham can do it without it, as proven for large parts of last season.

Future opportunities

As the season goes it will become clear that Jimenez is not going to get 15 goals. But, in my view he will press from the front, he will get more assists that Mitro and he’ll likely get five or more goals. He may also allow for other strikers to come into the first team more regularly. And Fulham need players who play for the team and move us away from focusing on a talisman. That is what successful Fulham teams do and have always done.

Marco Silva’s men will become stronger together now that their main man is gone. Muniz and Vinicius will now feel like they are capable of being the new number nine as well. Yes, letting go is hard, especially when you are letting go of someone who the team was built around for large parts of the last two seasons, but it is for the good of the team. When Manchester United lost Ronaldo to Real Madrid they took time to regroup and won the title again a year later. Kane has just left for Bayern, and Spurs already look more likely than ever to qualify for Champions League next year. It is all part of the process. Sure, you can’t replace the impact of those individual players, but in the Oakland A style of recruitment, you recreate them in the aggregate by improving the players you have or adding two to three players that strengthen the depth.

Mitrovic will always be loved at Fulham, and if he had chosen to stay, he would have been a Fulham legend. But it’s because of his rogue nature as a player and person that I never allowed myself to completely fall for him, he still had to prove something to me, which is something I just can’t articulate. He was emotionally draining at times (penalties), and emotionally uplifting more often than not. But, there was just something about him that I couldn’t put my finger on. I guess I may have always known he’s the kind of guy who would jump ship at a club on the up and move to a club in Saudi Arabia. He will be sorely missed, but for a club that usually let’s go of its talent, we should be in for more success without him, it just might take a while. Sit tight, it will be better in time.

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