Has Slaviša Jokanovic assembled the Fulham team of the century at just the right moment?
Times like this rarely come around for clubs like Fulham. Not since 2010’s spellbinding Europa League final run have the Whites conjured up such optimism, goodwill, and footballing joy.
The current 13-match (and counting) unbeaten run is truly historic and has provided the long-suffering Fulham faithful with moments to savor for years to come. And there is a feeling around the club of unfinished business- that this year the team Slaviša Jokanovic has assembled can go one step further than last year and achieve promotion to the Premier League.
Fulham’s weekend win over Derby County marked their tenth win in their last 13 games. 33 points from a possible 39. 32 goals scored and just ten conceded. Five clean sheets in the process. It is no understatement to say that this is the best form Fulham have seen in decades; not since the jubilant campaign of 2000/01 have the Cottagers hit such heights.
The last four matches have been ever the more impressive considering the high-quality opposition Fulham have faced. Following a draw with Bolton in mid-February, the Whites embarked on a run of fixtures against six out of top nine, including all other teams in the top six.
On paper, it appeared a brutal stretch that would test the club to their limits. Common knowledge was that the Whites would be clinging on to their spot in the play-offs by March.
Yet this Fulham side pays little attention to common knowledge. The supposed heavyweight clubs in the Championship, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers, both left Craven Cottage empty-handed after being swatted away and held goalless.
Fulham beat Derby County away for the first time in 16 years, while they held Bristol City to an entertaining 1-1 draw. Four matches against four of the best in the division have resulted in three wins and a draw.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about the magnificent run is that it has not been propelled by a single standout player, but rather by the entire squad.
The return of Marcus Bettinelli has been a revelation, and just like last season, he has brought newfound form to side. Tomas Kalas, and Tim Ream in particular, have been stalwarts at the back. Ryan Fredericks, who recently marked a century of appearances for Fulham, has terrorised opposition defenses all season with his searing pace. Matt Targett has added class and composure, despite his tender age, proving to be an astute loan signing.
And that’s just the back five. The midfield three has truly reestablished itself after early season struggles. Tom Cairney is back to his rampaging best after an injury-hit first half of the year, Stefan Johansen has recaptured his 2016/17 form, and Kevin McDonald is imperious as always in the centre of the park.
Aleksandr Mitrovic truly seems to be the final piece in Slavisa Jokanovic’s jigsaw. The Serbian striker has fired home three goals in his last three matches, providing strong hold-up play, powerful driving runs, and lethal finishing. Finally Fulham have the striker they deserve.
Then there is Ryan Sessegnon. At this point, superlatives can no longer do him justice. There are simply no words for the season he is having. At the age of 17, having played the majority of his matches as a full-back, the Englishman has bagged an outstanding 14 goals.
Sessegnon’s passion and love for the club makes each goal ever the more enjoyable; he is a dream come true for Fulham fans. Suddenly, talk of a spot on the plane to Russia no longer seems so outlandish.
After the next two matches against Sheffield United and Preston, 8th and 9th in the table respectively, the Whites have a run-in of dreams. In their remaining nine fixtures, they play just one team in the top ten. It is not totally radical to dream of an unbeaten finish to the campaign.
But times weren’t always this good on the bank of the Thames. Remarkably, some supporters were calling for Slavisa’s sacking after a rough October that left the Whites languishing in 17th.
Such rash judgements seem foolish now, and credit is due for the level-headed management that trusted in the Serb’s judgement. Come May, that patience could very well be richly rewarded.