Just how important will Fulham's strong start prove to be in May?
On Saturday, Fulham achieved a feat. that the club hadn’t managed in 16 years. After the Cottagers’ 2-1 away win against Preston, they had finally won their opening two league matches for the first time since the 2000/01 season. It’s no coincidence that season marked Fulham’s last promotion campaign. This year, with a rejuvenated squad led by ambitious manager Slavisa Jokanovic, Fulham have a legitimate chance at returning to the Premier League.
The importance of a strong start to the season cannot be understated, as slow starts have undoubtedly hampered the club’s previous two Championship seasons. In 2014/15, under the deluded stewardship of Felix Magath, the Whites had to wait the eighth league match to record their first win. Following this, in 2015/16, the first league win came in Fulham’s fifth match.
Momentum is key in a league like the Championship, and by beginning the season sluggishly, Fulham effectively killed off their promotion chances in past years. Yet this season marks a welcome departure from such ineptitude.
For the first time in years, the club enjoyed a genuinely reassuring and competent pre-season. Signings such as Denis Odoi, Tomas Kalas, Floyd Ayite and Sone Aluko were shrewd acquisitions. The friendly results were also encouraging, with emphatic wins over Championship rivals Preston and Brighton, and a victory over Premier League Crystal Palace.
Nevertheless, Fulham fans are trained to hold their optimism in check after the crushing disappointment that has defined the last four years. And going into the Whites’ opening match of the season against heavily-favoured Newcastle, few expected a victory from the Cottagers.
But, the club shocked the recently-relegated Magpies, thanks to a towering header from Matt Smith and a disciplined defensive performance from the centre-half pairing of Michael Madl and Tomas Kalas.
Fulham then followed up their impressive opening match win with another victory over Preston North End at Deepdale, in a match that revealed the change in mentality that has occurred at Craven Cottage. The Whites went 2-0 up and held on for the win despite conceding a late goal. After going 2-0 up (the so-called ‘most dangerous lead in football’) Preston grabbed a goal in the 71st minute.
Jokanovic’s side had been cruising up until that point, having scored their second goal just four minutes earlier. But Preston’s strike altered the dynamic of the match, and suddenly the Lilywhites were raining attack upon attack on the Cottagers’ goal. Supporters felt they had heard this story many times before, anxiously dreading the moment when Preston would equalize deep into stoppage time (most likely off a set piece), sullying the previous 90 minutes of hard work.
Crucially, the moment never came. Despite a couple close calls, Fulham held strong and exited Lancashire with all three points, a sign of a side who look set to banish their defensive immaturity of yesteryear. This is a squad who finally look streetwise, who have the aura of competence, who know exactly what it takes to win.
Lead by a blossoming partnership at the heart of defence led by Kalas and Madl, Fulham’s porousness seems to be solved. The departures of Moussa Dembele and Ross McCormack have been eased by the exciting talents of Aluko and Ayite, two players who add pace and purpose to attack. Matt Smith is a player reborn under Jokanovic, revealing how important confidence is in the form of a striker. For the first time in years, Fulham have a team who can challenge at the top end of the league.
It is still early days, and one can not draw too many conclusions about a season in mid-August. Yet Fulham’s impressively strong start can only spell success for the rest of the year. The Cottagers currently sit fourth – one of four teams to record a perfect start to the season. Come May, there is no reason they can’t find themselves in a similar position.