From Chaos to Contenders: How Fulham Have Bounced Back
Twelve months is a long time in football. This time last season Fulham were sinking without trace, bottom of the Premier League after a run of eight defeats in nine matches and on their second manager of the season. A year on, and after a long look in the mirror, the team are almost unrecognizable – only four players started Friday’s win over Swansea and the final day of last season at Craven Cottage. But some things never change: Aleksandar Mitrovic is still scoring goals, and lots of them. Since August the Serbia striker has scored 23 times in 24 appearances for club and country.
For Aboubakar Kamara, the turnaround has been even more remarkable. Banned indefinitely from the club’s Motspur Park training base and sent on loan to the Turkish club Yeni Malatyaspor after an altercation with a member of security staff in January, Kamara was reintegrated into the first-team squad in the summer and has seemingly put a turbulent start to the year behind him.
Those at Fulham feel the forward has matured since that incident and he has been influential this season, notably scoring twice against Queens Park Rangers last month in the absence of Mitrovic, with whom he clashed with during a yoga session last season. “You’ve got to manage Abou differently – it’s not the same as how you manage some of the others,” said the Fulham head coach, Scott Parker. “Abou’s not been a problem since I stepped into this role. Maybe the perception on the outside is very different to the reality and the reality is he’s a well-respected, appreciated member of this squad.”
There are few remnants of the supermarket sweep of two summers ago, with Fabri, Jean Michaël Seri and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa sent on loan and Ryan Babel’s red hair and Lazar Markovic’s long locks a distant memory. Those four survivors from that 4-0 defeat by Newcastle United in May – Mitrovic, Alfie Mawson, Joe Bryan and the captain Tom Cairney – are key pillars of Parker’s side. Mawson, who spent most of last season injured, has been ever-present this season, while Bryan, who excelled in the second tier with Bristol City, visitors to Fulham on Saturday, has proved a consistent performer.
Tying Cairney and, more pertinently, Mitrovic to long-term contracts in the summer has proved a masterstroke. “He is motivated by goals,” Parker said of the Serb. “His general all-round play is first class. We can mix our game up, go up to him and he can give us a platform because of his physical presence; we can also play it into his feet and build around him. I think he enjoys being at this club – it’s a place where he is comfortable. We are delighted we have him on our books and he is scoring the goals for us.”
Only the league leaders, West Bromwich Albion, have more goals than Fulham’s 31 goals this season, a haul matched by Bristol City and Preston. Keeping the ball out of their net was Fulham’s undoing last season – they conceded 81 times, the worst by any club in the Premier League since the club’s relegation in 2015. However Parker has soothed their defensive frailties, with Mawson’s return to fitness and form a key factor.
In January Michael Hector, outstanding on loan at Sheffield Wednesday last season, will sign from Chelsea to bolster their defensive options. Fulham, who are on a four-match winning streak, are third and well-placed to compete for the automatic promotion places, where the vice-chairman, Tony Khan, has said he wants them to be. Parker acknowledged Fulham had established a healthy platform to build on but December will provide the best barometer of their progress, with matches against four teams of the division’s top seven before Christmas: Bristol City, Preston, Brentford, and Leeds.
It is not only Mitrovic who is scoring, with the Under-21s striker Timmy Abraham, younger brother of the Chelsea striker Tammy, scoring in both his EFL Trophy appearances, while the England youth international Jay Stansfield is the leading scorer in the Under-18 Premier League. Stansfield is the son of the former Exeter City forward Adam, who died following cancer treatment aged 31 in 2010, and there was a hope he would go on to wear the No 9 shirt retired following his father’s death. “Jay always played up a year,” said Julian Tagg, the Exeter chairman. “He always gave the proverbial 110%. He is exactly the same as his father – he wants to win and is a very good goalscorer.”
Exeter are proud of Stansfield’s development but his departure in the summer was also galling given they received only £150,000 in compensation. For Exeter, who got an initial £850,000 from Chelsea for a 16-year-old Ethan Ampadu two years ago, it represented another sucker punch after RB Leipzig paid £500,000 to sign the Wales international on a season’s loan in July. There is an air of resignation that Ben Chrisene, who made his senior debut aged 15 in August, will be next, with Liverpool, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Leipzig among those tracking the midfielder. Fulham, too, sold teenage talents in the summer, with Ryan Sessegnon and Harvey Elliott joining Tottenham and Liverpool respectively, but after a traumatic return to the top flight, the future again looks bright by the Thames.