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Why optimism is in the air for Fulham ahead of Premier League opener

City A.M. Monday, 6 August 2018
Why optimism is in the air for Fulham ahead of Premier League openerNewly promoted sides are expected to feel a bit of apprehension upon the dawning of a new season. Making the step from the Championship to the Premier League is undoubtedly a tough task, after all.

For Fulham, that task is made harder by their route to the promised land. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side beat Aston Villa 1-0 in May’s play-off final to win promotion after four seasons in the second tier.

The problem is that teams that come up via the play-offs don’t tend to fare well the following season: three of the last four have been relegated in their first campaign, while it’s 16 out of the 26 in Premier League history.

Try telling that to a Fulham fan though. Optimism is the order of the day at Craven Cottage. For supporters, players and manager there’s a sense that the club are back where they belong.

*Read more*: West Ham showing ambition ahead of Premier League season

“I’ve seen a lot of people saying that it’s one of the best times to be a Fulham fan in recent years and it certainly feels like that,” says season ticket holder Thomas McIlroy.

“There’s not been such excitement since we went up to the Premier League for the first time [in 2000-01] and had players like Louis Saha and Luis Boa Morte and signed Edwin van der Sar.”

The following season they finished 13th under Jean Tigana and reached the semi-final of the FA Cup. How they’d take something similar this time around.

The main reason behind the excitement is the work done in the transfer window so far. Owner Shahid Khan has splashed the cash – but in a considered approach, not a scattergun style.Slavisa Jokanovic got Watford promoted to the Premier League, but was replaced by Quique Sanchez Flores (Source: Getty)

“We have a good player base, but we know that we have to invest in experienced people to support them and be competitive in the Premier League,” manager Jokanovic told Spanish newspaper Marca recently. And that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Central midfielder Jean Michael Seri, who was close to joining Barcelona last summer, has been brought in for a club-record fee of £25m. Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored 12 vital goals in 17 appearances while on loan from Newcastle last season, has joined for an initial £22m. Swansea centre-back Alfie Mawson joined on Thursday for £20m, while German World Cup winner Andre Schurrle was signed on a two-year loan deal from Borussia Dortmund.

Add defender Maxime Le Marchand and goalkeeper Fabri for £5m each and it takes Fulham's outlay to £77m – putting them third for expenditure in the Premier League, behind only Liverpool (£171m) and West Ham (£86m).

That’s impressive stuff, and there could well be more outlay to come with Arsenal defender Calum Chambers close to a loan move and last year’s loanee left-back Matt Targett of Southampton a target for between £10m and £15m.

More defensive additions would be most welcome according to McIlroy.

“If you look at the squad it’s short on numbers, especially in defence, with no real Premier League experience,” he says. “It’s only a handful of players like Mitrovic, Schurrle, Tim Ream and Tom Cairney who have played there before.”

Inexperienced they may be, but Fulham promise to be attacking. Jokanovic’s possession-based, easy-on-the-eye style produced some entertaining football last season and the signs in pre-season are that he intends on developing that further.

“We are not going to change the style,” Jokanovic said. “We are not going to hit [long] balls or park the bus. It would not be a good plan. The Premier League is very demanding, we need to change things, but we are not going to give up our style.”

Fulham went on a 23-game unbeaten streak at the back end of last season. Their success was defined by factors which are still in place and which should work a division higher.Ryan Sessegnon won the Championship Player of the Season award for his form in 2017-18 (Source: Getty)

Mitrovic’s battering ram style, hold up play and determination in the penalty area, Cairney’s finesse, Kevin McDonald’s under-the-radar shielding and distribution, and Ryan Sessegnon’s positivity and pace all add up to make a promising equation.

While their inexperience in the Premier League is a worthy point, it can be looked at a different way. Ream and Cairney have points to prove after suffering relegation with Bolton and Hull City respectively, while the likes of Sessegnon and Seri will feel like they are where they belong. There is a hunger to impress.

That theme extends to the man in charge too. Jokanovic achieved his second promotion to the Premier League in May, having previously taken Watford up in 2015 only to fail to agree a new contract.

Now firmly in control at Fulham, he has the opportunity he craves to show what he and his side can do.

“I think he sees it as his second chance,” agrees McIlroy. “He’s definitely said it feels different this time around and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get a chance at a big club within five years or so.”

Fulham begin their season at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday and while the clash can hardly be called a London derby, it does throw up an interesting comparison.

With former manager Roy Hodgson, who famously took them to the 2010 Europa League final, in the opposing dugout it’s a neat starting point to show how far they’ve come. Back in the big time they’re unlikely to look out of their depth.
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