t seems a strange thing to say about a team that are now rather limping over the finish line, but it is the emphatic nature with which Fulham have raced towards a Premier League return that is providing most cause for optimism that this time might be different.
Back-to-back defeats – a first for the season – to Coventry and Derby have delayed the confirmation of a third Championship promotion in five years (a statistic which tells you all you need to know about how the other two went). But should Marco Silva’s side finish the job at home to Preston tonight, they will have three-and-a-half months to happily look forward to the start of their latest top-flight campaign and, more importantly, crack on with preparing for it.
It is little surprise that so much stock is being put in that extended window of opportunity, since so many of the failings of Fulham’s last two tilts at the Premier League had roots in decisions taken (or not) during summers shortened by play-off campaigns and then botched by those in charge.
In 2018, a splurge of well over £100million – from which the club are still feeling the FFP ramifications – and 12 new signings failed to produce a functioning team, Slavisa Jokanovic’s side all but doomed by the time he was sacked having taken just five points from their first 12 games.
Two years later, there was a resolve to do things markedly differently, with an appreciable but perhaps naive emphasis on fewer and shrewder acquisitions and more faith placed in the players that had won promotion. The result was four successive defeats to start the campaign, a raft of panicked late-window additions and the writing again already on the wall.
As David Lloyd, founder of Fulham fanzine TOOFIF, puts it: “There were 21 or 24 points down the swanny before we even had a back four!”
That so many of those belated arrivals came in on loan meant the bulk of the side that won promotion two years ago was still around to be summoned back into action this season, a core of players including Tim Ream, Bobby Decordova-Reid, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Tom Cairney, Marek Rodak, Harrison Reed and Neeskens Kebano all making significant contributions once again.
Several had been effectively shunned by Scott Parker in the Premier League, some allegedly personally as well as professionally, with Mitrovic the most obvious example – it was clear last summer that one or the other would have to go.
Parker, still a hugely respected figure at the club and across the game, eventually stepped down and may well join his former employers in stepping straight back up with Bournemouth, but there is little regret at his departure given what Mitrovic has gone on to achieve in destroying the Championship goalscoring record with his 38 strikes and counting this term.
The Serbian has epitomised a team improved no end for being handed a fresh slate and a new lease of life by Silva, the aforementioned nucleus supplemented by the likes of Antonee Robinson and Tosin Adarabioyo – defenders of fine potential thrown in at the deep end last season – as well as the outstanding young creative talents of Harry Wilson and the Liverpool-bound Fabio Carvalho.
“You’ve only got to look at the smiles on the players’ faces, even from the start of the season,” Lloyd says. “We hit the ground running and it’s been goals galore, by and large.”
There is little doubt that they represent the best of the three recent promotion-winning Fulham sides. With five games to go, they have already surpassed 2020’s points and wins hauls, scoring a staggering 95 goals (compared with 64 two years ago) and – perhaps best summing up their rampant, flowing football – found the net at least four times in a quarter of their matches.
Unsurprisingly, the question already is of how that will translate to the top division. Comparisons with Norwich, similarly expansive and expressive in winning the Championship last year, are inevitable, since the pair appear to be locked in some sort of perpetual division-trading phenomena. But looking across west London at the more pragmatic and resolute manner in which rivals Brentford have sacrificed some of their second-tier swagger and readily cruised to safety ought to provide the blueprint.
If that has to be the case then it is worth wondering whether the enthusiasm for promotion is retained by a fan base who have so recently created such wonderful memories in the Championship and such chastening ones in the league above.
It is, Lloyd says, in part because “you’ve got to throw in the fact that we’ve had seasons where fans haven’t been able to go” and if tonight is the night on which Fulham fans can celebrate a deal sealed, it will be the first time they’ve been able to do so in person since a heady day at Wembley almost four years ago.
There will still be four matches to play and a title to be clinched but attention will turn swiftly to the summer, when so many lessons must be learned and acted upon if a third yo-yo is to be left only half-complete.