Bouncing Back The Fulhamish Way
Slavisa Jokanovic has been here before, of course. Three years ago, he took Watford into the Premier League before being shuffled out of the door just a few days later as a result of the club’s revolving door policy. This weekend he returned to Wembley with Fulham, steering them to a narrow win against Aston Villa which marked the club’s first ever win at the national stadium and a return to the Premier League after an absence of of four years. When the full-time whistle, he celebrated in a manner completely at odds with his usual hangdog expression, but this was a win of significance for Fulham, both tangible and intangible.
To understand the importance of this win to this particular club is to delve underneath the numbers and into something more emotional. This isn’t, however, to say that the cold, hard facts don’t matter at all. Promotion to the Premier League will be worth in excess of £100m to Fulham next season no matter how the season plays out for the club. Should they stay up next season, it will be worth in excess of £280m to the club. We may not like it and it may run counter to what we as supporters feel from the game, but numbers this large cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevancies. They matter, especially with the club’s owner, Shahid Khan, being interested in spending £900m on Wembley.
But they’re not everything. For this particular football club, merely being at Wembley was a moment of great significance. Much as we might talk of the stadium’s overuse in recent years, this overuse hasn’t really impacted upon Fulham. Prior to yesterday afternoon, the club had only been there once before, for an FA Cup final against West Ham United in 1975. Furthermore, their play-off semi-final win against Derby County earlier this month was, despite having reached them in different divisions before in 1989, 1998 and 2017, their first ever play-off win of any shade whatsoever. As a club, Fulham have had ups and downs over the years, from the feeling that they were just about to lose their ground, which seemed to be perpetual for years until the club finally renovated it in 2004, to spells in all four divisions of the Premier and Football Leagues over the last quarter of a century.
In the build-up to yesterday afternoon’s match, though, it did feel rather as though everything was teed up to disappoint them. The pitch invasion of sheer, untamed delight upon the final whistle blowing at the end of their match against Derby County a couple of weeks ago. The first trip to Wembley in more than four decades. The scale and experience of their opponents Aston Villa against their relative youth and verve. When push came to shove yesterday afternoon, however, Aston Villa’s experience – their team had an average age four years greater than their opponents – counted for little. In some respects, this was a game of contrasts, of Ryan Sessegnon’s youthful exuberance and brilliance against John Terry’s age and experience, of the hope of a place in the Premier League against the expectation of it.
It’s entirely plausible that there is a Fulham supporter deep under cover inside Aston Villa at the moment. The leaking of the news that Villa’s return to the Premier League would see Terry sign a contract which would exclude him from having to play against Chelsea next season could not have been scripted any better for Fulham. The presumptuousness of the discussing contracts on the assumption of Premier League football next season – which, yes, is fundamentally unfair on Aston Villa, but the way the story was presented was the way the story was presented – and the essential John Terryness of it all seemed almost tailor made to paint Villa as something approaching the pantomime villains of the piece as we headed into the weekend.
But the pain that Aston Villa supporters will have felt since the final whistle blew at Wembley Stadium yesterday afternoon is real, and should be acknowledged. The decline of the club over the course of their last five years in the Premier League was so obvious as to be tangible. The one upside of finally down a level was supposed to be a return to some degree of winning ways, to actually winning a few football matches for once. Last season, however, was as underwhelming as things were likely to be, and a thirteenth placed finish in their first Championship season was a fair reflection upon a tepid season. This time around, Villa looked like contenders in fits and starts, but at a club of this scale it doesn’t take much for hope to turn to expectation. Supporters on the whole know better than to succumb to such hubris, but a story was already being told before kick-off at Wembley yesterday afternoon, and it wasn’t one that painted Aston Villa in a terribly flattering light. It was unfair on the club and its supporters, but football does prefer its narratives simple, where possible.
Even within the confines of the match itself, the story of yesterday afternoon seemed headed for a destination that at which it didn’t eventually arrive. That Fulham’s goal should have come as a result of tidy interplay between Sessegnon and Tom Cairney wasn’t that much of a surprise. These two players have been amongst the best in the division and had already been looking perky by the time they linked up to give their team the lead. That they should have had to withstand wave after wave of Villa pressure following this shouldn’t have done either, but they held on doughtily, not least after the sending off of Dennis Odoi with twenty minutes still to play, a dismissal at the worst possible time, which pushed Fulham to play the final act of their season, after forty-six league matches and two play-off matches, a man short. But the Aston Villa goal never came.
One of the biggest criticisms of the Premier League in recent years has been how stagnant it has become, with six clubs battling it out for all thr glory while the other fourteen eke out a subsistence living, one eye permanently looking over their shoulders at the relegation trapdoor just beneath them. Perhaps will Fulham will find the glare of the spotlight too bright for them to be any different next season. But perhaps the fluidity of this year’s Fulham team can shine at a higher level. Perhaps they can play with the verve that they displayed on so many occasions this season. Because, and the play-offs can tend to obscure this from view somewhat, Fulham did deserve this promotion place. Their third placed finish was thoroughly merited and they played some lovely football at times, amongst the best seen in the division this season, especially after Christmas.
For all of this, the return of Fulham to the Premier League will bring something back that has been very much the top division’s loss since they went down four years ago. Craven Cottage remains possibly English football’s most handsome venue, and such ideas as the neutral area inside the ground will only add to something “Fulhamish” to the Premier League next season. There is a certain irony to the fact that the team in black and white may just bring a little colour to next season’s top flight, but Fulham supporters celebrating their first Wembley win and a return to the lush, green fields of the Premier League next season the opinions of others will likely not matter very much today.
Aston Villa, meanwhile, need to pick up and regroup. The disappointment will be enormous, quite possibly accompanied by the feeling that with each passing year away the Premier League feels increasingly distant. But the club has sufficient quality about its playing staff to improve still further next season, as well as a manager with experience who displayed enormous courage in working through personal matters to get the team into the play-offs for the end of the season. The calibre of the three teams coming down into the Championship from the Premier League for next season hardly seems earth-shattering, and there’s no reason why Villa shouldn’t be challenging near the top of the table next time around. Yesterday at Wembley, however, belonged to Fulham. Their effervescence and verve will be most welcome in the Premier League next season.