Fulham Match Day Programme: Fulham 3 v 1 Preston. 04/03/2017

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Columnist Adam Brons-Smith believes something special is happening by the banks of the Thames…

What a difference a year makes at Fulham Football Club. At the end of last season, Slaviša Jokanović had guided the Whites to safety after a disappointing 2015/16 campaign. A year on, Fulham sit just outside the Play-Offs with every chance of still being promoted this season. Under Jokanović’s management, the Club have once again found
an identity, and it’s safe to say that something special is being built again on the banks of the Thames.

With Fulham dominating the possession stats and already amassing more wins this campaign than the entirety

of last season, the good times are coming back to Craven Cottage. Jokanović has done an incredible job over the past year and every fan must be thrilled that he’s signed a new contract, keeping him here for at least the next two years, and hopefully leading Fulham back to the highest tier in English football.

Unbeaten in the last three league games, some may have expected Fulham to take all three points at Cardiff, but in reality a draw away from home

isn’t a bad result. It keeps the momentum going in the league, and under Neil Warnock, Cardiff are a rejuvenated team. Whilst we certainly had our chances to win the game, other results went our way with teams below us failing to record victory. With 53 points on the table so far and Preston to face today, Fulham could move ever closer to the top six.

But this afternoon’s fixture will not be easy at all. Preston arrive in SW6 just a point below Fulham in ninth place. A win for Simon Grayson’s side could take them as high as seventh, leap-frogging Fulham in the process.
While Preston may not have the budget of some of the sides above and around us they’re a strong unit to break down. Expect at least one change in the Fulham starting XI today after Chelsea loanee Lucas Piazon suffered a broken jaw at Cardiff and is expected to be out of action for a little while. Hopefully the Brazilian will be back before the end of our campaign as he’s proved himself to be a key asset in our current squad. Fulham have used the likes of Neeskens Kebano and Floyd Ayité in recent weeks to lead the line. It’s proved to be very successful with Kebano scoring against Wigan and Cardiff, and his deflected shot sealing victory against Nottingham Forest. Despite the disappointing news of Piazon’s injury, Jokanović has a plethora of talent to choose from. Although Fulham are still in transition, we’re moving forward as a club and making big progress. After securing Jokanović’s long-term future, Fulham have a Head Coach and a side they can truly get behind and love. COYW!

Thank you for your ongoing support and if you have any feedback or want to contact me, please tweet me @ABronsSmith

Cup Exit – But There’s Still Plenty To Play For

It’s safe to say Fulham are entering a very strange part of their season. After a disappointing performance at home to Tottenham this weekend, what does the future hold for Jokanovic’s men?

I don’t think anyone was truly expecting Neeskens Kebano to start as the lone forward against Spurs, and in fairness it was a massive ask considering he has rarely featured all season. The game plan was obvious from the opening fifteen minutes with the midfield hitting long-balls hoping to get the Congolese attacker in behind Alderweireld and Vertonghen, but it didn’t have much luck. With the side lacking much creativity in the final third, Spurs began to dominate the game and time after time the left-hand side of the defence in Scott Malone and Tim Ream looked vulnerable. While, I’m a big fan of the style of football Slavisa Jokanovic has brought to the team, we still suffer defensively. Our full-backs aren’t good enough going back, and even though Malone has scored plenty of goals this season, he’s in the side to keep clean sheets more than anything and needs to make sure he does the basics right. Although, Denis Odoi didn’t have the best of games, he was the better performing full-back for Fulham on this afternoon.

But this is where we need to look towards a ‘Plan B’, something that Jokanovic has struggled to do implement all season. Even though we have the level of quality to out-pass teams in this division, there has been too many times this season where we have simply got to the final third and passed the ball sideways. Without, Chris Martin in the side we lack a focal point, and when Fulham get to the opposition’s area, they are trying to play too cute between the lines rather than getting it wide and delivering the ball for the forward in the box. Against Spurs this happened time after time, and our attacks were easily snuffed out and Spurs regained their tempo. On the upside, we’ll never face a team as good as Spurs unless we get promoted, but it was a learning curve for all involved on how to play ‘stylish football with attacking full-backs’. But, we shouldn’t be afraid to adopt an ‘ugly’ approach if things aren’t going our way. If that means we have to play more structured and direct football then so be it, teams don’t get awarded points for style, and if we want to improve, sometimes we have to win a game by trying something new.

What hasn’t gone unnoticed in our recent fixtures is the lack of Chris Martin and although I’ve mentioned his presence in the paragraph above, he still has a vital role to play in this side. Yes, he has been a controversial character since Christmas, but considering the club allowed Cauley Woodrow and Matt Smith to leave this winter, Martin is our only viable target man in the squad – He gives us another dimension in attack. Martin has the ability to hold the ball up and bring our attacking midfielders into play, and it’s this system that brings the best out of our midfield. This dimension to our attack is lost, if we play with a smaller forward or an attacking midfielder as our number 9. While, the likes of Floyd Ayite, Neeskens Kebano and Cyriac may be talented athletes, they are a complete different style of forward to Martin, and love him or hate him, we’re a better side with the Scot leading the line. When Martin is playing with his back to goal, we’re much more efficient and if that isn’t working, then Jokanovic should look at switching to a two forward formation to help provide some support upfront. With a more diminutive forward playing alone, we are forced to try and turn centre-halves or hit the ball to too long, which in all honesty, hasn’t worked whenever it has been tried.  With Fulham crying out for a ‘Plan B’, the club need to come together surrounding the situation with Martin, and forget about it as we have a very good chance of being promoted, if we accept the qualities of what we’ve got. Martin was the best option on the bench in recent games and has gone unused. Yes, we’ve won our last 2 league games 3-2, but they are both fixtures we should have won by a more comfortable margin.

In the last few entries of this blog, I’ve stressed the importance of the next 4-6 months at the club. We have an incredibly tough set of fixtures between now and the end of the season and a lot could change depending on where the club finishes this year. If we are promoted, then we’ll have to go on an impressive run and luck must be on our side. Even then, if we got promoted, a host of new contracts would have to be offered to key figures and at least £30-50m would have to be invested into the side.

But, at the start of the year I stated that if we finished in the top 10 it would have been a successful season. Now, many of the readers may think I’m being pessimistic or they make think differently, but we are a club in transition. We must remember that Slavisa Jokanovic joined us just over a year ago, and we’ve had to completely change personnel from the squads built by Felix Magath & Kit Symons, so we are still settling.

Development of Motspur Park has been completed and the plans for a stadium expansion are still underway with Shahid Khan continuing to improve the club’s assets. While we didn’t ‘splash the cash’ in January, it will be an incredibly important summer should we remain in the Championship. Slavisa Jokanovic still has a lot to prove, despite the upturn in performances this season, but with contract talks ongoing with himself and the board, sorting his future sooner rather than later will be a great boost to everyone involved. It will also allow more time for the board to prepare for the summer business, working with the manager to highlight targets and where the squad can be improved depending on our finish.

More importantly, there are a host of players we need make sure stay at this club for the next 2-3 years. The likes of Tomas Kalas (albeit on loan), Tom Cairney, Ryan Sessegnon, Stefan Johansen, Kevin McDonald & Ryan Fredericks to name a few who are probably our most valuable assets and fixtures of our team’s core and spine. If we can keep the majority of this squad together for at least the next 18 months, there’s no reason why we can’t get promoted from the Championship and return to the Premier League. We are blessed right now we some outstanding talent and with the right managerial setup and backing from the board, Fulham could have a very bright future on the horizon.

After being knocked out of the cup by Tottenham, Fulham have to make sure that they bounce back with an away victory at Bristol City on Wednesday. With Bristol City possessing the likes of Tammy Abraham, a goal machine at this level, Fulham need to record their third straight league win and put pressure on the chasing pack for promotion. Despite our cup exit, there’s still plenty to be optimistic and excited about at Craven Cottage. So keep the faith and let’s see if we can make something special from this season.

Thank you for your ongoing support and feedback for the Craven Corner. It really has been an amazing year both on the blog and in the match day programmes. Please do share the content and feel free to contact me on Twitter @ABronsSmith.

Thank you.

The Craven Corner: We Can’t Get Carried Away

While it has been easy to get carried away this season, even I must remember not to  get ahead of myself after every victory. At the start of the season, I stated that Fulham are still a club in transition and after changing personnel every summer, the club is crying out for stability and over time our situation will be much more impressive. Under Slavisa Jokanovic the club has dramatically improved, we have found an identity and style that suits our squad and the summer’s recruitment has been a success.

Debatably, we are in still in the race for a promotion place, if we don’t achieve a top six finish then the club must keep the core of the squad for the long-term future, that does include a new deal for the management staff. Even though, style doesn’t guarantee points, as a squad everyone has improved and realistically we’ve built a strong foundation to build upon. If we can keep the current crop together for another 18 months, there’s no reason why the club shouldn’t be able to return to the highest tier in English football.

If points were awarded for the possession percentages and style of play then we would have already been promoted, but sadly that’s not the case and in certain fixtures we need to be able to revert to a plan B. I know the fans wouldn’t want the football to become ‘boring’ but at the same time, we need to win ‘ugly’. It’s all good dominating the ball, but when clubs sit deep and soak up the pressure we shouldn’t be afraid to play more direct. With Martin leading the line, we have one of the most prolific forwards in this division, and with the arrival of Cyriac in the January transfer window, we could change shape or style if things aren’t going our way in games. If this means changing the way the full-backs attack, and making them more defensively disciplined or going two up-front, then it must be explored. Teams are well aware of our capabilities and if they are setting up for the point, then we need to be able to revert to a different system.

The next six months are probably the most important at our club in a very long time. The reason behind that statement is quite simple. We finally have the players and staff that could re-build this club, but investment from the top to secure those assets for next 18-24 months is now pivotal. Without a doubt there will be interest in our key players in the summer, but  we cannot afford to lose anyone from our starting eleven.

Give the current setup another 18 months, and we should finally get the consistency that we have long needed since the departure of Roy Hodgson & Mark Hughes. Ever since we’ve blown hot and cold and our time in the Championship has been far below expectations of anyone involved with the football club. But, we are a club in transition and should we keep the personnel  for the long-term, with a few clever additions in the summer we could have a promotion winning campaign next season, if it is not achieved in during 2017.

After allowing a few players to leave the club in the January transfer window, Slavisa has managed to wittle the squad down to a select few players that he is keen to work with. Jokanovic should be given a tonne of praise for the way he has developed young Ryan Sessegnon. The left-back has been managed expertly and been allow to develop and not been thrown in the deep end. Managing expectations and development is vital for the youngster, and so far, that has been a success. A key figure for the future of Fulham, and another success of our Youth Academy.

Today’s game will be a tough despite the difference in league position. Wigan had a very eventful transfer window and with an influx of new faces, manager Warren Joyce is slowly moulding a very capable squad for this division. There will be a few names in their squad that some Fulham fans will notice, particularly Dan Burn. The gigantic defender, returns to Craven Cottage as an opponent and I’m sure many fans will still remember Dan clearing crosses in our 2-2 draw against Manchester United years ago. Despite the high-profile departure of Yanic Wildschut on deadline day, Wigan possess enough firepower in the likes of Will Grigg and Omar Bogle, so Fulham must make sure that they are raring to go from the first whistle, as any little mistake will be punished with those two across the frontline.

Thank you for reading, and if you have any feedback – Please feel free to tweet me @ABronsSmith

Plenty of reasons to be optimistic as a Fulham fan

Happy New Year!

Now 2017 has begun, Fulham look to continue their impressive form as they aim to finish in the top six come May. Apart from the fixtures against Brighton, Fulham are unbeaten with their last defeat (excluding Brighton games) coming against Aston Villa back in October.

Slavisa Jokanovic has worked wonders over the past year and considering he had to completely rebuild the squad, he has managed to bring an identity back to the club.

But, the second half of the season is now more important than ever. The race for the top six continues to be a tight one with Huddersfield & Leeds improving on a weekly basis and Derby County having a revival under Steve McClaren. If we are going to get promoted we have to continue the form we are in, if not be slightly more clinical. Despite dropping points from winning positions against Wolves and Derby, Fulham have looked like a promotion-winning side and now the squad is settled, fans have more than enough reasons to be optimistic.

Despite a few off the field dramas with Mike Rigg leaving the club and Chris Martin going on strike, Fulham have managed to stay focused on the pitch, despite having a true focal point in attack. Against Cardiff City, Sone Aluko lead the line and away to Ipswich Town, Floyd Ayite done a superb job when called upon. The most pleasing thing for me this season is that we are creating plenty of chances, and regardless of who is up top they will get plenty of service. But, with that said we are a better team with Chris Martin in the side.

Although it has been a worrying January for Fulham fans concerning the future of Chris Martin, the drama seems to have come to a halt with the loanee starting against Barnsley; scoring and notching up an assist in the process. While, I can’t get my head round the lack of professionalism shown by Derby County during the ordeal, I’m over the moon that we kept the forward and that; Slavisa and the board stood their ground and played hard-ball with our promotion rivals. Without a doubt, Chris Martin is one of the best players in this division and his goal-scoring record at this level proves that. If Martin had gone back to Derby, we would have only weakened our chances of promotion and strengthened a rival.  While I understand why Martin is keen to sort out his future, I don’t approve of the ‘strike’ to get your own way. But, what is important is that we support the club and forward on the pitch, and with any off the pitch issues, have faith in the management and board to get it sorted.

Martin is coming to the peak years of his career and his next long-term contract will probably be the last one which is 4-5 years long, so he obviously wants to make sure his young family will be financially stable. Personally, I’d love Martin to become a permanent Fulham player, but I feel that will only happen if we get promotion.

The Derby forward has been the centre of controversy over recent weeks, but I’m glad he’s back in the starting eleven. Saturday’s victory over Barnsley was a reminder of just how good and important he is. His ability to hold up the ball and bring the midfielders into play is incredible. With willing runners like Cairney, Johansen, Aluko & Piazon, Martin’s ability to hold the ball up in vital areas allows those midfielders to flourish in the final third.

Although I’ve focused on how great we have been in attack, there has been a massive improvement at the other end of the pitch. Kevin McDonald has been a colossus in the centre of the park and while I had my fears over his mobility in the summer, the Scottish midfielder’s ability to read the game is immense. The former Wolves midfielder has sat at the base of our midfield and with his ability to break up the play combined with an impressive passing range, McDonald has become the architect for many of our counter-attacks as well being one of the biggest reasons for the clean sheets we have started to accumulate.

Last weekend also saw the return of Tomas Kalas at the heart of defence after he recovered from injury.  I can’t sing the praises of the Chelsea loanee enough if I’m honest. I truly believe he is the best defender I have witnessed at Championship level. He’s young, determined, strong, quick and has the technical ability Slavisa demands from his ball-playing centre-backs. While, I’d pray and dream for his move to become permanent, realistically I can’t see this happening unless we were promoted. With Chelsea paying £5m for him a number of years ago, and them selling Bamford for £10m, Kalas’ value must be higher than that. Then again, if we were promoted, investing financially in the Czech defender would be one of the best pieces of business the club would have done for a number of years.

Finally, Fulham have agreed a deal to extend the loan of Lucas Piazon from Chelsea and with the player looking for a long-term club, Fulham may be in the race to sign him on a permanent basis in the summer. There has been rumours online that he could be available for just £4m, but they aren’t from the most reliable sources. For now, let’s just celebrate that his loan has been extended, and we’ll re-visit the permanent topic in the summer.

Apart from the Martin drama and Piazon’s extension our activity in the transfer window has been quiet, but then again this is expected of the club. We generally do keep our business out of the media’s focus until they have been announced. Belgian newspapers have linked us with an improved £3m bid for Ibrahima Cisse of Standard Liege but whether or not that comes to fruition is another story.

At the weekend, Fulham face one of their biggest fixtures against local rivals, QPR. With QPR under-achieving this season despite a recent upturn in form under Ian Holloway , Fulham will need to make sure that they secure all three points if they are serious about gaining promotion this season. Winning at the weekend is a must to stay in reach of a play-off place, and with our recent form there’s no reason why we can’t take all the points from the derby. Make your voices heard and let’s keep looking up. There’s no reason why we can’t be optimistic and the sky is the limit in 2017 for Fulham. COYW’s!

Thank you ever so much for reading and if you have any questions or feedback, please don’t hesitate to contact me on Twitter: @ABronsSmith.

Fulham Match day Programme – 2nd January 2017 v Brighton

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In my opinion, Fulham’s squad this season is the strongest it’s been in the last two or three years. There’s no reason why we can’t achieve a Play-Off place by the end of the campaign. While there are still a few things to get right, Slaviša Jokanović has given Fulham an identity once again, and this summer’s business was the most successful for a long, long time. Jokanović, though, must have been gutted to have dropped points away at Wolves and at home to Derby. While a draw against Derby is a decent result, Fulham will need to close games out and be able to defend a lead much more efficiently should they want to mount a top-six push this season. Dropping points at Wolves was huge, especially after the Whites were cruising 3-1. Although Chris Martin couldn’t feature against his parent club Derby, the Scotsman has proved his value to Fulham over the last month, and fans were treated to some of his best performances.

Should Martin continue his fine form over the rest of the season, Fulham supporers will be praying the Club sign him on a permanent basis. Even though Stefan Johansen was subbed in the first half on his debut, the Norwegian midfielder has now become one of the Club’s most valued players. Since Jokanović switched to a midfield trio of Kevin McDonald, Tom Cairney and Johansen, Fulham have managed to control games with comfortable ease in the centre of the park. With Johansen’s work ethic and quality at both ends of the pitch, Cairney has been allowed a free role to express himself and become the architect of most of our attacks. Johansen’s rise at Fulham isn’t just pleasing for the fans, but it should be used as an inspiration for any of the players who’ve struggled to secure regular game time. Johansen has come in, adapted his style to fit the side and has now become a vital cog in Jokanović’s machine.

Brighton will prove to be a big test for Fulham today, but the Whites can take positives from the first half of the reverse fixture. Fulham were the better team for 60 minutes until two lapses of concentration allowed the hosts to score twice. If Fulham want to get promoted this season, a victory today would prove we have the quality needed to succeed. Make your voices heard this afternoon and let’s get Craven Cottage rocking. It’s a new year and a new start for our side to achieve something special. Believe!

Tweet your thoughts to me @ABronsSmith

Looking Up: Top Six & What’s to come in January.

A lot has happened since my last article as Fulham look to push on for a top six finish.  

Despite dropping points against Wolves, Fulham have been relatively successful in the last month and with their performances improving every week, they are slowly being recognised as potential promotion candidates this season.

First of all, we have seen a huge improvement in our midfield with Kevin McDonald, Stefan Johansen and Tom Cairney operating incredibly well together. By having McDonald and Johansen paired together, it allows Cairney the freedom to operate more centrally and play a more advanced role – a position he has flourished in. Many of the players should look up Stefan Johansen for how much he has achieved in such a short time, and is an inspiration to anyone on the fringe of the starting eleven. Despite the Norwegian being substituted in the first half of his debut at Fulham, he has adapted his game to suit the needs of Head Coach, Slavisa Jokanovic and has cemented his place in the starting eleven, picking up a number of man of the match awards along the way too.

Johansen’s emergence is the same journey that the likes of Jozabed and Neeskens Kebano will embark on shortly – both of which have failed to make an impact since joining. With the January transfer window around the corner, I’m hoping Jozabed and Kebano prove their worth as their combined fees were around £8m – a hefty percentage of our total spend this summer and the fans still have high hopes for both midfielders.

But, with the January transfer window just around the corner it seems that the rumour mill is in full flow and will cause more disruption than benefit to Jokanovic’s men, with loanee Chris Martin taking the headlines already. The Scottish forward pulled out of the match-day squad this evening for our fixture against Reading, despite being fit enough to play. It seems the player is/was reportedly demanding a return to Derby County next month.

While this certainly shocked many fans, it appears that Derby County have offered the forward a new contract – a bizarre set of events for sure. It’s no secret that McClaren disapproved of the loan deal to bring Martin to the Cottage, but to offer a player who is out on loan (with a view to permanent) a new long-term deal is surprising, and more of disruptive act than anything else. Interestingly so, Martin had previously spoken highly of his time at Fulham and playing under Slavisa Jokanovic, so wanting to suddenly leave the club and return to Derby has been a bombshell for everyone. I’d expect this fiasco to be wrapped up in the next two weeks, as I’d believe this is more his agent trying to force Fulham to activate the permanent transfer option in January rather than waiting until next summer, so the player has more stability in his personal life and can make long-term arrangements about moving his family to the capital or not. Slavisa hasn’t hidden his admiration of the forward and now that Mike Rigg has left the club, the Serbian may attempt to force the board into securing a permanent move for Martin next month rather than at the end of the season.

Personally, I’d like to see Martin stay at the club and I feel that after a short time settling in at the club, he’s proved to be the missing ingredient for Slav’s eleven. I’d like to see Martin as a stronger version of Ross McCormack, due to his ability to create goals for others as well as being a clinical finisher, but he has a bigger and more physical side to the game that McCormack lacked in order to play the lone striker role.  While it remains uncertain as to what the future holds for the club and player, it will be interesting to see how this pans out, especially as Martin was not wanted by the previous Derby manager, Nigel Pearson and Slavisa put his faith in him and gave him a chance to play regularly.

On the other hand, if Martin is banished to the reserves or returns to Derby, Fulham will be in the market for another forward. There has already been talk of Cauley Woodrow joining Ipswich Town on loan, while a loan exit seems possible for Matt Smith too. Fulham have continued to track the progress of Eibar forward, Sergi Enrich who would be a like for like replacement for Martin should his time at the Cottage end sourly. Sergi Enrich would still be a risk at around £4.5m, considering he hasn’t played in this division before, but he is a player that Slavisa wanted in the summer, and with the club still interested in a deal I wouldn’t be too surprised if Enrich was the plan B to Martin after all. Fulham have also been linked with a move for Grimsby Town forward, Omar Bogle. The free-scoring striker seems to be the complete package in terms of size and speed, but it would be a huge jump up in competition if the Grimsby Town hot-shot was expected to fit straight into the side in the Championship. Not only that, but Nottingham Forest have tracked the forward heavily in recent weeks and an approach from them is more than likely when the window opens.

Personally, I was hoping for Marcus Bettinelli to be recalled to the side over the last few weeks, but this hasn’t materialised with Slavisa sticking with David Button, despite a number of mistakes. This suggests that Button will be the number one goalkeeper for the season and I’d assume Bettinelli or Joronen will leave the club on loan for the second half of the season to stay match-fit.

There has been some interest in securing some defensive reinforcements after Tomas Kalas suffered an injury, but no names have been mentioned. But, in attack there has been talk of an extension to the loan spell of Chelsea loanee, Lucas Piazon until the end of the season, which I’d expect to be done early in January.  In an ideal world, Fulham would be able to sign both Piazon and Kalas on a permanent deal in the summer, but Chelsea signed Kalas for £5m a number of years ago, and after his development in English football, they would be looking for a sizeable profit which could force him out of our price-range. Nevertheless, both players are looking for a permanent club, and with Fulham just a stone’s throw away from their current clubs, we could be the preferred option.

While the focus will be on player recruitment next month, it must be noted that the club have opened contract talks with manager, Slavisa Jokanovic and his coaches. Over the past 12 months with him in charge, Fulham have been revitalised and have slowly gained an identity. With Malaga looking to hire Slavisa for next season, signing Slavisa to a long-term deal in January could be our best business mid-season for a very long time. Now that Mike Rigg has left the club, I’d hope that Slavisa gets the power in the transfer market that he desires and signs a new deal. With talks already starting over a new deal, let’s hope we hear good news about an extension very soon.

Finally, I’d just like to thank everyone for their ongoing support of the Craven Corner and I honestly cannot believe how much it has grown in 2016. I honestly couldn’t have done it without you and the opportunity to blog and write about the team I support is a true honour.

The next article of ‘The Craven Corner’ will appear in the match-day programme against Brighton. For those attending, please make your voices heard and back the players as much as you can. If we can secure 3 points against Brighton, our push for the top six could become even stronger.

Let’s hope 2017 is a successful year, and Fulham can mount a serious promotion push.

Please do share the article and feel free to tweet any feedback or thoughts to me on Twitter @ABronsSmith.

Hope you had a lovely Christmas and I wish you a Happy New Year!