By Morgan Phillips
At the start of April Fulham supporters were openly questioning how an experienced manager like Slavisa Jokanovic, having inherited a reasonable squad, could amass only 11 points from 15 matches. Then - wouldn't you know it? - his team notched three wins in eight days.
It was a timely transformation. If MK Dons had won at the Cottage on Saturday the 2nd April Fulham would have slumped into the bottom three. So the home side started nervously, the ball landing in touch almost from kick-off. It was soon apparent that Fulham were in better shape than their visitors but they failed to capitalise until the 54th minute. With a burst of speed Moussa Dembele retrieved a ball that he seemed to have fumbled, and then provided the ever alert Ross McCormack with a simple goal.
The Dons scarcely looked capable of responding until goalkeeper Cody Cropper's hopeful punt eluded two Fulham defenders, allowing Murphy to lob the ball over Marcus Bettinelli. Fortunately Fulham secured three points when McCormack returned the earlier favour to Dembele. The Dons mounted a last minute onslaught, and it was a relief to see Bettinelli emerge from a melee with the ball in his hands.
The following Tuesday entailed a visit to Preston, a team comfortably in mid- table. Although North End had more of the play, Fulham held the lead for almost an hour. In the fifth minute Ross McCormack was allowed to ghost through the home defence and after Marmick Vermiji's spectacular equaliser Dembele got the winner. This came after the keeper parried a McCormack free kick. Thus three of Fulham's four shots on target in 90 minutes occurred in the two goal-scoring incidents.
After two consecutive victories it felt almost greedy to expect a third, particularly as Cardiff City, the visitors to the Cottage, had play-off ambitions. In a frantic, rather scrappy first-half the Welsh side looked the more dangerous and took the lead, almost doubling it soon afterwards. Was the unbeaten run to end so soon?
The second half started exhilaratingly with Moussa inspiring Scott Parker to score a richly deserved equaliser. In truth a point would have sufficed - choruses of 'Slavisa's Black and White Army' showed how feelings had changed from previous weeks - but the excitement continued until the 93rd minute when Rohan Ince gathered a loose ball sending it to Lasse Vigen Christensen, who had only just arrived on the pitch. Lasse Vigen found Emerson Hyndman, and the American celebrated his 20th birthday with his first Championship goal.
Hyndman was voted man of the match, ahead of Scott Parker, but some journalists opted for Ross McCormack. The second half display was so heartening that it was hard to single out one individual performance.
It was not easy to account for this dramatic change in the club's fortunes. Ever since Magath's departure the team spirit had been good but the results too often disappointed. Jokanovic had tried various combinations during his tenure, and the victories over Preston and Cardiff were gained in part by a more cohesive defence. Of course no-one should underestimate the contribution of Dembele and McCormack. We all know how the club would have fared if they had departed in January.
These three victories virtually removed the prospect of relegation but the improvement was short-lived. A heavier than expected defeat at Brighton and a stodgy draw at Burnley led to a really dispiriting display in the penultimate home match of the season, where Nottingham Forest made defending and scoring look easy. Ross McCormack created a goal for Matt Smith and was unlucky not to add to his own total, but Fulham's rearguard looked as vulnerable as ever and the midfield lacked any plan. Indiscipline led to two pointless bookings (Fredericks and Smith) and a penalty (Hyndman).
Those in charge must be pondering whether to retain most of the present squad, strengthening where possible, or to perform yet another 'clean sweep'. I really wish the players had put up a better case for their retention.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and unless specifically stated are not necessarily those of the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham.