The football sages say the second season is tougher. Fulham benefited from the element of surprise last summer having been by far the strongest – and most stylish side – in the Championship. The yo-yo jibes, the condensation and a continual underrating of Marco Silva’s managerial ability from the English media contributed to the pre-season predictions of a season of struggle at the wrong end of the table. Aleksandar Mitrovic couldn’t do it in the top flight, £10m was far too much to spend on Andreas Pereira and, in the words of one esteemed Athletic correspondent, signing Willian on a free transfer in September was hilarious.
The only hilarity was watching the talking heads walk back their hot takes. Fulham attacked the top flight, as Silva said they would, and survived comfortably. They might even have finished higher than tenth had it not been for those minutes of madness at Old Trafford. Silva, who took the Craven Cottage job to prove his Premier League coaching credentials, wanted the Whites to strengthen over the summer but the close season has been one of Saudi Arabian intrusion. The Public Investment Fund-backed clubs targeted Mitrovic and the head coach himself, whilst talkSPORT tried their best to secure Joao Palhinha’s services for West Ham – memorably inventing a release clause. Even when Silva intervened to ensure Willian committed his future to the club, the Brazilian winger was the subject of Saudi overtures – sowing seeds of doubt ahead of Fulham’s final pre-season friendly.
Silva has refused to sign a new contract until he is satisfied that the Fulham hierarchy’s ambition matches his own. But the Portuguese head coach, pivotal to the project of establishing London’s oldest professional club amongst the English elite again a decade after the devastating relegation at the end of the Khan family’s first season at the helm, set an example to his players by rebuffing the Saudi Arabian cash to stay at the Cottage. Like a succession of his predecessor, Silva has been disappointed by the slowness of Fulham’s transfer business: the club’s only two summer signings, Raul Jimenez and Calvin Bassey, only arrived midway through the pre-season tour of the United States. Continual investment is crucial in the Premier League – where standing still leads to clubs getting left behind – and the glacial pace of Fulham’s recruitment leaves Silva short of bodies again days before the big kick off.
The discord amongst long-suffering Fulham fans, who have been asked to dig deeper into their pockets after an inflation-busting 18.5% average rise in their season tickets, dissipated a little during Saturday’s final friendly win over Hoffenheim. Not only did Willian start, but Mitrovic was influential after coming off the bench whilst the goals came from Jimenez, who proved his poaching ability to score on his first start for his new employers, and Bassey. The former Rangers and Ajax centre back capped a commanding display with a thumping header from a corner and should slot seamlessly in alongside Issa Diop at Everton on Saturday, with Tim Ream still feeling his way back from a serious shoulder injury.
But beyond a first eleven, that probably won’t contained Palhinha or Cairney at Goodison Park, Silva’s squad seems threadbare. Fulham are still searching for replacement full backs, central midfielders to cover Palhinha and Harrison Reed and negotiations over potential details for Callum Hudson-Odoi and Demarai Gray have dragged on for weeks. Tosin Adarabioyo was nowhere to be seen at the weekend as he waits to see whether Monaco will match Fulham’s valuation and if the former Manchester City man departs that the Whites will need another centre back. However encouraging Luc de Fougerolles’ Summer Series was you can’t depend on a talented teenager as the main back-up in the top flight.
The summer feels like a missed opportunity to build on the brilliance of Fulham’s first season back in the big time. Their senseless summer splurge of 2018, when the recruitment felt akin to a kid being handed hundreds of pounds in a sweet shop, had finally dropped off the Financial Fair Play calculations opening up a window for sensible spending. Fulham’s penchant for sniffing out a bargain means they will do most of their shopping up against the deadline, but Silva – like the coaches who railed against the acquisition strategy before him – would have liked a few weeks to drill the new arrivals in fundamentals of his philosophy.
All of this means nobody quite knows what to expect. Fulham fans were mesmorised by the football that Silva’s side produced last season, having been starved out of any ambition and much hope during the Scott Parker years. The mark of a good coach is how much they improve the players already at their disposal. Ream’s remarkable year, that saw him play every minute of his first World Cup having been left out of Gregg Berhalter’s plans until the tournament itself, was proof enough that the Portuguese boss is indeed a genius – but the way he unlocked new elements of Reed’s running of the engine room, Antonee Robinson’s defending and Kenny Tete’s crossing reminded me of how Jean Tigana extended the careers of Rufus Brevett and Barry Hayles when the Whites made a triumphant return to the top division in 2001. Silva may have to work miracles again – and given what he’s already done in SW6, you wouldn’t bet against it.