Tom Cairney stood disconsolately, his eyelids reddened from crying. Sometimes displays of emotion in football can appear feigned or contrived, but this wasn’t one of those. Cairney’s tears represented the tears of Fulham supporters at the Madejski Stadium and at home, on the night a dream was extinguished.
Defeat to Reading in the play-offs consigned the West Londoners to another season of the gruelling Championship grind. To lose at this juncture is a particularly bitter pill to swallow, as they were so close to ecstasy. That’s why the format is so popular; the high stakes displaying the fine line between rich rewards or heartbreak.
Over the next few days and weeks, the pain will dissipate and Fulham will realise how far they’ve come in a short space of time. And boy have they progressed.
As they congregated on Craven Cottage in August last year, consensus amongst fans was split between anticipation and trepidation. Fulham had floundered in the lower half of the division for much of the 2015/16 campaign. They conceded a staggering 79 goals and a club which had scaled the heights of a European final only seven years ago, briefly flirted with relegation to League One.
In the summer they were stripped of both their top scorers Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele, who joined Aston Villa and Celtic respectively. The latter in particular was mourned, given the fact that he left on a free, while it turned out they dodged a bullet with McCormack (the Scot missed multiple training sessions with his new club – his excuse being that the electric gates guarding his mansion had failed, confining him inside – and was reprimanded by Steve Bruce for his laissez-faire attitude).
The cause for optimism was the mix of prodigious youngsters and experienced heads within their ranks, and the commitment of manager Slavisa Jokanovic. Jokanovic impressively led Watford to promotion in 2015 and held similar aspirations for the Cottagers.
“We need to be ready to build a more competitive team than we have in our hands right now,” the Serbian said. “It has to be completely different because this is Fulham, a historic team, fighting for a different target than what we are fighting this year. We’ve finished 20th and we are talking about fighting for top six. We need many things.”
Fulham started as they meant to go on, beating overwhelming promotion favourites Newcastle 1-0 in their opening league match. They won three of their first five games, but would follow that up by going six without one, culminating in a 2-1 defeat by local rivals Queens Park Rangers. Entering December, Fulham were in the bottom half of the table, but their fortunes were about to change.
In the new year, they encountered a sticky patch, but from February onwards, Fulham were arguably the Championship’s form side. Jokanovic’s men beat Norwich, Aston Villa, Huddersfield, Sheffield Wednesday and even won at St. James’ Park against Rafa Benitez’s champions. Such is the volatility of the division, Fulham usurped Leeds United and landed a play-off spot.
Jokanovic’s team were playing an attractive and vibrant brand of football, which reflected well on him as well as the club’s recruitment. Sone Aluko – who only scored 14 times in four years at Hull – grabbed vital goals during the run in. Lucas Piazon and Tomas Kalas proved inspired loan signings from Chelsea, while Congolese international Neeskens Kebano came into his own as he settled in.
Homegrown representatives contributed as well, and a sprinkling of academy talent offered a glimpse of the future. In particular, Ryan Sessegnon was a revelation. The 16 year-old is the epitome of a modern wingback, offering vitality, pace and dynamism from the left touchline. Securing his services on a long-term deal must be a high priority for the club.
Fulham’s play-off defeat to Reading will grate, as there was very little to separate the sides over two legs. The prospect of another 46 match slog when the glamour and allure of the Premier League was so close must be difficult to comprehend for supporters and players alike, but they can be immensely proud of what they’ve achieved.
Thoughts must now turn to August and another tilt at returning to the top flight. Without the presence of a powerhouse such as Newcastle, next season promises to be wide open. Of the relegated Premier League clubs, a flailing Sunderland and a Marco Silva-less Hull City will do well to summon enough resolve to bounce straight back. Middlesbrough are anticipated to be in the shakeup, but as many as twelve teams will fancy their chances.
And that’s surely the solace Fulham can take from falling short. Setbacks in sport, as in life, are certain. Now that they’ve touched headier heights, they can use the disappointment of this week to ensure they are celebrating in twelve months time. Fulham are on an upward curve, now they have to capitalise.