The good news for Scott Parker, is that life at Fulham cannot get any worse. The defeat to Southampton on Wednesday night proved the end for Claudio Ranieri, that had been coming, but the situation’s true barometer was the audible despondency of the travelling fans.
The loss at St Mary’s has left Fulham ten points from safety and, for all intents and purposes, in a virtually hopeless situation. Nevertheless, long before that result was final, the evening was characterised by the visitor’s fatalism: on the pitch, through a particularly anaemic effort, and in the stands, where gallows humour chorused out from early in the first-half.
So this is what Parker has to confront. In his heart, he’ll know that this season probably can’t be salvaged and that, given that they will face Chelsea, Everton, and Leicester in their next three games, Fulham’s relegation might be a certainty by the end of the month. This is a job, then, which shouldn’t really be assessed in terms of points and results, but in Parker’s ability to change the mood around this club.
The structural issues are beyond his pay-grade. Nothing he does is going to purify the ownership situation or re-focus the recruiting department, but Parker’s role – as is so often the case with interims – is to reclaim hearts and minds and, in basic terms, make the act of supporting Fulham an attractive proposition again and remove the blank-faced horror that it seems to have become.
It doesn’t seem pleasurable now. Not just because of the realities of the league table, but because there’s so little to believe in. In fact, everything that worked for Fulham previously, all the combinations which brought them back to the Premier League in the first place, have been tossed aside.
From August onwards, the outside world has looked at the club differently. While previously it admired their progress back through the Championship, attributing their rise to the fine coaching of Slavisa Jokanovic and a band of cohesive, developing components, that appreciation has evaporated in the months since. Jokanovic is gone, of course, but so too is this side’s identity. Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney, talismen in the division below and surely good enough to grow onto the bigger stage, have been bit-part players, made subservient to bigger names on bigger contracts, and players who – regrettably – have never seen entirely invested in the collective cause.
Against Southampton, six of the starting eleven were signed in the summer or later. Seven, if Aleksandar Mitrovic is included. The theory has long been accepted that trying to change too much too soon is a mistake, particularly in this environment, but in Fulham’s case that turn-over has not only weakened them on the field, but also frayed the social tethers. The result, of course, being that this failure has occured in a disenchanted vacuum, in which fans are so disillusioned that they effectively tune out, removing themselves from the week-to-week dynamic.
It’s now March and the season’s end is approaching, but Fulham’s performances have been backdropped by such resignation for some time. Occasionally, bursts of optimism have escaped from that gloom, but more often the atmosphere has been saracastic and self-deprecating. The anger remains and the supporters haven’t turned mute, but all their energy is being directed towards something other their side. It’s been focused on the Khan family and, until very recently, Ranieri. His substitutions, his selections, his passing tactics. That’s not unreasonable, all parties have a case to answer, but neither is it likely to improve the immediate situation.
Parker’s objective is to change that. He may profit personally from doing so, putting himself in position to inherit this job full-time, but his broader task is to ensure that Fulham begin next season, in whichever league they find themselves, with far greater engagement. He can play some quick tricks. Cairney and Sessegnon aren’t just avatars or illusions perpetuated by the lesser standard in the Championship. They’re brave, bold and skilled attacking footballers and they’re also crowd favourites, liable to stir at least something just by being on the pitch – and that same logic can be applied across almost every other position, where with very few exceptions reliable parts have been downgraded with only the illusion of greater talent.
It may sound like a hopelessly optimistic rationale, but there’s great virtue now in Fulham failing on their own terms. Or at least dedicating the rest of their season to representing what they were in some kind of way. Ultimately, anything is better than this meek, featureless surrender, instructed really be repeated acts of self-sabotage which have, over the course of the season, blunted the senses in the stand.