Fulham’s return to the Premier League last season did not exactly go to plan. While fellow promoted side Wolves secured a seventh-place finish and Cardiff City went down fighting in their penultimate match of the season, Fulham were relegated at the start of April with five games to spare.
It was all a far cry from last summer as the London club returned to the top-flight riding a wave of optimism. More than £100 million was spent on new players, including the three most expensive players in Fulham’s history: Ivorian midfielder Jean Michael Seri arrived from Nice for a club record £30m, Senegalese midfielder André Zambo Anguissa was signed from Marseille for £22m, and Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic turned his loan move from Newcastle permanent for £20m.
Add to the new signings a handful of loan deals for players with big reputations, like Germany World Cup winner Andre Schurrle and Atletico Madrid striker Luciano Vietto, and Fulham looked to have equipped themselves for a decent tilt at Premier League survival.
However, instability soon engulfed the club and while their busy summer recruitment might have looked impressive, Fulham paid a heavy price for neglecting their defence and were relegated in 19th-place with a league-high 81 goals conceded. Equally, any manager who has to contend with 15 new signings is always going to find it difficult to hit the ground running, particularly in a league as relentless as the Premier League.
There was just as much instability in the dugout, with Fulham firing Slavisa Jokanovic in November with the club bottom of the table and making the disastrous decision to replace the Serb with Claudio Ranieri. The Italian only lasted until February with no sign of improving results and then moved to Roma, to replace Di Francesco, while former Fulham player Scott Parker took charge.
Three coaches in one season, that says something. Yet, while last season proved catastrophic, it could end up being a blessing in disguise for a club that now has the opportunity to hit the reset button.
So how will Fulham fare this season and can they head straight back to the Premier League?
To give you an idea for just how competitive the Championship currently is, the favourites to become champions of Europe’s ‘Big Four’ leagues are all odds-on – Manchester City in the Premier League, Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, Barcelona in La Liga, and Juventus in Serie A.
The Championship by comparison? Leeds United are currently priced around 5/1. That is more in line with a leading contender at a PGA Tour event or at the Kentucky Derby. At least Shahid Khan, Fulham’s chairman, can be more confident in the London team than in the franchise he owns in NFL. The Jacksonville Jaguars are 60/1 in the Superbowl odds, while Fulham is second favourite with 8/1.
Fulham, meanwhile have been installed as second-favourites to win the Championship title and are therefore expected, at the very least, to contend for an automatic promotion spot.
Ahead of the new season, Fulham have shed the disappointing loanees from last season and decided not to renew Ryan Babel’s short-term deal, although the Dutch forward was actually a rare bright spot following his arrival in January.
Fulham will hope to keep hold of Aleksandar Mitrovic for another season and the Serbian striker will once again be vital to their promotion hopes – as he was in the 2017/18 season when he scored 12 goals in 17 games.
He carried that form into the Premier League, scoring 11 goals, and it would not be a surprise if he attracts interest from Premier League clubs. Fulham could face a decision: try to convince Mitrovic to stay for one more season and lead them to promotion, or cash in on their star striker and avoid any potential fallout. There are reports of clubs interested in signing him, with Betis from La Liga on the front line.
From a financial standpoint, convincing him to stay makes the most sense, but whether Mitrovic is willing to play another season in the Championship if a top-flight opportunity presents itself is another matter.
Seri and Anguissa could be expected to move on having failed to live up to their price tags last season – and with both players in action at the Africa Cup of Nations this summer, they have the chance to put themselves in the shop window.
Having said that, despite their disappointing debuts, Seri and Anguissa are both talented players and if they – like Mitrovic – can be convinced to dedicate themselves to Fulham’s cause, they can be major assets this season.
Then there is the dilemma of Ryan Sessegnon. The left winger/full-back was sensational in Fulham’s promotion season, scoring 15 goals in the Championship, and while the teenager did not hit the heights many expected in his first year in the Premier League, he is still regarded as one of the finest talents in Europe.
As such, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur are both reportedly interested in prizing Sessegnon away from Craven Cottage, and it would be difficult for Fulham to resist what are sure to be lucrative offers. Whether they keep hold of Sessegnon or are able to replace his services could be key to Fulham’s promotion hopes.
As a playing squad, Fulham should boast one of the strongest in the Championship next season, but what of the man in the dugout?
Scott Parker is in his first managerial job at any level having stepped up on an interim basis last season to replace Ranieri. The former midfielder impressed enough to earn a two-year deal.
There is no escaping the fact that 38-year-old Parker has little to no managerial experience, so how quickly he can find his feet in the Championship could, arguably, be even more important than the playing personnel he will have at his disposal.
Fulham may have had a disastrous return to the Premier League, but if they learn from the experience and retain a core group of key players while successfully replacing those who leave – and if Parker can quickly adapt to management – then they should live up to their pre-season billing and contend for promotion.