Collins Column: Murders and Acquisitions

6th January 2018
(Photo: Rex Features)

The January Transfer Window always brings about its fair share of disruption, but Fulham were given an untimely reminder of the unrest behind the doors at Motspur Park this week as the recriutment issue reared its head once again. Jack J Collins breaks it down in the first Collins Column of 2018.

It’s never easy being a Fulham fan, something which we were all reminded of this week when Slavisa Jokanovic’s outburst at the press conference before the Southampton game threatened to derail all the postivity which had threatened to break through after an excellent Christmas period of results.

It was a tough start to the winter season for both Fulham and Jokanovic, with a tactically inept loss to Brentford only topped in the embarrassment stakes by going to the Stadium of Light, where Sunderland hadn’t won for 361 days, and capitulating. In both fixtures the use of an out-of-sorts Stefan Johansen in a False 9 role was picked up as a huge mistake.

Jokanovic came in for fire from many quarters, and I’ll be the first to say I was unhappy with the tactical management of the two games.

I said on a podcast at the time that all I wanted was to see was Slavisa stop being so stubborn, to switch things up and to play players in their correct positions. In his defence, he did this and Fulham’s run of good results over the Christmas period was due at least partly to the manager’s decisions in game and his willingness to adapt more.

Where there is criticism, there has to be credit when the issues highlighted are addressed, and I’d more than happily eat my words all season if it meant that Fulham kept winning under Jokanovic.

Wednesday’s podcast brought a wave of fresh optimism, following a good result against a resolute Ipswich side who are punching above their weight this season. Yes, the breakthrough only came against 10 men after a rush of blood from the clueless Jordan Spence, but Fulham’s performance level was reason for positivity going into the New Year.

But, as ever, it wasn’t to last. It appears that every time Jokanovic gets Fulham on a good run of results, he almost withdraws from the wave of positivity — I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s a defence mechanism. He wants to be the one holding the strings to the wave crashing, so that he’s not engulfed by it as he might be if he was the one riding its crest.

The gaffer cuts a frustrated figure, but he knew what he signed up to. (Photo: Rex Features)

The issue, I feel, lies in the fact that Slavisa needs to have a fall guy for when things don’t go to plan. For the previous year, that’s been Craig Kline. I have no real qualms with the dismissal of Fulham’s ex-VDoF, especially after some of the more bizarre stories about his tenure came to light in the press, but when he was dismissed, everyone rejoiced in the fact that James Lovell would be installed. Lovell, so we are told, is someone whom Slavisa likes and trusts. (H/T Dan Crawford)

It seems strange then, that at the first opportunity he was given, Jokanovic threw Lovell and his entire team under the bus, in the public setting of a press room. Forgive me if I’m reaching on too much of a tangent here, but it doesn’t seem like the healthiest of relationships if one of the parties is willing to air grievances in public rather than deal with them privately.

Ultimately, it seems, Slavisa drops these bombshells when the team is doing well in order to use the positive energy surrounding the team for his own ends, and then using that to strongarm the board and the owners. It’s not unheard of as a media mechanism, but it’s worth remembering that Slavisa wouldn’t do this when the team were doing badly because it wouldn’t work.

Whipping up fan support and creating a divide between the board and the manager isn’t ideal when you’re trying to bring a football club forward – everyone should be pushing in the same direction and for that you have to build bridges and develop channels of communication. Harmony, sacrifice and collaboration are the names of the game here.

Which, I suppose, brings us on to the weirdest point of this schism in the fanbase — no-one is disagreeing that Fulham could do with a few more players. An all-rounded left-back, a dominant aerial centre-back and a poacher up front are the three things that this team could really do with. (And a goalkeeper, but that seems unlikely right now, so we’ll leave it alone.)

The paradox is that the recruitment team are almost certainly basing their view on whether the squad is strong enough on 1) the fact that over the past few games Fulham have looked a far better side, and 2) that last season Jokanovic’s lack of rotation saw squad players marginalised. If there is to be a similar lack of rotation this year, why would the Club splurge on new players?

It would take a particularly biased fan to suggest that Slavisa has made the most of his squad so far this season. Behind Wolves, this squad is in the next bracket of the two or three squads with the most ability across the Championship.

In that regard, Fulham are underachieving; and in the same vein, the lack of chances given to players that Slavisa simply doesn’t like makes for grim reading for those of us who have watched the likes of Rafa Soares and Jordan Graham at former clubs in previous years and are convinced that there is quality there that could benefit the side.

But it’s not Jokanovic’s point that people are taking umbrage with – it’s his manner of dealing with it. Coming out to the media rather than dealing with the issue internally not only knocks fan confidence in the manner of what’s going on behind the scenes (which is potentially what Slavisa wants as it gives him a platform to make excuses from) but also makes the club look bad in the wider sense of the word, which could influence players wanting or not wanting to come to the club.

Ultimately, the call here is not for Slavisa to go – although if he is so upset by the system that he signed up to with a new contract, why would he not just walk away – but rather for him to have a dialogue with the club, stop throwing his toys out of the pram and to coach the players he is given to the best of his ability and to mould them into a cohesive unit with players playing in their natural and best positions.

Antonio Conte, widely regarded as one of the finest coaches in the modern pantheon, adapted his managerial style when going from a club where he had full control of transfer policy at Juventus, to one where he is a head coach, at Chelsea. He has repeatedly stated that whilst he has an opinion on transfers, the end result always lies with those in the relevant department.

Conte might be unhappy with this, or he might not; but you don’t see him throwing his toys out of the pram and asking for the club to sack him. Neither can you put him down as a ‘yes man’ who lacks clarity, passion and drive. He is simply an excellent manager who accepted the situation he signed a contract for, and goes about his business as best he can with the tools he is given.

People calling for Khan to leave would do well to remember that the man has invested heavily in the club, both on and off the field, and is now running the club’s finances in a sensible and sustainable way.

With parachute payments ending, and increased revenue being ploughed into the Premier League clubs who are relegated, Fulham do not have the financial clout to simply spend our way out of the division – and look how well that went when they let Magath have the reigns on transfer policy!

Instead, a sensible, sustainable and forward thinking policy must be employed when it comes to transfers. Our academy is a burgeoning bastion of success, and must be the mainstay of the club going forward, so why would the club drop millions on squad players instead of promoting from within? The rise of players such as Patrick Roberts, Moussa Dembele and now Ryan Sessegnon show that there is plenty of talent coming through the ranks, and must be nurtured with time and patience.

This is not to say that no money should be spent. Ultimately, Slavisa, Tony Khan and the recruitment team need to sit down and thrash this out – this is not a window to be spent bickering between parts, but one to push momentum forward and look to build on a good Christmas period on the pitch.

For Slavisa to have come out and publicly slated the club with 27 days to go in the window is not going to have helped build those bridges, however. For the sake of the fans and the club, egos need to be put aside, conversations need to happen behind closed doors at Motspur, and the spotlight needs to be put back onto the pitch where it belongs.

This is not an exit. COYW.

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