Are two Serbs better than one? At Fulham’s Craven Cottage, it would appear so.
Benefiting from owner Shahid Khan displaying an element of patience increasing rare in today’s game, manager Slavisa Jokanovic has made the Cottagers into realistic promotion contenders and used his Serbian links to recruit, albeit initially on loan, fellow countryman Aleksandar Mitrovic from Newcastle United.
It seems that Mitrovic’s future lies away from St. James’ Park, at least while the Geordies are managed by Rafa Benitez. Preferring the likes of Dwight Gayle, Ayoze Perez, and Chelsea loanee Kenedy, the former Champions’ League winner farmed out the 23 year old to West London to gain much needed game time, and perhaps create a market for the former Partizan Belgrade and Anderlecht player. Seven goals and eight games later, including a brace in yesterday’s vital injury time victory against Preston, suggests Jokanovic is the ideal man to put an arm around the player and get the best out of his undoubted talent.
Representing the Novi Sad-born manager’s longest stint at the helm, Jokanovic will though be aware that the current season could be his last at Fulham unless he can guide his charges back to football’s promised land. There is little more galling to a chairman eager to begin the process of recouping the significant outlay that he has used to purchase a club – in Khan’s case a rumoured £150-200 Million – than repeated near misses while parachute payments from the Premier League gradually drain away. Although continuity under Jokanovic has allowed Fulham to stabilize and reconstitute itself as a top flight team in waiting, Khan will surely expect the club to go one better than the demoralizing set back in last season’s play offs, which saw the Cottagers lose out to Reading, themselves ultimately beaten at Wembley by Huddersfield Town.
As is common with many clubs in the capital and its travel to work area, Fulham are arguably not a big club with justified claims to a Premier League place. Similar to Watford, Reading, and Queens Park Rangers, big money is attracted to relatively small and unfashionable clubs purely by dint of their proximity to London. Indeed, one cannot imagine the amount of money Khan paid Mohammed Al-Fayed for the club would have been anywhere near as large had it been situated further north. Sides in and around the London area who struggle to attract attendances approaching or north of 20,000 can though acquire players clubs elsewhere in the country, of similar size, could never dream of fielding. Again, the significance of the ‘London Effect’ cannot be underestimated.
As a microcosm of their club’s size, the 900 or so fans who yesterday ventured north to Preston North End nevertheless number few for such a pivotal match against opposition forever bracketed as play off hopefuls. As much as I dislike making comparisons, West Ham United, for example, would have mobilized 5-7,000 supporters for such an important fixture. Despite their previous and current owners being self-made billionaires who’ve divested themselves of sizeable amounts of their fortunes to first purchase, then operate the club, the fact remains that Fulham are not a big club. It is though also worth mentioning that Preston themselves could only muster 12,000 fans for a game significant to their future prospects, with half the ground sitting empty.
Should Mitrovic fire Fulham back to the Premier League, it is highly likely that his and Jokanovic’s Serbian influence in West London will become more permanent. Landing the golden goose riches laid before the twenty diners at football’s top table will enable Khan to acquire Mitrovic from Newcastle, who will surely seek to recoup a large part, if not all, of the near £13 million that brought the Serb to the northeast. With two years still to run on his contract, the forward will be keen to address his future sooner rather than later, instead of returning to a life of limbo under Benitez.
What occurs between now and the end of the season will perhaps be the most significant months yet of the time Khan, Jokanovic, and Mitrovic have spent at the club. Promotion would mean so many different things to each, and place the club in a position of strength that could ensure it has the final say should the expected bids for both Ryan and Steven Sessegnon come flooding in.