Fulham are shaping as dark horses of the Championship. They have come lately to play-off contention, hiding their earnest behind ridiculous dropped points from late goals and staying in touch with sufficient victories forged by young fantasy players given their heads by Slavisa Jokanovic. On Saturday they nosed above the dotted line for a few hours with a 3-1 win over Ipswich before Sheffield Wednesday reclaimed sixth spot by beating Newcastle.
To the bulk of a near-capacity crowd, basking in the spring sunshine by the Thames, Craven Cottage seemed like seventh heaven, which may be a happier place than the Premier League to which they aspire. Jokanovic, their head coach, took Watford up in 2015 before leaving. After 15 months with Fulham he dared to say last month: “Obviously it’s a results business but, if I am successful, I could stay here 10 years.” He knows this bit of London from two late-career years with Chelsea as a defensive midfielder and is clearly at ease.
So are his players. Many have come through the academy, directed by Huw Jennings, who previously sent Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and others to nominally higher places than Southampton. Fulham’s collection looked on Saturday looked to be having the time of their lives, rather like National horses that shed their riders and run on with a sense of freedom and no responsibility. Here they would stop to smell the buttercups, then gallop off to cause havoc, with Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich not clever enough to see the counter, as Gary Rowett had at Derby last Tuesday. Fulham lost 4-2 despite 74% possession, though some of that will have been fishing the ball out of the net.
Where Derby pressed, Ipswich stood off and Fulham could indulge their poise and they got away with it even when it lapsed into the casual. Floyd Ayité and Sone Aluko were as dragonflies on the flanks – pause and dart, hover and dash – though sometimes the dash came from Ryan Fredericks and Scott Malone overlapping. In midfield Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen controlled tempo. Jokanovic said after the Derby defeat they needed to “be in fifth gear”. Johansen gave them overdrive, Kevin McDonald comfort in front of defence and the heralded 16-year-old Ryan Sessegnon did not get on.
Chris Martin, on a year-long loan from Derby, could be forgiven for feeling a black Ram, unsure where he belongs. At times his commitment to Fulham’s cause has been questioned and a fortnight ago he was booed on to Hampden Park as a late substitute, only to give Scotland a 1-0 win over Slovenia. On Saturday, meeting a cross after 15 minutes, he caught a crab such as one of Oxford’s women did the previous weekend in the Boat Race beyond the towpath trees. Two minutes later, after midfield linking in a Fulham breakaway, he was forward to meet another centre and was relieved to see Ayité pop in the rebound from Bartosz Bialkowski’s save.
By the half-hour Johansen had set up some tight passing from a throw-in on the left to send in Malone for a second and beyond the hour, after two blinding stops by Marcus Bettinelli to deny first Freddie Sears, then David McGoldrick, Johansen showed cool with a third goal from the breakaway. Christophe Berra’s injury-time reply was no consolation for a flat Ipswich, out of the top tier for 15 seasons and seemingly going nowhere. Bobby Robson, closely associated with both clubs, would have rejoiced in Fulham’s enlightened spirit. He scored in their last home victory over Ipswich, 10-1 on Boxing Day in 1963.
This was Bettinelli’s first league start of the season and both keepers might at times have been auditioning for Pep Guardiola, dribbling or passing into trouble in their best Claudio Bravo mode. Jokanovic, whose charming pursuit of perfect English could send shaggy dogs to sleep, paid tribute to the previously ever-present David Button – “a great man, really professional” – and said: “I always try to make the best decision for my team.” He has made plenty and may need more. Their next game is at Norwich, who beat Reading 7-1, their last at Sheffield Wednesday. No one would fancy them in the play-offs. In oppressing times there is happily a future yet for Cottage industry.