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From a relegation battle to the playoffs: the story of Fulham’s remarkable turnaround

Fulham have been in danger of relegation the last three years. This year they were good, how did it happen?

Fulham v Hull City - The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Nine long months ago, Fulham embarked on their Championship journey, unsure of what the season would entail. Preseason had brought positive results, but the summer had been weighed down by the departure of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele. Fulham’s two best goalscorers, who had essentially saved the Whites from relegation last season, were gone. Questions remained over who would fill the massive goal-scoring void.

The season also marked the start of Slavisa Jokanovic’s first full season as Fulham manager. The Serbian had taken over in December 2016 and steered Fulham clear of relegation, albeit by a thinner margin than many expected. Results had improved since Jokanovic arrived, yet Fulham still finished the season in a lowly 20th; the year ended on a run of one win in five matches. It was now Slavisa’s time to make his mark in SW6 and replicate his Championship success at Watford.

A warm Friday night in August marked the start of what would become a famous season. The Whites welcomed big-spending Newcastle United to Craven Cottage, a side chock-full of Premier League talent and Championship experience. To the shock of many, Fulham triumphed 1-0, thanks to a powerful Matt Smith header off a corner. Fulham were top of the league.

Fulham v Newcastle United - Sky Bet Championship
Matt Smith heads Fulham top of the table against Newcastle
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The Whites continued their strong start over the next month, finishing August unbeaten and in second place in the league. Yet heading into the international break and the closure of the summer transfer window, questions remained over the side’s strength and depth. Fears were allayed by the deadline day acquisitions of Chris Martin and Lucas Piazon, two attacking threats who would prove vital to Fulham’s success.

Yet the early-season optimism soon faded during a miserable fall. The Whites failed to record a single win in all of September, going on an abysmal run of six matches without a victory, featuring a tepid home draw with Burton and a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Bristol City. Next up came a crucial west London derby against QPR on October 1st; the Whites proceeded to miss two penalties on their way to a demoralizing 2-1 defeat.

After an October that was filled with mixed results, the final match of the month provided the first glimpse that Fulham were in the midst of a special season. Fulham played host to high-flying Huddersfield Town, who sat third in the league. Far from succumbing to one of the best teams in the league, Fulham thrashed the Terriers, emerging with a season-boosting 5-0 win. Chris Martin bagged a brace (even scoring a penalty!) with Piazon, Kalas, and McDonald chipping in with the other goals. It was a complete performance, and one that showed Fulham’s true potential.

Following the superb display against Huddersfield, Fulham went on a run of only one loss in their next nine fixtures, featuring a classy 2-0 away win against Brentford and another 5-0 dismantling of a top club; this time Reading was the victim. The run culminated with a 2-0 away victory against Ipswich on Boxing Day, a result that would leave the Whites seventh, just one point outside of the playoff places. Things were looking up at Craven Cottage.

Then disaster hit. On the night of December 30th, Fulham were set to travel to the Madejski Stadium to play promotion-chasing Reading, when devastating news broke. Chris Martin, the striker on loan from Derby, had refused to be part of the matchday squad in an attempt to force a move back to his parent club. The same man who had scored and celebrated with such passion four days previously was now throwing his toys out of the pram and threatening to derail Fulham’s season.

Ipswich Town v Fulham - Sky Bet Championship
Chris Martin scores against Ipswich, just days before his infamous strike
Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Yet the reaction of Jokanovic and the club was perfect. Jokanovic insisted that Fulham ‘was not a train station,’ rejecting Martin’s bid to move back to the Midlands and insisting that the striker honor his contract. Jokanovic’s firm response was vital in maintaining the ethos that no player is ever bigger than the club. And just a couple of weeks later, Martin returned to the starting lineup against Barnsley and scored (a penalty!) in a 2-0 win.

And a miracle was exactly what followed. Over the next 17 matches, Fulham won 11, drawing four and losing just twice. The Cottagers catapulted from tenth, 11 points behind Leeds, to sixth, a comfortable five points in front of the Yorkshire club. The remarkable turnaround caught the attention of the footballing world; suddenly everyone seemed to be full of praise for Fulham and their brand of pleasing, possession-based football. Over the final three months of the season, Fulham outclassed the likes of Newcastle, Huddersfield, Sheffield Wednesday, and Norwich; scoring goals for fun and playing fearless football.

The recall of fan favorite goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli to the starting lineup had worked wonders. After the Derby loss in which David Button made a fool of himself, Bettinelli returned between the sticks; Fulham are unbeaten since.

Fulham’s turnaround has been startling; a team that struggled against the drop last year are now clear favorites for promotion. Jokanovic deserves immense recognition for this massive turn in fortunes. Many tipped Fulham to struggle after the loss of McCormack and Dembele; not only have Fulham’s attack thrived, they scored the most goals in all of Championship (19 more than last season).

But with the focus on the Whites’ sparkling attack, some have lost sight of how impressive their defence has been. A constant fixture of Fulham over the past five years has been their defensive fragility, leaking goals left and right, riddled by their chronic inability to defend set pieces. Yet this season Fulham conceded just six goals from set pieces; the lowest number in all of the Championship. The stellar centreback partnership of Kalas and Tim Ream has marshalled the Fulham backline with authority, owing to perhaps the most remarkable of turnarounds.

The Cottagers enter the playoffs on a searing run of form, playing the best football in the Championship, buoyed by a dynamic attack and a resurgent defence. Reading awaits in the playoff semifinals, yet no matter what the playoffs hold, this season will have been a smashing success for Fulham. From 20th to 6th and a shot at return to the promised land of the Premier League; it truly has been a stunning season by the banks of the Thames.