Everything felt a little too familiar for Fulham fans in their Championship opener against Middlesbrough on Sunday afternoon.
Bouncing between the top two leagues has become the norm in recent years, and although a promising pre-season brought rejuvenated hopes of stability, old problems remain as the Cottagers were forced to settle for a point in their season opener.
A tenacious Neil Warnock team was the perfect barometer for the Championship season that lies ahead. Destined to be a niggly affair from the first whistle, the game began well for Marco Silva’s men as they dominated possession in the first-half and took a deserved lead via new signing Harry Wilson’s fine strike from just outside the box.
Fulham passed the ball with class and looked a cut above for most of the game; they just couldn’t find the quality needed for a second goal.
Meanwhile, Warnock’s trademark tactics of staying in the game and disrupting Fulham’s rhythm worked well and eventually paid off when left-back Marc Bola scored with Boro’s only shot on target.
Fulham certainly stood up to the physicality of Warnock’s side with a total of 28 fouls shared evenly between the two sides and seven yellow cards brandished – including one each to assistant coaches Luis Boa Morte and Kevin Blackwell after some touchline handbags.
If a reality check as to what new boss Silva will face over the course of the next nine months, he certainly got one as he embarks on what will likely be one of his most gruelling seasons as a manager.
Fulham’s meek departure from the Premier League left fans feeling dejected as they reflected on another season of shortcomings at the top level.
The exodus of Alphonse Areola, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mario Lemina, and the impressive Joachim Andersen, now at Crystal Palace, was tough to take. As was, of course, the departure of Scott Parker.
Seeing their ex-captain leave for promotion rivals AFC Bournemouth was a significant blow for most of the Fulham fan base. Though lacking in experience, his palpable ambition and eloquent analysis drew admiration from supporters and pundits alike.
Nevertheless, the manner of Fulham’s relegation and a breakdown in communication with the club’s top striker did test the patience of his supporters and superiors.
The Parker vs Aleksandar Mitrovic stand-off ended with the former departing, but the Serbian striker will need to up his game if he is to win back the favour of the Fulham faithful.
Despite these negatives, pre-season threw up a few welcome surprises. Exciting signings and an aspiring new manager allowed portions of the fanbase to purge last season from their memories and start feeling optimistic again.
Even after the frustration of Sunday’s result, Fulham’s first showing of the season did have elements to be admired.
Harry Wilson’s performance, in particular, showed that the club has addressed an area that needed improving.
Wilson’s overall cost is expected to be £12m, which is more than some Championship clubs will spend throughout the entire season. A not-so-subtle hint at what Tony Khan is expecting come the end of the season.
Silva’s decision to start another new signing Paulo Gazzaniga over Marek Rodak seemed a tad harsh on the Slovakian, but having two established keepers to choose from is always a healthy problem for a manager.
The overall squad looks in better shape than the one Parker had at the start of 2018/19 and getting Mitrovic scoring again will be high on Silva’s list of priorities.
Fulham also look poised to sign Rodrigo Muniz, a 20-year-old Brazilian striker from Flamengo who has reportedly rejected a move to Middlesbrough and, if signed, will be another step towards scoring more than last year’s tally of five goals at home all season.
In his first press conference for the club, Marco Silva used the word “project” at least eight times, clearly realising what success at Fulham means for him and, like Parker, comes across as someone with a strong vision.
There are rumours that someone big will be leaving – perhaps Seri or Anguissa – but nothing has materialised at the time of writing. Big seasons are also expected from the likes of Antonee Robinson, Harrison Reed, Kenny Tete and Tosin Adarabioyo.
The quality within the squad, combined with an almost finished Riverside Stand and a manager striving to repair his reputation puts Fulham in good stead for promotion come next May.
The fanbase know of Slavisa Jokanovic’s Championship expertise so Sheffield United could be one to watch, as will Scott Parker’s Bournemouth, but with the quality they possess, Fulham should also be in the running for automatic promotion.