Let’s have drum roll for Slav the sorcerer
SLAVISA Jokanovic is the kind of person who makes John Major look as colourful and exuberant as Krusty the Clown. Joyless, intense, a baritone mumble that is in equal parts sinister and numbingly dull. The giant Serbian exudes as much charisma as an Eastern Bloc tenement.
Which perhaps explains why the 48-year-old’s achievements this season have been so scandalously overlooked.
After Fulham stumbled to a 20thplace finish last May, Jokanovic told reporters the club must set a lofty new target.
“Fighting to survive is not good enough,” he said. “I am talking about fighting for the top six.”
Most dismissed it as somewhere between delusion and a ploy to sell season tickets. Then. 40 goals walked out in the shape of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele.
Such a loss would trouble any side. For one that shipped more goals than anybody outside the bottom three, it was a catastrophe. The brutal reality for Cottagers’ fans was that only firepower had kept them in the Championship – and now they were out of ammo.
Pundits piled up to predict a relegation battle. Sky expert Ian Holloway plumped for 17th. “A lot of overpaid experience and too many youth players,” he said. “It could be another tough season.”
Even after Chris Martin was recruited from Derby, bookies offered 9/2 on Fulham spending next season in League One. Nobody judged those odds harsh.
Yet here we are. Top six. Goals galore. Attacking football the envy of the division. I’ve lost count of the number of opposition players and managers who said the Whites are the best side they’ve faced this season. Even that Godawful defence has been tightened up. Nobody will fancy a trip to Craven Cottage in the play-offs.
Of course, the transformation isn’t purely down to Jokanovic. Eleven players were signed during the summer, mostly unheard of and all out of the manager’s hands.
Jokanovic spent much of preseason at loggerheads with Chris Kline, the statistician who allegedly held a veto over all transfers. At one point, he flat-out blamed the American for a lack of signings.
But owner Shahid Khan played a blinder, publicly praising the honesty of “Slav” and partially yielding to his demands (note the arrival of Martin) while never burning his bridges with Kline.
By the time Kline was formally appointed to the board in February, the success of players like Floyd Ayite and Stefan Johansen had softened the manager’s stance. All now seems harmonious.
Both the diplomacy of Khan and the rigour of Kline have contributed to Fulham’s rise through the Championship. Neither, though, eclipse Jokanovic.
When the former Chelsea player guided Watford to the Premier League in 2015, praise was legitimately tempered.
The Hornets had a settled system, quality players, a stream of free recruits from Serie A. The feeling – expressed even by some of their players – was that Watford, who’d already rattled through four managers that season, would have gone up whoever was in charge.
This is very different. Jokanovic inherited a porous rabble low on morale and heading south faster than Thelma and Louise.
Aided by savvy recruitment, his coaching has turned Fulham into the Monaco of the Championship, the perfect blend of excitement and effectiveness. If they stay in the top six, I’d make Fulham favourites to go up in the play-offs.
Chris Hughton’s work at Brighton cannot be overlooked. Simon Grayson has turned in another season of understated excellence at Preston, belying a bottom-six budget.
But, all things considered, it’s hard to look beyond Jokanovic as the Championship manager of the year. Just don’t expect him to make much of a speech.