Let’s have drum roll for Slav the sor­cerer

The Football League Paper - - CHRIS DUNLAVY -

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.

Ex­pe­ri­ence

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.

In­her­ited

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.

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