Scott Parker has said sealing an immediate Premier League return in Tuesday’s Championship play-off final at Wembley would help Fulham heal last season’s relegation that left his team fragile.
Parker has galvanised a fractured dressing room after a summer rebuild that has elevated Fulham to within touching distance of promotion. They take on Brentford in a game that, according to Deloitte, could be worth more than £265m across five years if the winners avoid the drop next season.
The major boost for Parker is the return to fitness of Aleksandar Mitrovic, the division’s golden boot winner who missed the semi-final against Cardiff because of a hamstring complaint. “There is no bigger stage than now,” the Fulham manager said. “He has worked for this moment, to be able to help us achieve what we want to achieve.”
Parker said the dynamics of the club were not conducive to achieving an instant top-flight return but, having put an onus on erasing the psychological damage of being relegated with five games to play, he believes Fulham have developed a thick skin. Only four players who started the final-day defeat by Newcastle last season are likely to line up at Wembley: Mitrovic, the captain, Tom Cairney, and the full-backs, Joe Bryan and Cyrus Christie.
“Along the way this year you can see there are still those wounds which we need to make into thick scars, and make sure they do not reappear,” Parker said. “I realised the squad was fragile, the football club was fragile and we had these separate bands. At the forefront of my mind was trying to bring the club back together a little bit and try to create an environment and culture. In all successful clubs and businesses, it comes from a core foundation, when everything runs in the right way and everyone is on the same page. The club was very disjointed. We were in a bad spell. It has been a rocky road because you can’t just have a magic wand and go from real disbelief, a real weak mentality, and disconnection and within two months be fighting to win.”
Fulham won seven Premier League matches in 2018-19, conceding a league-high 81 goals, but headed into the final day of this regular season with a chance of automatic promotion after winning five of their final seven games. They finished fourth, level on points with Brentford, who had a superior goal difference.
Parker acknowledged the recruitment of players with Championship knowhow such as Michael Hector, Bobby Decordova-Reid, Harrison Reed, Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert – Cavaleiro and Knockaert have won promotion from the division – had been important after big-money signings backfired in the Premier League.
“We have seen many teams that look good on paper that have just fallen out of the Premier League and all of sudden they go and double bounce into League One or they are sitting 13th, 14th in the division and do not win many games. Often it is because the culture is the same one which got them relegated the year before. The teams that often do well when they come down are the ones that have clear foundations.”
Thomas Frank said he could take inspiration from an unusual source for his team-talk. “I could say A,B,C, D; it doesn’t matter,” Brentford’s head coach said. “A fancy quote, or I could cry, I could laugh or joke. Sometimes, honestly, I don’t think it matters. But I love the American emotional stories about the big sports events and I would love if I can do an Al Pacino game inches speech.”
Asked about his casual dress sense, Frank said: “It is important to wear what you feel relaxed in or good in … I think it is Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook who wears the same clothes every day so he doesn’t use up brain capacity thinking about that as well. I am pretty simple and not too fussed about how I look – so I do get a bit of killing from my wife.”