The ball thudded into the net as David Raya, seemingly in slow motion, scrambled in vain to prevent Joe Bryan’s freakish free-kick from creeping inside his right goalpost but perhaps the most striking image of the Championship play-off final arrived after the final whistle, when an emotional Scott Parker was trying to put it all into words.
Moments earlier, as tears pooled in his eyes, Parker buried his head in Aleksandar Mitrovic’s shoulder. He was elated but exhausted after a campaign that began with pre-season testing 409 days earlier culminated in the Fulham players bobbing up and down in a deserted Wembley, basking in the joy of promotion.
But enjoying it, Parker says, is not the best way to put it. “You can’t really, you can’t,” he said, tightening his shoulders, his voice cracking slightly. “You win a football match and by the time you get to Saturday night and you’re drinking a beer or having a little bit of a Chinese, all of a sudden you’re thinking about Monday morning and what the next game is.
“We live in a world and [work in] a profession where you win a game but lose the next one and you’re deemed as a failure. I hope after tomorrow I can sit down with the family – with my wife and kids – who for the last year have probably been [walking] on eggshells at different moments, and they can just get their husband back, get their dad back. When you’re going at 100mph, sometimes you lose sight of other things and I’ve probably done that – family and everything else.”
Parker hopes to have a breather before returning to the coalface next week, acutely aware the Premier League season is five weeks away. His honesty was refreshing, a fascinating snapshot of the 24/7 life of a manager, and spoke volumes regarding the painstaking process of picking up the pieces after a relegation season that had featured three managers, a conveyor belt of lavish signings and left the squad nursing psychological scars.
Parker was handed a hospital pass – the ruins of a spectacular failure and a divided dressing room – when taking permanent charge last May. He deserves immense credit for putting the jigsaw back together and building a team Fulham can be proud of.
Bryan credits Parker with overhauling a “losing culture” and the manager also harnessed great expectations. “When you’re expected to win a league by 20 points after a disappointing season, it’s difficult,” he said.
This time Fulham must not rip it up, nor throw another £100m at the transfer market and hope it sticks. “We need to keep the team spirit together – I think we lost that a little bit too early the last time we went up,” said the captain, Tom Cairney.
Beyond Mitrovic, two key players had a point to prove: Harrison Reed, the Southampton midfielder who has spent the past three seasons on loan at different clubs, and Michael Hector, a serial loanee. Tony Khan, the Fulham director of football, tells of how he persuaded Hector to sign by showing off his medal from the promotion season under Slavisa Jokanovic in 2018, saying the defender would have one of his own if he came to Craven Cottage.
Hector had to make do with training and no matches for four months before being able to play because his deadline-day transfer was not registered in time. The defender, an £8m acquisition from Chelsea, for whom he never featured, was worth waiting for, and the club could do worse than make Reed’s stay permanent.
Mitrovic could also do with a helping hand in attack, with Cairney the second-highest scorer on eight goals, Bobby Decordova-Reid having struggled to reprise his prolific final season at Bristol City.
One of the most alarming aspects of Fulham’s last top-flight stay was the goalkeeping situation. Fabri, a £5m signing, started the first two games and never played another minute. Marcus Bettinelli, the first choice en route to the 2018 promotion, returned for the third game but was back on the bench by October. Then it was Sergio Rico’s turn but the Sevilla loanee endured a torrid time, conceding 61 league goals.
Parker addressed the issue this season, dropping Bettinelli and handing a then 22-year-old Marek Rodak his debut in October. In the following game the Slovakia international was sent off after 17 minutes.
“It was a big call for me to bring Marek in, a young boy who had experience at Rotherham [on loan in 2017-18 and 2018-19] but in terms of coming into this environment it was very different,” Parker said. “He has got his opportunity and not looked back, kept his shirt and deservedly so. He has someone pushing him who we all know could fill that shirt, so he’s done very well.”