Fulham relish Premier League return before Palace provide reality check
LONDON -- It was roughly 90 minutes before kickoff when the Fulham team bus alighted on Stevenage Road and Premier League footballers ambled into Craven Cottage for the first top-flight fixture in these parts for over four years.
Home fans were there in number to greet them, white replica shirts on their backs, broad new-season grins on their faces, the warm August sunshine gently beating down on their heads. The names and numbers melded pride in last's season swashbuckling promotion charge -- MITROVIC 9, SESSEGNON 3 -- with excitement at the novelties of the new campaign -- SCHURRLE 14, SERI 24, PREMIER LEAGUE 18.
A chorus of "Mitrooooo!" echoed off the red bricks on the back of the Johnny Haynes Stand as Aleksandar Mitrovic descended the steps of the grey executive coach, the strapping Serbian striker back at Fulham on a permanent basis after contributing 12 goals to last season's promotion push while on loan from Newcastle.
There were loud cheers for teen sensation Ryan Sessegnon and head coach Slavisa Jokanovic, architect of the promotion triumph, who would have sampled Premier League football three years sooner had Watford's promotion from the Championship in 2015 not been swiftly followed by his departure from Vicarage Road following the breakdown of contract talks. Both stopped to sign autographs before passing through the Cottage Gate and into the ground.
With the kind of ironic symmetry in which football seems to specialise, Fulham's first fixture back saw them face the same opponents -- London rivals Crystal Palace -- as in their last top-flight game: A 2-2 draw at the Cottage in May 2014. Not only that, but in Palace manager Roy Hodgson the home team welcomed back the man who led Fulham to a best-ever Premier League finish of seventh in 2009 and a place in the Europa League final the following year.
Hodgson, who turned 71 on Thursday, was warmly acclaimed as he stepped down from the team bus and acknowledged his reception with a jaunty thumbs-up. As he confided in the match programme, he was almost as happy to see his old team back in the top tier as the Fulham fans themselves. "I've always thought Fulham are a club that deserves to be in the Premier League," he said.
Prior to relegation in 2014, Fulham had been Premier League perennials, spending 13 unbroken seasons in the top flight and achieving seven top-12 finishes. The west London club returned via the playoffs after a season of dashing football in the Championship and a transfer window, in which they became the first promoted team in Premier League history to have spent over £100 million on new players.
When Fulham's players emerged for their warm-up -- "Insomnia' by Faithless booming out over the PA system, paper clappers rattled noisily by the home support -- there were nine new faces among their squad. Six of the recruits made the starting XI, which featured a back four where right-back Cyrus Christie was the only player who had been at the club longer than a month.
Three of Fulham's players -- goalkeeper Fabri, centre-back Calum Chambers and left-back Joe Bryan -- had been at the club for less than a week and yet, in spite of the unfamiliarity in their line-up, the home side made all the first-half running.
Jean Michael Seri, the summer's headline acquisition from Nice, kept the ball moving in midfield and, with Sessegnon and Borussia Dortmund loanee Andre Schurrle getting the ball into the box regularly from wide positions, Mitrovic had plenty of material to work with. Twice he got away from James Tomkins and dispatched low shots towards the bottom-left corner; twice Wayne Hennessey got down to save.
In possession, Fulham looked every inch the Premier League team, but they would be dealt a harsh reality lesson.
Fabri had already clawed a header by Christian Benteke onto the crossbar when Palace went ahead in the 41st minute. Patrick van Aanholt's pass down the inside-left channel released Jeffrey Schlupp, who powered away from Chambers and lashed a high shot inside the near post.
The sun disappeared in the second half as grey clouds stole across the sky and so too did the Fulham fans' pre-match disposition.
There were howls of protest when referee Mike Dean waved away penalty appeals after Schurrle went down under an untidy challenge by Mamadou Sakho. Frustrated home supporters leapt to their feet in anger again, clappers brandished angrily above their hands, when Dean penalised substitute Aboubakar Kamara for impeding Townsend on the touchline.
Palace largely succeeded in holding their hosts at arm's length and noisy away fans had a second goal to celebrate nine minutes from time when 20-year-old right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka rode Mitrovic's challenge, sidestepped Sessegnon on halfway and freed Wilfried Zaha, who rolled a shot beneath the advancing Fabri.
"It's a shame because we wanted to start the Premier League with a positive result and make our fans happy," Jokanovic said. "We found a great atmosphere at Craven Cottage. The Premier League is back here after four years and people who have followed Fulham all their lives know what its quality is. This was our first real test in this competition. We found more power, more speed and more quality. There is a tough job ahead of us, but we must be optimists and trust in ourselves."
The home fans stood to applaud their team at the final whistle before stands emptied and concourses cleared, thoughts no doubt already turning to next weekend's trip to Wembley for another London derby against Tottenham. It will be the first time since August 1989 that Fulham go into their second league game of the season having lost at home in their opening match. In the Premier League, autumn arrives quickly.