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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 19 August 2018

Consistent Fulham have the ambition to enjoy life back in Premier League

The newly promoted London side have done good business in the transfer window

Andre Schurrle is among the experienced recruits brought in by Fulham for the new season. Getty Images
Andre Schurrle is among the experienced recruits brought in by Fulham for the new season. Getty Images

The first time Fulham won promotion to the Premier League, it went to the head of their leading goalscorer.

Louis Saha tells the story, with self-deprecating humour, of how, reaching England’s top division, and celebrating Fulham’s arrival there with two goals away at Manchester United on day one of the 2001-2002 season, he rewarded himself with a gift.

It was a motorbike, a powerful one. He revved it up, thrilled and a little awed by the power of the machine. And then he tried to steer it, whereupon bike and striker, who had no licence to drive it, crashed to the ground.

His leg was left burned and cut, his pride utterly wounded. Saha, panicking, kept the injuries secret from his club, fearing the anger of his manager, the Frenchman Jean Tigana, and even that his contact might be cancelled.

“I’d bitten the dust like Twit of the Year,” Saha recalled in his entertaining memoir, Thinking Inside the Box, “and ended up in A&E as my gash needed stitches to stop it healing into a thickened, raised scar.”

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He made up a yarn for the Fulham team doctor about a kitchen accident with a frying pan. He got away with it, too, playing through the pain of his motorbike injury to score the goal that secured Fulham’s first-ever Premier League points.

Saha remembers the incident as a turning point, a lesson in self-discipline. He was never so indulgent again, and went on to have a long, successful career with four more English clubs, including United, after his goals had guided Fulham up and towards what would be a 13-year stay in the Premier League.

With Fulham back again now, after four seasons in the Championship, their challenge will be to keep players from racy temptations, and ensure a sleek, if lightweight vehicle of a team stays upright and steady while adding powerful boosters to its engine.

Fulham were last on to the Premier League starting grid for the coming season, having arrived via the Championship play-off final, where they beat Aston Villa 1-0 in May.

But they were widely praised as the most stylish of their division’s teams for much of the second half of last season. Credit for that is in large part due to Slavisa Jokanovic, the Serbian coach who was appointed in December 2015, with Fulham in difficulties.

Jokanovic settled on the type of football he wanted, and, in time, on the 13 or 14 players he trusted to achieve it.

Part of Fulham’s fluency and strength over the last 18 months - they also reached the play-off semi-finals in 2016-17 - has developed from consistency of selection, and the finessing of relationships on the pitch.

And there lies the dilemma for Jokanovic. History dictates that any promoted club, in order to survive in the Premier League, must strengthen. Yet the formula for success that steered Fulham back to the top flight needs preserving, too.

The axis of the pass-and-move football that earned Fulham such broad applause last season was the midfield, where the Scotland international Kevin McDonald’s authority, the Norwegian Stefan Johansen’s energy and eye for a pass, and the blessed left foot of captain Tom Cairney became a winning combination.

But their midfield routines must now accommodate a new man, an eye-catching signing that has signalled Fulham’s ambition under owner Shahid Khan.

Khan authorised the €30 million (Dh127.7m) transfer fee for 27-year-old Jean Michael Seri, recruited from Nice, a central midfielder whom grander clubs than Fulham had been asking after.

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Back in 2001, when Saha’s head was briefly turned by a flashy motorcycle, Fulham’s bold statement signing on reaching the Premier League was goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, who had been a semi-finalist at a World Cup and a European Championship, and still had many prosperous years ahead of him.

This summer, besides Seri, Fulham have signed on loan a World Cup winner, Andre Schurrle, who set up the only goal of Germany’s 2014 final against Argentina.

With Schurrle on one flank and the brilliant left-sided Ryan Sessegnon - 18 years old, homegrown and tipped for greatness - on the other, Jokanovic should have the width he likes, and, with the signing of Aleks Mitrovic, for close to €25m from Newcastle United, the manager has his desired target man at the sharp point of the attack.

Mitrovic, a Serbia international, spent the last six months on loan at Fulham, scored regularly, helped their play-off push and rejuvenated his own career, which had stalled at top-flight Newcastle. Now he has a point to make about his own Premier League credentials.

If he can thrive in elite company in the way Saha did, the last time Fulham came up, the Londoners should be safe and sound.

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