The last few weeks have thrown up numerous challenges for Fulham. A coronavirus outbreak at the training ground. A host of players and staff members sent into isolation. A fixture postponed a few hours before kick-off then rescheduled at two days’ notice.
So once the dust had settled on Wednesday night’s acrimonious 1-1 draw with Tottenham, did Scott Parker, the manager in the middle of it all, allow himself a moment to sit back and savour an excellent result achieved in difficult circumstances?
He smiles and shakes his head. “I keep telling the players to enjoy the good moments,” Parker tells Sky Sports. “There are too many moments in this world currently that are pretty miserable and downbeat, so if there is light at certain times, I want them to enjoy it.
“But as a manager, the turnaround is just too quick. Before you know it, you’re back to it. Your mind turns straight to the next game and there’s no bigger test than what we’ve got coming against Chelsea.”
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In truth, you suspect Parker wouldn’t have it any other way.
The 40-year-old was a model professional as a player and he has taken the same qualities into management. His dedication to the job is total. He is a perfectionist right down to his immaculate dress sense. “Care and detail.” He uses the phrase repeatedly in his press conference before this interview.
Parker’s fastidious approach appears to be paying off for Fulham. There was a rush to write them off after they started the season with five defeats from their first six games following their promotion. Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher said he was certain they would be relegated and he wasn’t the only one.
But on Saturday they welcome local rivals Chelsea to Craven Cottage on a six-game unbeaten run. Granted, five of those games have ended as draws and they remain two points from safety. But Fulham suddenly look a very different proposition from the side that slid straight back down to the Championship two years ago.
It owes a lot to the change of mentality Parker has implemented since his appointment during the latter stages of that season. Fulham lost every one of their 12 meetings with the Premier League’s big six that year but this time around they have already taken points off Liverpool as well as Spurs.
Parker’s steeliness and self-belief has rubbed off on them.
“It was a big job at the start, turning the mentality around, but it was also the main driver for me and my staff,” he says. “We realised how important it was to change that. As a manager, first and foremost I want a team with a good mentality, a team with character, a team that represents the club and the fans.
“I want that to be a given. I don’t want it to be one week, yes, the next week, no. I want it to be constant and that starts with the environment and culture you set around the training ground on a daily basis.
“Are we where I want us to be yet? No. It’s a process and there are probably another few levels ahead of us. But we have a group of players here now who have a real mental strength about them.”
That mental strength was forged during a gruelling season in the Championship in which Fulham were forced to battle their way through the play-offs after falling short of automatic promotion.
“We did exceptionally well last year but there were some tough, tough times,” says Parker. “I remember Brentford away, where we lost 1-0 and the fans were very, very unhappy with our performance against a local rival. There was Luton away, where we drew 3-3 when people expected us to go there and win by numerous goals.
“But it was those moments that really galvanized us. We pulled through and those experiences set us up to deal with what happened at the start of this season. It’s just about staying single-minded, trying not to listen too much to the noise, understanding the processes that are in place and continuing to work tirelessly.
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“You always worry about how the players are seeing it when you’re losing games, so you’ve got to keep your messages very clear in their minds. ‘This is where we’re going, this is what we’re doing, and this is where we need to get to.’ You need results, of course, but constantly having that dialogue has been vitally important.”
It was similarly important for the club to learn from their past mistakes in terms of recruitment and squad building.
This summer, instead of the scattergun £100m spending spree that followed their last promotion, Fulham were scrupulous and methodical, spending around a quarter as much but prioritising young players who would fit into the culture Parker has put in place.
Of their 11 signings, eight – Ademola Lookman, Joachim Andersen, Antonee Robinson, Tosin Adarabioyo, Ola Aina, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Harrison Reed and Kenny Tete – are aged 25 or under. Fulham have the second-youngest side in the Premier League as a result. Where there was once panic there is now long-term planning.
“It was very important to change the approach,” says Parker.
“I don’t know the exact numbers but we must have been down in the bottom three of four in terms of money spent in the summer.
“But a lot of the players who have come into the football club are hungry, and that’s the most important ingredient. I stressed that at the end of last season. We want hungry players, players who have a burning ambition to play in the Premier League and stay in the Premier League for years to come.
“I look at the team that faced Tottenham and they probably had around 20 Premier League appearances between them. You’ve got the seasoned international players like Andersen and [goalkeeper Alphonso] Areola, but a lot of the others are operating at this level for the first time.
“I thought we recruited very, very well for the money we spent. We signed hungry, technically good players who can grow and who have the potential to get better. They have slotted into the environment but there is still loads more to come from them.”
Fulham’s recent improvement is not just down to personnel and mentality, however. There was also a crucial tactical switch after the 3-2 loss to Everton in November, when Parker sacrificed a forward player for an extra central defender, allowing Fulham to defend with a back five rather than a four.
They have only lost one game out of eight in all competitions since then and that was against Manchester City. Before Harry Kane’s header at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Wednesday, they had not conceded a goal from open play in 560 minutes.
“The last time we were in this division, we conceded one of the highest totals of goals in Premier League history,” says Parker.
“You realise in this division that the quality you face at this level is not even in the same stratosphere as the Championship. The gap between the two divisions, particularly at the top of the pitch, is immense.
“We wanted to be more solid after the start to the season we had and putting in a back five gives you that. You can protect the width of the pitch much better and the gaps between the players are obviously not as big.
“At the same time, though, we didn’t want to move away from what I want us to be, and that’s a dynamic, front-foot team that has control and is always a threat going forward.
“I didn’t want to be us to become a team that plays in a 5-4-1 and just sits off and hopes to hit something on a set play or grab the odd goal on the break.
“So, as much as we wanted to shut the door a little bit, we still want to put our print on the games and we still want to create chances.”
Fulham certainly did that against Spurs, playing with impressive verve and ambition in possession and fashioning numerous opportunities before Ivan Cavaleiro headed their equaliser.
The challenge now is to produce more of the same against Chelsea.
“This league is a different animal,” says Parker. “It’s unforgiving. But I’ve got a group of players here who are willing to put their hands up when results and performances are bad, and who want to learn and acknowledge where they need to get better.
“We have improved but do we rest here? No. We want to show we belong in this division and we want to win football matches.”
Do that on Saturday and after all the upheaval of the last few weeks, Parker might even allow himself a moment to savour it.
Watch Fulham vs Chelsea live on Sky Sports Premier League HD on Saturday; kick-off is 5.30pm
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