Fulham are back where they belong, that netherworld between the Championship and Premier League where the club has spent the last five summers. Each one of those has seen them either promoted to or demoted from the top division.
With two goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic taking him to 40 for the season and another from Fabio Carvalho, two stars of the campaign made sure Fulham achieved their objective for the season. At full time, their fans rushed on to the field to lift their heroes high. A more orderly display followed later, once the pitch was cleared.
Marco Silva is set to manage his fourth Premier League club in just over five years and has almost as much to prove as Fulham. Having not dropped below a top-two position since the 13th match of the campaign and scored 98 goals, 33 more than anyone else, his team are more than worthy of their elevation of him. But as Norwich and Watford have shown this season, Championship domination represents zero guarantee of Premier League comfort.
“The gap is getting bigger, I know it,” Silva admitted. “Every season you can see it. Now we have to celebrate and prepare for next season. It’s a nice word, a ‘yo-yo’ team, a good nickname. The challenge is huge, definitely. We have to be really positive, we have to have desire and ambition.”
Having spent £100m on players for the doomed 2018-19 campaign and reported losses of £93m for a similarly fated 2020-21 season, the club’s American billionaire owner Shad Khan will have to keep digging deep.
A similar set of players came down last season under Scott Parker, and Silva and Khan must augment them with greater quality, even after promotion was breezily achieved with flair and enterprising football. “They’ve been the best team in the division by far,” said the Preston manager, Ryan Lowe.
After losing their last two matches to Coventry and Derby, merely edging over the line would have sufficed for Fulham but there was no such tension, even if Preston did begin with zest. It took a clawing save from Marek Rodak to deny Ched Evans after Cameron Archer and Daniel Johnson’s interchange had left the Fulham goalkeeper exposed. Rodak was soon required to palm over Ben Whiteman’s dig from distance.
Fulham began to make use of the space created by Preston’s ambition. Mitrovic had scored against every team in the Championship this season other than Coventry and Preston. By the 10th minute, only Coventry remained. Joe Bryan surged in from the left, his angled pass finding the Serb in perfect position to stroke beyond Daniel Iversen.
Neat play between Mitrovic and the Liverpool-bound Carvalho might have resulted in a second in the 25th minute, only for the teenager to fire wide. Carvalho did not wait long, soon scoring with a flick after Neeskens Kebano’s cross deflected into his path from him. And by the 42nd minute, the party could begin in earnest, Mitrovic firing under Iversen after Harry Wilson’s pass.
Not that the party was too raucous, a third promotion in six seasons being a tad low on novelty. Admittedly, it was hard to raise the roof on an entirely empty Riverside Stand, the towering new structure being readied for next season, though the Hammersmith End sounded happy enough belting out its “stand up if you’re Premier League” chants.
The second half began almost like the first, Rodak making a fine save from Archer before Mitrovic lost to Iversen in a one-on-one duel. Preston’s Danish goalkeeper then made a fine double stop from Carvalho and Mitrovic. As Fulham dominated, their fans began to implore their promotion heroes to shoot from all angles and distances.
With 15 minutes left, Carvalho left the field to a standing ovation. Soon after, so did Mitrovic, no hat-trick but his tally of goals a brilliant achievement nonetheless. Emblematic of his club, Mitrovic is highly potent in the Championship and yet has usually disappointed in the higher echelon.
“Mitro has been exceptional, phenomenal,” said Silva. “When Mitro can play with his energy from him and is fresh, he is a completely different player.” The game having petered out, Fulham could then celebrate with the paying public. Now to try and last longer than a single season.
“I know what the club wanted from me,” said Silva. “And it is just the beginning of a long journey I hope. We have to prepare for the big challenge ahead of us.”