So there we have it. An unnervingly satisfying and problem-free season for Fulham has culminated just how near enough everybody thought it would, with warm congratulatory messages and celebrations after a leisurely return to the Premier League.
In the end it was not quite the serene stroll over the finishing line most envisaged but they were rarely troubled, always well-stocked – they have only failed to find the net in four Championship games this season – and with the procession complete and promotion boxed, the question is whether Fulham will round things off by blitzing their way to a century of goals (they have 98) in the remaining four games and, more pertinently, can they shed their reputation as a yo-yo team on return to the top table? The brutal reality is that Marco Silva’s attention will soon turn, if it has not already, towards becoming at least the 17th best team in the country.
This season has been good fun for Fulham. With 40 goals to his name, Aleksandar Mitrovic alone has outscored Barnsley, Peterborough and Hull and Fulham have twice put five, six and seven goals past opponents this season, the seven without reply on both occasions. Mitrovic, who is on course to break Guy Whittingham’s post-war record of 42 second-tier goals, is a shoo-in to take home the Championship player of the year award later this month, but his teammates have kept him fuelled. Harry Wilson, a £12m signing from Liverpool, has been revitalised after loan spells and shone as part of Mitrovic’s supporting cast, alongside Fabio Carvalho and Neeskens Kebano, who is arguably enjoying his best form six years on from signing.
The arrival of Neco Williams on loan from Liverpool in February strengthened Fulham’s hand, the versatile Wales full-back, who turned 21 last week and has starred for his country on the left flank, excelling as a marauding right-back.
It is no surprise the best squad with the biggest budget has conquered the league and for the third time in five years they will be a top-flight club once more, but credit to Silva (whose right-hand man is the former Fulham favourite Luis Boa Morte) for getting them there with such panache. They have been electrifying at times, more stimulating than the teams promoted under Slavisa Jokanovic and Scott Parker, whose Bournemouth side could yet join them.
The galling thing for Fulham is that they already need to replace one of their star performers this summer, with Carvalho poised to join Liverpool at the end of his contract on 1 July. Silva has alluded to the difficulties the club faced in trying to get the Portuguese to extend his stay but Fulham were powerless as soon as the teenager began to take centre stage, scoring nine goals and providing seven assists this season. Carvalho’s former youth team, Balham, from whom he joined Fulham in 2015, also stand to profit.
Carvalho has been this season’s Michael Olise, a breakout young player with a wonderful sense of gravity, and the midfielder equally appears ready to take the step up in his stride. But like with Olise, the Football Association faces a challenge getting Carvalho, who was born in Lisbon but grew up in south London and has represented England at Under-18 level, in its grasp. “We have helped him grow as a man, as a player as well and he has responded really well on the pitch,” Silva said. “He has enjoyed his days here.”
Hiccups have been few and far between. There was a sticky patch before Christmas – five games without victory – a lapse at home to Blackpool and recent back-to-back defeats for the first time this season kept the champagne on ice on Good Friday. But things never got too hairy, especially with Bournemouth tailing off in their attempt to apply some heat. In the end, it was Nottingham Forest’s late push for the top two that delayed the inevitable.
The closest thing to disaster was probably Wilson somehow contriving to score his second goal and what would have surely been a stoppage-time winner in a draw at Barnsley last month, when, a few minutes after scoring a peach, he filed a strong contender for miss of the season, heading wide when unmarked a couple of yards out.
Fulham have long been preparing for a top-flight return and Silva will know they need to sharpen up if they are to survive, even if he has been reluctant to elaborate too much on the kind of punch he thinks his team could pack next campaign. Mitrovic has scored 43 goals in 48 matches for club and country this season but the Serbia striker has previously struggled to mirror such form in the top flight – he scored three league goals last season – and relying on him to deliver could prove a dangerous game. The Shakhtar Donetsk winger Manor Solomon, a name once on the lips of Pep Guardiola, is admired and a goalkeeper to rival Marek Rodak and Paulo Gazzaniga has been mooted.
The defensive partnership of Tosin Adarabioyo and Tim Ream, who recently celebrated 250 appearances in a Fulham shirt, was exposed last season, and given their last visit to the Premier League proved rather hellish, an air of concern as to how Fulham will fare this time around is understandable. But Silva has already shown he can prevent things turning into a slog.
“I came here to do something special,” he said last week. “From the first day that was our aim.”