Ayite confident Fulham have the players to avenge last season’s Play-Off travails

This interview was conducted for Fulham Football Club’s official matchday programme for the game against Wolves on Saturday 24th February 2018.

 

A fit-again Floyd Ayité is looking to put this season’s injury frustrations behind him and aid Fulham’s promotion push…

This has been a difficult season for Floyd Ayité. Four separate injury problems this term have prevented him from enjoying a sustained run in the side, while the left-wing berth he has so often occupied since joining in the summer of 2016 has been taken by Ryan Sessegnon.

There’s no doubt the injuries have preyed on the 29-year-old’s mind, but he’s embracing the chance to come back stronger.

“I was frustrated,” he told the official matchday programme. “Every time I came back, two or three games later I was getting injured again.

“I worked with the staff to try and resolve all these physical issues, including changing the way I eat.

“I even went to see a specialist. He explained to me that I had a back problem causing an imbalance in my body and I was putting too much stress on my left calf and thigh. We’ve worked to realign the balance and avoid repetition of the problem.”

Nevertheless, he’s still only one goal shy of his tally at this point last season, with his long-range strike against Aston Villa a week ago the most eye-catching during his time in SW6.

“That’s the goal I scored from the furthest distance,” smiled Ayité. “It’s a pretty tough move to make. You can easily kick it outside on the right or on the left or above the bar, or just not hit it strongly enough. It was one of my favourite goals.

“I was very surprised to receive the ball. I quickly turned around and tried to control it as fast as I could, and there I glimpsed the empty goal at a distance. Then I remember concentrating to the maximum to hit it perfectly.”

The victory was a real statement of intent against a Villa side that had won seven league games on the spin, with the Whites recording their seventh consecutive Championship triumph at Craven Cottage in the process.

While Ayité is keen to guard against complacency, he believes Saturday’s win sends out an ominous message to their promotion rivals.

“It’s proof we can beat anyone in the Championship. As we’re about to play top teams, it’s important to know we have it in us. Against a team like Wolves, one just cannot afford to make mistakes.”

In becoming a professional footballer, Floyd followed in the footsteps of his uncle, Kodjo Afanou, who represented Bordeaux for ten years between 1996 and 2006, as well as picking up 12 caps for France U-21s.

Floyd’s older brother Jonathan also found his way into the pro game and is currently for Samsunspor in Turkey after spells at Nîmes and Brest. Their paths crossed at hometown club Bordeaux and international level, with both turning out for Togo at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Les Eperviers reached the Quarter-Finals, the only time the West African country has progressed beyond the group stages at the tournament.

The relationship between the siblings is clearly strong, despite the vast distance between their current club sides.

“My brother started one year before me,” said Ayité. “We were together at Bordeaux.

“I was younger so he helped me a lot. We were sharing the same apartment. He helped me every day and we shared everything, like brothers do. We get to advise, support and encourage each other throughout our careers.”

Despite success in France, a move to England was always on his radar. After transferring from Bastia in the summer of 2016, it’s clear he is relishing the opportunity.

“It was one of my career goals for me and my family,” he explained. “I like the culture, the country and the way we play football here in the UK.

“The atmosphere we get in the stadium is incredible. I chose Fulham because it’s a great and famous clubs.

“At the time, I saw the opportunity to be part of the great project of bringing the Club back to the top, I saw that Fulham was ready to invest to achieve its goals and I wanted to be part of that.”

Ayité immediately noticed the difference between the respective countries, but had prepared himself to the adjustment.

“It was good to arrive during pre-season to get accustomed to the new style of play and work conditions.

“The difference was both the higher physical intensity and the higher speed of play.

“The games go from one side to the other very quickly. Meanwhile France, without being more tactical, is not as intense on the pitch and in the stands.”

Ayité also believes there’s a contrast in style between managers across the Channel and those in the UK.

“The coaches don’t talk the same way in France. Those I worked with were not as close to the players,” he observed.

“With our current Head Coach, we see that we can be both serious and easy-going at the right time. He knows how to convey the right message and keep us focused in reaching our goals.”

Last season saw Ayité stationed predominantly on the left wing, but this term he has increasingly been deployed on the opposite flank or as a ‘false nine’.

The latter of these positions may not be ideal, but the form of Sessegnon and Matt Targett means that situation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

“Playing as a false nine isn’t my favourite position, but as long as I play as a forward, I’m happy,” said Ayité. “I give 100 per cent wherever I play, it’s that simple.

“In Bastia, we had a forward player who was unavailable for a long time. I had to replace him. Since then I’m considered a false nine, but I would prefer playing on the wings if it was down to me.”

After the last two transfer windows, the squad looks even stronger than last season and Ayité believes the new additions have taken the team to the next level.

“If the Club targeted them, they can bring something that was missing,” he remarked. “The team is stronger than ever with the value they bring to the group.

“On all sides of the pitch, we’ve built a team with very clear qualities. Their arrival was a great boost.”

Ayité’s first season as a professional for Bordeaux in 2008/09 saw him farmed out to Angers, as his parent club claimed the Ligue 1 title for the first time in 10 years. Understandably, he didn’t feel part of this success, but thinks this Fulham side is the best in which he has featured regularly.

“With Bordeaux, we were French champions with [Yoann] Gourcuff, [Marouane] Chamakh etc., but I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I could because I didn’t really play,” he admitted.

“With this Fulham squad, I get to play with high-quality players: any of them is Premier League-worthy. To me that’s beautiful and definitely the team with the most qualities in which I have played so far.”

Fulham’s visit to Molineux in November was dispiriting, as Wolverhampton Wanderers toyed with the Whites and emerged 2-0 winners. The Black Country side’s stylish brand of football has wowed spectators, while the likes of Rúben Neves and Diogo Jota look ready-made for the Premier League.

However, this Fulham team is a different beast to the one that was comprehensively outplayed on a cold Friday night three months ago and Ayité is confident there will not be a repeat outcome.

“We always learn from our defeats and mistakes,” he insisted. “The team is particularly confident and motivated at the moment.

“When we played them we’d lost a couple of games before that. It’s not going to be the same script this time.”

Wednesday’s battling draw with Bristol City saw Slaviša Jokanović’s men exhibit different qualities to the win against Villa, as the defence repelled a barrage of crosses and long balls into the box to help extend the unbeaten league run to 11 games.

Now eight points adrift of second place, hopes of automatic promotion look to be fading. Ayité, though, is positive about the trajectory the Club is taking.

“Arriving here, we set ourselves a clear objective to reach the Play-Offs. Attaining it in the first season was already a great memory,” he recalled.

“There are still a lot of games to come. We’re on the right path and as we work towards the same goal, I’m sure we’ll have a beautiful surprise at the end.”

Advertisements

Mitrovic aims for Premier League return with Fulham before summer with Serbia

This interview was conducted for Fulham Football Club’s official matchday programme for the game against Aston Villa on Saturday 17th February 2018.

 

The Newcastle United loanee discusses Serbian connections and his aims for success at the Cottage…

As the January transfer window meandered into deadline day, many Fulham fans will have been relatively pleased with the month’s business. Keeping hold of prize assets Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon was no mean feat, with the arrival of Matt Targett adding Premier League pedigree to the squad.

However, there was an Aleksandar Mitrovic-sized hole. Aboubakar Kamara and Rui Fonte had turned on the style in recent weeks, but reinforcements were always welcome.

The transfer was as remarkable as it was frantic, with the Club’s Twitter account hinting at the last-minute arrival with a tantalising teaser video following Cyrus Christie’s unveiling at Motspur Park.

After all the drama, the Serbian appears to have acclimatised to his new surroundings.

“I’ve settled in. The lads help me a lot,” Mitrovic told the official matchday programme. “I already know how they play, what they want and what my job is. Of course I need time to adapt, but it’s going well. Every game, every training session, I feel better.”

His first cameo appearance was certainly all-action, with a bullet header on his opening outing against Nottingham Forest cleared off the line by Joe Worrall.

Mitrovic’s first impressions of playing in front of the Craven Cottage faithful were positive.

“The stadium is really old and traditional, so it was a real pleasure to play there and the atmosphere was really nice,” he said. “The fans really accepted me well from the beginning.”

Fulham’s bid for the 23-year-old came at the eleventh hour, with a number of clubs on the continent set to secure his signature.

“On Tuesday night, we made a deal that in the morning, I should fly to Bordeaux,” explained Mitrovic. “After I made the deal with Bordeaux, I went for a sleep and then Anderlecht called my brother who is also my agent. I was thinking, because I’d already played for Anderlecht, I would adapt faster because I know people there. That’s why I changed my mind.”

Mitrovic flew to Belgium, but the Brussels outfit couldn’t stump up the cash required and late on Wednesday Fulham stepped up their interest, with Slavisa Jokanovic sending WhatsApp messages to the man he coveted so highly.

This eventually convinced Mitrovic to opt for a move to SW6 and it’s clear the young striker holds a great deal of admiration for Fulham’s Head Coach. Their association goes back to Partizan Belgrade, where Jokanovic won the double in both the seasons he was in charge.

“He did a lot of great things for Partizan as a player and a manager,” the Newcastle United loanee gushed. “He’s one of the best managers Serbia has. He represents our country in the best way, so I’m very proud. He’s a lovely guy and it’s a pleasure to work with him.”

However, the pair didn’t know each other well at this point. While Jokanovic was winning titles, Mitrovic was juggling his responsibilities as an academy player with his duties as a ball boy for Partizan.

“I had to stand behind the goal with the home support on the south side,” he continued. “I watched so many big teams and big players.”

After growing up during a period of great unrest in the Balkans, Mitrovic is mindful of the help his family provided in setting him on the path to becoming a professional footballer.

“It was hard for all my family,” he remarked seriously. “They gave me support and didn’t allow me to quit. They gave me that power you can only get from family. In the end, I made my dreams and they really helped me a lot with that.”

Mitrovic believes the difficult circumstances in the region forced people to develop grit, something he believes has stood him in good stead.

“It’s hard to break the Serbian guy, so I think I’m like that,” Mitrovic smiled. “I never give up.

“This is something you pick up in your childhood. It’s not always going to be nice and sometimes it’s going to be awful, but like Serbian people say, ‘After any war comes sun.’ That’s life.”

It’s perhaps little surprise that Mitrovic’s other sporting interests in his younger years revolved around physical combat and aggression. However, these took a back seat once the football started to take off.

“I played fighting sports a little – kickboxing, a little bit of karate – and that’s it. After that, it was football,” he insisted.

After spells in the first team at Partizan and Anderlecht, a move to England beckoned in the summer of 2015 and a chance to showcase those competitive instincts to a wider audience.

For many players, the Premier League is an extremely attractive proposition. It was no different for Mitrovic, who sought the advice of players from his homeland who had found success on these shores, namely Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Dusan Tadic. It is not a bad contacts list to have.

“They are big names in Serbian football and here in English football and they told me it’s the hardest league in the world, so I wanted to see what it was like,” Mitrovic said.

“I joined Newcastle because from a young age I supported them. I don’t why, but they had black and white colours, the same colours as Partizan Belgrade. I chose Newcastle and I didn’t make a mistake.”

The first season at St. James’ Park was certainly a baptism of fire. Despite posting a solid tally of nine goals in 34 league goals, the Magpies were relegated.

This meant Newcastle and Fulham collided in England’s second tier and Mitrovic was impressed by what he saw of the Whites.

“Last season, Fulham definitely played the most beautiful football in the Championship. They beat us at St. James’ Park 3-1. It could have been 7-1,” he admitted.

“They were unlucky in the Play-Offs, but I also followed the team this season. Fulham have some new players, but the manager and the staff and a lot of the players are the same.

“They played really offensive football, so that is the reason I chose Fulham.”

The other motive for moving south is to get regular playing time ahead of the World Cup in Russia this summer after falling down the pecking order under Rafael Benitez.

Going into their last qualifying match against Georgia, Serbia’s qualification hopes were hanging in the balance.

Despite leading their group, they’d suffered a 3-2 defeat to Austria a few days earlier and needed to win to ensure their place at the finals.

The enormity of the occasion wasn’t lost on Mitrovic and his compatriots.

“It was the hardest game I’ve played in my life,” he admitted. “Not physically, but mentally.

“You have players like [Branislav] Ivanovic, who has won everything in club football. I spoke to Matic as well. They say it was one of the hardest games they’ve ever played.

“When we played our first qualification game against Ireland, it was like 7,000, 8,000 people and in the last game it was almost 50,000, a full stadium, so it was a really nice feeling. It was a big thing for the players and the whole country because after eight years, Serbia will be in a big football competition.”

It took 74 minutes for the deadlock to be broken, with Mitrovic arrowing in a pinpoint cross for Aleksandar Prijovic to stab home from close range.

“Two or three times they kicked the ball from the goalline,” he recalled. “I get the ball on the side, I see Prijovic, I just put the ball in. I didn’t think too much and he finished it.

“It was an unbelievable feeling, some release. The stadium exploded. You cannot describe this with words.”

Having dropped down a rung on the English league ladder, Mitrovic will be looking to add further firepower to a team that has only been outscored by Wolverhampton Wanderers in the current campaign.

However, Saturday’s draw at Bolton reminded everyone that this league is no walk in the park and the Smederevo-born player believes that in some respects, the Championship is the more difficult division.

“In the Premier League, you have seven, eight top teams and seven or eight alright teams, but in the Championship, all the teams are of a similar level,” he said.

“There are so many games with a short time to recover. In the Premier League there are better teams with more quality, but you see Man City played Bristol City and Bristol was really tough.

“They beat Man United, so it’s not a big difference between these two leagues. For me, the Championship is a physically harder league. The Championship has so many running, fighting duels and it’s really tough football.”

While Mitrovic relishes the battle, the hot-headed streak that led to him receiving two red cards in his debut season at Newcastle appears to have been reined in.

Fulham fans will no doubt hope this improved disciplinary record continues. Mitrovic, meanwhile, recognises the crucial role the supporters can play as we enter the business end of the season.

“This is going to be a long 15 games and we need their help,” he said. “I hope they stay behind us and help us to get promoted.”

After donning black and white during a successful promotion charge last season, Mitrovic hopes lightning can strike twice in three months’ time.

When asked if the team can finish in the top two, his response was emphatic.

“Of course, why not? In the next two weeks, we have really tough games against direct opponents and the gap between us is seven points,” he stated.

“This is nothing. If we win most of the games, we have a big chance to get automatically promoted.”

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: Fulham Football Club

 

A Foot In Both Camps: Fred Callaghan

This interview with Fred Callaghan was published in the Fulham matchday programme against Brentford on Saturday 29 April 2017.

Fred Callaghan made 336 appearances for Fulham, later spending just under four years as manager at Brentford from March 1980 to February 1984. It’s the Whites he’ll be supporting today, however…

What memories do you have of your time at Fulham?

The highlight was playing and training every day there. Fulham had a good atmosphere and we were always known as a homely club. I still go as a supporter. I started off as a 15-year-old and for the last 50 years, I’ve been following Fulham. It’s part of my life.

Craven Cottage is still fantastic. The pitch is great, it’s a terrific setting and it has a great atmosphere because the crowd are so near the pitch. The fans have seen the good times and the bad. Hopefully the good times are on their way back.

Of all the players you played alongside during your time at the Club, who stands out for you?

I played with a few world-class players over the years. Obviously, the likes of Johnny Haynes, George Cohen and Alan Mullery stand out, as well as some good up-and-coming youngsters at the time like Rodney Marsh, Steve Earle, Les Barrett and John Dempsey. All these lads went on to have good careers and we all came through together.

You also spent four years as manager at Brentford. What were the highlights of your time at Griffin Park?

I’ve got some fond memories of my spell there. The only problem at the time was that there was no money to spend on players or staff. Myself and Ron Harris, who was my assistant, used to paint the dressing rooms and the crash barriers, fork the pitch, roll the pitch – we had to do everything. The team were in the old Division Three, but I brought in some decent players – Terry Hurlock, Gary Roberts, David Crown, Chris Kamara and Stan Bowles all played for me.

What do you make of the current Fulham side?

When Tom Cairney is on song, the whole team plays well. We’ve also got a few up-and-coming youngsters like Ryan Sessegnon, who grew up in the same area as me, Roehampton. He’s improved and has come a long way for a 16-year-old. We look to have a really well-balanced team and hopefully we can carry on our good form right until the end of the season and get promotion. We struggle against sides that try to hit the ball long, but if team play us on the deck, we’ll outplay them.

As for Brentford, what have you made of them this season?

Brentford have done very well and that’s all down to their chairman. He’s put his money in and employed a very good manager. Hopefully there’s a bright future for them; I’m sure there will be. They’re a useful team and it will be a hard game for us. We’ve already beaten them this season, though, so I reckon we can do that again.

Finally, are you confident Fulham will get promoted via the Play-Offs?

I think we’ll go up. We’re top scorers this season and I think the players have really entertained the crowd this term, which is all down to the style that the boss has put in place.

Image: Getty Images