Aleksandar Mitrovic looked a little sheepish. After a summer in which headlines have only spoken about his desire to leave Fulham, there was no guarantee of warmth upon his return to Craven Cottage, a stadium where he has been adored for the best part of five and a half years.
In the first 45 minutes of Fulham’s final pre-season match against Hoffenheim on Saturday, he was handed a bib and sent out to warm up. He jogged lightly behind his team-mates in front of the Riverside Stand, moving towards the Hammersmith End, which tends to be more vocal. There were only 7,280 people in Craven Cottage, but for most, this was the first encounter with Mitrovic since he set eyes on Saudi Arabia.
There were a handful of boos. He raised his arm to the crowd in what felt almost like placation. A chant of “Mitro, Mitro” swelled. There was applause, he responded in turn. When he finally entered the field on 68 minutes as a substitute, the reaction was much more mixed. There was applause, but notable boos.
The scars of these past few weeks are unlikely to be healed overnight on the terraces. Fulham fans are often categorised as placid but they pride loyalty as much as any other fanbase. They have stood by Mitrovic, particularly in his most difficult moments, so the fact some feel perturbed by his open desire to depart is no surprise.
Mitrovic wanted to leave the club for Saudi side Al Hilal, who made two bids worth €35million (£30.3m; $38.6m) and €40million. Both were rejected and, while he still travelled with the squad to the United States for the club’s pre-season tour trip, he did not take part in full training. That was not received well in SW6.
The context has changed a little now, however. Unless Al Hilal return with an improved offer, they will not be signing him.
That is not to say a move cannot happen. Those close to the player, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships, have still not ruled out a summer departure. But evidently, the dynamic has changed. There is no imminent exit door and that has led to Mitrovic’s return to full training and another appearance at Craven Cottage.
“Now he is training with the team, he is ready to play,” said head coach Marco Silva. “If he wasn’t ready, he would not be on the bench and would not have come on in the second half.”
Mitrovic played in two matches for Fulham against Hoffenheim. On Friday, a mixed XI featuring some of the club’s under-21 players faced the German club behind closed doors and Mitrovic managed 60 minutes. On Saturday at Craven Cottage, he added 25 minutes. Andreas Pereira was in the same boat and the plan was to give both players 90 minutes across the two games.
Mitrovic is building back up to full speed and that means a process of reintegration. Much of that rests with Silva. The Portuguese has attracted interest from Saudi Arabia himself and that means he is uniquely placed to talk on these issues.
But more pertinently, Silva and Mitrovic have a strong relationship. The 28-year-old has played the best football of his career under Silva and has eulogised about his influence, calling him “one of the best managers I’ve worked with”. That will be important if Mitrovic is to return fully to the fold.
“Between me and Mitrovic, it was so clear from the first day,” Silva said after the 2-1 win over Hoffenheim on Saturday. “Not just because of the Saudi situation, but from the first conversation I had with him when I joined the club. We have gotten the best out of him since and we are going to do that until the last day.
“Of course (the Al Hilal proposal) was something that made him think. We are here to support him but to defend the club in every moment as well.
“I know the professional Mitro is. Sometimes players take some decisions and you are here to show them the right way to do things. When you talk about the financial point of view that is involved, sometimes it makes the players think and sometimes think too much.
“Financial things is not for me to talk because we have a board (to deal with that). We have people to take care of the situation.”
Silva could not guarantee that Mitrovic, or any of his players, will stay this summer. The focus though, he stressed, was on improving the squad.
“We are looking to strengthen and reinforce. Not the opposite. But you cannot control the market. It is a consequence of our good season last year that we receive offers and if something happens and I receive feedback from the board that I have to go a different way for certain positions (in the team), I’m here to do my job.”
There is a major incentive for Fulham to retain Mitrovic. His influence is obvious — he has scored 57 of the team’s 163 league goals under Silva — and his importance was evident against Hoffenheim. He helped to lift the momentum of the game and within moments, was involved in an attack that led to the corner from which Calvin Bassey scored.
That he is still on the books is encouraging, but what matters is that he is invested. Supporters will judge commitment by what they see and Saturday’s glimpse provided a dose of reassurance.
But Mitrovic is not the only player Silva has to focus on. Willian has received an offer from Saudi Arabian club Al Shabab just three weeks on from his contract renewal.
“Willian is a happy player on the pitch,” said Silva. “I want to see him happy again. In my opinion, he is a top player, even if he is 35 soon. Of course, some clubs look at him. (But) he’s our player and I don’t have anything more to (say) about (it).”
Fulham’s pre-season has been overshadowed by Saudi Arabian overtures. So far, though, the club have managed to hold things together and that has to be considered a success. They have more areas of the squad to strengthen but their base is still there.
That can all change overnight. But in the meantime, they will want to refocus unsettled minds. It will be crucial to a positive start to the season.
(Top photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)