The 200% Premier League Pre-Season: Fulham
Between now and the start of the season, we’ll be writing up all twenty of the Premier League clubs before it all kicks off again. If you’re here looking for all the latest transfer gossip, though, you’ll most likely be disappointed. Quite asides from anything else, it’s only July (a necessity borne of the fact that these have got to be written around work commitments, amongst much else), so most of the transfer rumours circulating at the moment are the result of the fevered imaginations of the sort of fifteen year-olds who spend their lives on Twitter pretending to be agents. Others will be along in the coming weeks to fill you in on that sort of thing, and we’re happy to leave that job to them.
In a summer of all-change in the Premier League, the supporters of Fulham Football Club are amongst those preparing for a brave new world of their own. The departure of Mohammed al-Fayed from Craven Cottage had to come eventually, but supporters were given little warning that he would finally be leaving the club after sixteen years before the sale of the club to Shahid Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team. Fulham supporters have a lot to be grateful to al-Fayed. In the decade and a half of his ownership, the club has made it into the Premier League and stayed there, while Craven Cottage has been upgraded more sensitively than any other large ground in England, making it a unique venue which stands as an example to all those who would wish to replace red brick with steel and glass of how football grounds can be brought into the twenty-first century without destroying its character and charm.
Even the biggest concern over al-Fayed’s ownership of the club, the level of debt that the club owed him, evaporated last summer with his cancellation and conversion of equity of £212m worth of loans into the club. Over this time, Fulham have slowly increased their profile and attendances to a point at which the relegation concerns of the 2008 “Great Escape” season feel like a thing of the past. Even a bad run towards the end of last season – Martin Jol’s team lost six of its last eight Premier League matches of last season, including its last four consecutive home matches – couldn’t prevent the team from ending the season in twelfth place in the end of season, comfortably clear of the relegation pack and capable, we might think, of improvement this time around.
As elsewhere so far this summer, transfer activity at Craven Cottage has been low-key, with the most significant arrival at the club so far being the arrival at the club of goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg from AS Roma for an undisclosed fee. That a goalkeeper of such experience should be turning up at Fulham might be considered an example of just how times have changed for the club over the life-span of al-Fayed’s ownership. Stekelenburg has been there, seen it, having played almost a decade for Ajax and more than fifty times for the Dutch national team, including an appearance for them in the 2010 World Cup final against Spain. Supporters who were concerned at the loss of Mark Schwarzer, who now seems likely to see out his dotage years keeping the bench warm for Petr Cech at Chelsea, can only take encouragement from the arrival of such an experienced goalkeeper at their club, and at thirty years of age Stekelenburg might yet even have the best years of his career ahead of him. The only other two arrivals at the club so far this summer, Derek Boateng, formerly of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, and Fernando Amorebieta, formerly of Athletic Bilbao, both came at the very start of the summer on free transfers and add a little depth to the squad, but neither seem have raised the pulses of supporters too much since their arrivals.
It is away from the pitch, however, that the really big change has come for Fulham this summer. Al-Fayed made his money back from the write-off of the loans that he had put into to club with its sale to Khan, who has indicated before that he wishes to promote his Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team heavily in Europe, and who, it has even be suggested, might even not be averse to the idea of moving the club to become the NFL’s first full-time franchise on this side of the Atlantic ocean. Khan has so far said the right things – “I was recently very fortunate to have been introduced to Mohamed Al Fayed, a man I respect and admire immensely for what he has accomplished in his life and – above all – what he has given others. Today he is giving me the privilege and responsibility of serving as the next custodian of Fulham Football Club” – but he will come to be judged not only on his actions as the owner of the club, but also on his actions in comparison with his immediate predecessor at the club, and that might prove to be a tough act to follow.
Khan is said to be worth more £1.7bn, but unlike Fayed he will find it difficult to prop the club up financially through his own personal largesse alone. Both the Premier League and UEFA’s imminent Financial Fair Play rules will prevent him from substantially throwing money at the club. It is also worth pointing out that the wealth of an owner only demonstrates their ability to make money for themselves, rather than their ability at running that most temperamental and idiosyncratic of businesses, a football club. It may well be that he will make a statement of intent by bringing in a marquee signing of some description before the closure of the transfer window at the end of next month, but Khan is ultimately a businessman and saying that “Fulham is the perfect club at the perfect time for me” doesn’t necessarily mean that Khan is the perfect man at the perfect time for Fulham Football Club. We shall see.
In most other senses, however, Fulham remain a by-word for mid-table Premier League stability. They have thirteen consecutive years of experience in the top division, and haven’t had to nervously look over their shoulders in the last five. Martin Jol remains an authoritative yet flexible presence as the manager of the club, and his squad, from the new goalkeeper Stekelenburg through to languid striker Dimitar Berbatov, remains one riven through with a seam of elegance and skill. There is little to suggest that the club will struggle over the course of the season, though after thirteen years in the top flight the adventures of Swansea City and Wigan Athletic may give supporters pause for thought over whether they might also be capable of a run in one of the major domestic trophies. For a club which has only ever made two appearances in the final of a major competition – the 1975 FA Cup Final and the 2010 Europa League final, both of which were lost – this would seem to be the next logical step if challenging for a place in Europe through finishing in a sufficiently high position in the Premier League table might still just about be beyond the club for the coming season.
If the likelihood of becoming embroiled in a relegation battle is low but the possibility of further progress in the league may be stymied by new regulations, perhaps the most that Fulham supporters should hope for this season is a continuation of the progress of the last five years and that their club continues to be, as the locals would have it, “Fulhamish,” a small outpost of civility in a division of clubs, some of which often seem to have given the impression of having lost their minds in the pursuit of success. It is this that Shahid Khan has bought into, and it is this that he must preserve if Fulham Football Club isn’t to lose its identity in the way that some other clubs have. Survival in the Premier League on the pitch is one, thing, but the survival of an identity is something else altogether and it is to be hoped that he treats the club with the care and respect that it deserves. We shall see, over the coming months, how well this sits with an owner whose sporting ambitions quite clearly stretch far beyond the Hammersmith End of Craven Cottage.
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