But if it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that – sooner or later – the only way is down, there’s no particular reason why it needs to be sooner. So enough of the doom and gloom – all Hughes can do is put out the best team he can muster and see what turns up. And he ought to be able to put out a decent enough team at present to stave off any such thoughts of decline. Taking over so close to the start of the season is less than ideal, but not as serious as it might have been in other circumstances – Hodgson has left the squad in good shape and there’s no need for a radical overhaul. None of the players who have left so far this summer have been critical ones: Erik Nevland has gone back to Norway and Nicky Shorey to Villa after his loan spell, and while Chris Smalling is the biggest loss in respect of his potential but he started only nine league games for them last season. Given they’re getting ten million quid for him and have already replaced him with Phillippe Senderos for nowt that seems like a decent bit of business. Thus far they have resisted any offers for their more important players – Paul Konchesky has been linked with Liverpool and Mark Schwarzer with Arsenal, but there’s every chance they can hang on to them, and there’s been surprisingly little transfer talk surrounding Brede Hangeland this summer. So when Hughes talks of strengthening the squad, he means exactly that.
What we don’t know is what kind of resources he has to do so. There’s a perception in some quarters that Mohammed al Fayed has now got bored of Fulham, that he’s looking to sell them and is no longer pouring in the funds as he was doing initially during their rise up the leagues. There’s little or no basis for such a perception – rumours that the club was up for sale following the sale of Harrods earlier this year were quickly and vigorously denied, and this very interesting article on Fulham’s finances makes clear just how much al Fayed is contininuing to subsidise the club, both actually and in not charging interest on the soft loans which constitute the huge bulk of Fulham’s £200 million debt. It may even be that he’s prepared to invest a bit more now that he has the Harrods money burning a hole in his pocket, and there’s the money received from United for Smalling plus any revenue generated during the European run (accounts for last season are not yet published) so it could be that Hughes will have a reasonable pot to dip into.
It makes it a bit difficult to do much of a pre-season preview when any serious transfer dealing is probably just about to start, but it’s clear – as Hughes has already indicated – that the area most in need of additions is the forward line, where Bobby Zamora has done superbly but is currently relying on back-up mostly from midfield. Craig Bellamy and Roque Santa Cruz are the two names that have inevitably been linked, given their past associations with Hughes. Both would probably be available, both might welcome the chance to link up with a manager they seem to work well with, and both could be good signings, particularly Bellamy who has been on fine form when fit. But their respective dodgy knees might make them a bigger risk than they would be for a club with a large squad (the twenty five man rule only makes so much difference). So they might want to look further afield rather than rely on them.
I’ll watch with interest to see what they come up with, but I would expect that they only need a couple of signings in order to have a squad that’s more than capable of continuing as they have been in the middle of the Premier League, keeping clear of relegation and not infrequently causing upsets to more fancied teams. They might even have a good chance of a domestic cup, building on their FA Cup quarter-finals of the last two seasons. Indeed, if Hughes does want to find a way to make his own mark and leave a lasting legacy over and above anything achieved by his predecessor, then lifting a bit of silverware at Wembley next spring is probably the most likely route. It’d be a nice way for them to capitalise on their seasons in the sun, because with the best will in the world I don’t see these heady days lasting forever.
Many thanks to Jon Hall for the photo of Craven Cottage.