It has, in general terms, been a summer of poor career decisions but, in football terms, if there was to be a winner for this particular award over the last three months, it would be difficult to argue against the winner of said award being Mark Hughes. Hughes departed Craven Cottage at the start of the summer, according to common belief, in full anticipation of landing the then-vacant managerial position at Aston Villa, only for Villa to decide that he wasn’t the man for them and award the position to Alex McLeish instead. Time will tell whether Villa made the right decision regarding McLeish. Fulham, meanwhile, appointed Martin Jol as their manager and quietly got on with the job of preparing for their tenth consecutive season in the Premier League.
It’s worth pausing a moment to consider what an achievement this is. In 1997, Fulham were in the bottom division of the Football League. Such a lengthy stay in the Premier League hasn’t been without its occasional close shaves, but Fulham are still there, merely getting on with the job of being many peoples second favourite team. Roy Hodgson took them to the final of the UEFA Cup in 2010 before being – arguably unwisely – poached by Liverpool, but Hughes continued the good work and took the club to eighth place finish at the end of last season. Moreover, the UEFA Fair Play rankings offered them something that managed slip from the grasp of some considerably bigger clubs: a place in this year’s Europa League.
This did, of course, mean an early start for the club this season. Fulham, uniquely amongst English clubs, started their competitive season at the start of July, and whilst aggregate wins against Nes Soknar Itrottarfelag (from the Faroe Islands) and Crusaders (from Northern Ireland) saw the team playing, at times, like a bear awakening from a period in hibernation, they did at least get through both of their ties played so far with a degree of comfort. And while other clubs may be prone to groaning at the overwrought nature of the modern Europa League, this early start may even be to Fulham’s advantage in a couple of weeks time when the Premier League begins. Friendlies can only tell you so much about a club’s pre-season state. Fulham have already played four genuine, bona fide competitive matches.
The appointment of Martin Jol was a telling one. Just as Fulham often seem to attract a lot of praise and tacit support from neutrals, so is Jol a popular coach. His departure from Tottenham Hotspur in 2007 was greeted with considerable dismay by a sizeable proportion of Spurs supporters, and it is likely that he will receive a warm welcome when he returns to White Hart Lane next season. Moreover, Jol’s teams have a reputation for attractive football, and it seems unlikely that there will be too much of the football of paranoia that has occasionally seemed to grip the smaller clubs of the Premier League in recent years. Add to that heady mix Craven Cottage, which, in spite of the faintly ludicrous Michael Jackson that stands outside of it, remains the most pleasing enclosure to visit in the Premier League, and you have a popular manager playing attractive football for a popular club in the best ground in the division.Not bad at all, one might rationalise.
Of course, not everything in the world of Fulham is completely rosy. They are still hopelessly over-dependent upon the benevolence of Mohammed Al-Fayed, and are currently £190m in debt. The overwhelming majority of this debt is owed to Al-Fayed in the form of interest-free loans, but Fulham are still paying £4m per year in interest on their debts. Al-Fayed has stuck with the club for a considerable period of time, but he won’t be there forever and he isn’t getting any younger, either – he turned eighty-two years old earlier this year. Al-Fayed has made noises in recent times about making the club financially self-supportive, but with wages at 69% of annual turn-over and only £10m per year coming in from commercial activities, how this might be achieved without significant cost-cutting is open to question. It is to be hoped that he is already working towards securing the long-term future of a club that he seems to care very deeply about.
Perhaps with this in mind, it is Unsurprising that this has been a quiet summer in the transfer market for the club so far. The arrival of the Macedonian-born Swiss under-21 international from Palermo, Pajtim Kasami, was for an undisclosed fee, but it seems unlikely that they spent a fortune on him, whist the arrival at Craven Cottage of John Arne Riise from AS Roma on a free transfer seems to demonstrate both the power of fraternal relations – Riise’s brother already plays for the club – and the continuation of the club’s recent canny eye for a seasoned pro. Meanwhile, reserve goalkeeper David Stockdale was persuaded to sign a new contract for the club and promptly left the club for a long term loan period at Ipswich Town. Perhaps, however, the question should be asked of exactly how much immediate rebuilding Fulham need. There is, running through the spine of their team, a seam of quality and experience that many other Premier League clubs would be delighted to take on. The likes of Mark Schwarzer, Danny Murphy, Bobby Zamora, Clint Dempsey and Simon Davies are solid professionals, who have been there, seen it and done it.
These players, however, will, like Al-Fayed, will not last forever and will all need replacing in time. Fulham may, in view of this, find that greater investment in younger players will prove to be to their benefit in the fullness of time. For next season, however, this is not necessarily a major concern for the supporters of the club, who will begin the league season optimistic that they can at the very least get close to matching their achievements from last season. It is in the cups, however, that Fulham supporters may look for a hit of pure adrenaline next season. Whilst Premier League consolidation will, of course, remain the core aim for the season ahead, this is a club that has never won a major cup competition. In one hundred and thirty-two years, Fulham have managed just one runners-up spot in the FA Cup, in 1975, and the Europa League final of two years ago.
Perhaps another run to the final of a European competition may prove to be just beyond them (although, of course, perhaps it won’t be), but Fulham supporters may certainly wonder whether a Wembley final will necessarily be beyond them next season, and they could look to the example of Stoke City from last season for a textbook example of how a club can, even in this cynical age in which Premier League survival means everything, be invigorated from top to bottom by appearing in a major cup final and having a big day in the spotlight. A tradition that produced such names as Johnny Haynes, Alan Mullery and George Cohen still runs through the veins of Fulham Football Club. A day out at Wembley would be a fitting appendix to such a heritage.
Fulham FC has changed over the last decade or so, of that there can be little doubt, and there can be even less doubt that the largesse of their owner has been largely responsible for this. There remains an element of doubt over how the club can remain sustainable should anything to happen to Mr Al-Fayed and annual losses of £17m (which were posted earlier this year) cannot continue indefinitely, but for now the supporters seem to be merely enjoying what are amongst the greatest days in the history of their club, and this is understandable. In addition to this – although we could be wrong, we could always be wrong – they seem to have employed a manager who is the right fit for the club. If they can get their finances on track and start bringing through younger players of the same calibre as the warhorses that currently punctuate their first team squad, there is no reason why Fulham shouldn’t still be thriving in another ten years’ time. The over-dependency on one patron, however, remains a potentially dark cloud on their horizon.
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