Fulham manager Chris Coleman speaks with admiration yet no financial jealousy about the qualities of the Premiership’s top three.
Yet he knows he has to persuade chairman Mohamed al Fayed to give him licence to wheel and deal if he is to guarantee keeping company with the imperious trio season after season.
Controversial Egyptian businessman Al Fayed is among the richest men in the country and he splashed the cash when Kevin Keegan and Jean Tigana were starting the Fulham revolution. The club was his plaything, the fans thought.
But Coleman, whose struggling side aim to repeat last season’s storming 3-1 win at mighty Manchester United, admits: “There was a hell of a lot of money spent here but I’ve missed the boat. There is no way we could spend £11million on a player any more like United can.
“People may still be under the impression that we are in a position to throw money around but it doesn’t happen now. And the top teams are so brilliant we have a tougher task all the time to stay with them.
“We lost Sean Davis to Spurs in the summer and I signed three or four new ones, forking out about £2million. Claus Jensen has been injured most of the season but we also got Andy Cole, Tomasz Radzinski and Papa Diop. Between them they have scored 28 goals and done very well.
“But the threat to us now is that we could lose good players to clubs who come knocking on the door. I knew when I took on the job that the millions would not be there to chuck around. That is why it was such a good performance to finish ninth last season.
“But it has been bloody hard this time and now we need to put a few more decent seasons together before we can start spending again. We have to be realistic. If we don’t spend money we won’t finish ninth every year. Mid-table or top 10 is always a good performance for us.
“But I know I am not going to be able to sign somebody for £6million. I will have to twist the chairman’s arm to get a £3million player now because he once spent £11million on one player (French striker Steve Marlet) and it didn’t work out.
“Now I might have to sell somebody, a big player, every summer before I can even get £2million or £3million. I hope not but it is a possibility.”
Once bitten, twice shy, al Fayed has used his cheque-book judiciously since the Marlet scandal figured in legal proceedings with ex-boss Tigana.
Wales defender Ben Thatcher, who looked certain to join Fulham from Manchester City in January at a knockdown price, was subsequently rejected on a length-of-contract issue.
Yet the £12.8million sale of another French striker, Louis Saha to Manchester United 14 months ago, has proved good business in South West London even though it infuriated Coleman at the time.
Saha scored for United to deprive Fulham of victory at Old Trafford in February last year and went on to claim seven goals in 14 appearances for them that season but has been blighted by a knee injury and made only 10 starts this term.
“He is still one of the best strikers I’ve worked with,” said Coleman, “but I shouldn’t have jumped in like I did and shouted the odds. I just didn’t want to lose him but I’ve realised now if a player wants to leave and the price is right it usually happens. I’ve learned more as a manager this year.
“Louis has been unlucky but I still believe he will make it there – even in a team like United. They are a lot better team this year but I would love us to repeat the win we had there last season. It would be an incredible achievement but I’ve never lost to them in the league as a manager.”
Coleman, who admits that with just six points to spare over 18th-placed Southampton, his side are far from secure against relegation, hopes striker Cole can rise above his recent “poor run in front of goal” to trouble his old club.
Now 33, he once scored 93 goals in 195 Premiership games and won the Treble with United but has managed just 11 in 32 appearances for Fulham who need to end a depressing sequence of five league games without a win.
Fulham skipper Lee Clark, Cole’s former team-mate at Newcastle, said: “Andy is still a fantastic striker with great desire but the rest of us have not been been providing him with good enough service that all goalscorers live on.
“It is important that it changes on Saturday and the manager has told us not to bother to turn up for the bus if we don’t feel we can get another result up there.”