Football fans are prone to mood swings. The occasional bout of emotion fuelled over-exaggeration comes as standard. There is not a fan in the land that hasn’t called for a manager’s head in a sudden burst of anger following a defeat, or proclaimed their player should start for England after a particularly good game. What Fulham fans are now feeling after the summer transfer window is not a fleeting emotion, but the collective response to 13 months of spiraling mediocrity.
It is easy for clubs to forget that football is a game based on emotion in the modern world of transfers, tv rights and the business of high level sport.
Since Shakid Khan’s takeover of Fulham back in July, talk has been focused on sustainability. The only tangible plan seemingly in place at the moment is that of the pre-existing Riverside Stand redevelopment.
The problem with this is that football doesn’t stand still. Ambitious plans off the field have been met with a puzzling lack of ambition on it.
The summer transfer window just gone was a perplexing one for Fulham fans. Enough to intrigue and infuriate in equal measure, any talk of realistic top ten ambitions can be seen rather more as a pipe dream than a modus operandi for the here and now. Survival, it seems, is the plan once again.
On the face of it Fulham had an ok transfer window. It was a player recruitment window where the focus was on bulk additions of game ready veterans rather than looking to the long term with any incisive incomings of players approaching their prime. Seven new first teamers joined the club, with energizer bunny Sascha Reither additionally arriving on a permanent deal and Greek man of war Giorgos Karagounis re-signing for a further year.
The national football publications will no doubt conclude that our window was positive. To see it as such though, shows a remarkable lack of appreciation for the situation as a whole. It is rather like buying the ingredients for a nice supper without having the kitchen in which to cook it. Indeed the Telegraph called it for what it really was; a 5/10 nod to muddling through.
Long-term gaps at left back and central midfield were left unfilled, deadwood was not moved on, while the squad became stockpiled with an influx of nonchalant attacking enigmas and aging defensive midfielders.
On the whole, the signings showed a lack of strategy, and that sustainability remains a piece of blue sky thinking rather than anything we can move towards on the field.
This is perhaps not wholly unexpected. The new chairman arrived amongst much fanfare, but quite understandably shows signs of wanting to assess the situation for longer than 6 weeks in the summer prior to any en-masse pocket dipping. With the whole takeover reportedly concluded within the space of a month, it is no surprise Mr Khan wants a period of basic continuity before any radical changes. The path of sustainability is indeed the one we want to take; we just don’t yet have the map to get there.
Indeed, why give a manager more funds than he needs to survive when he may not be the man who you eventually entrust your credit card to?
Have we spent enough to stay in the league? If our short-term goal is simply to survive whilst a plan to execute long-term strategy is formulated, will we?
The yearlong on-field malaise since the departures of several stars last summer suggests we are not guaranteed anything. Home form at Craven Cottage has taken the trajectory of the Lusitania while our overly static defense looks more and more fragile with every passing week. Fulham have been playing without anything resembling consistent tactics, desire and creativity for the better part of a year, whilst the summer signings appear as square pegs in round holes designed to paper over some significant cracks.
It is going to be a long hard season for Fulham fans. We were not given anything to overwhelmingly excite us over the summer months and performances have remained uninspired. Time is on our side for now, but it will soon be staring us in the face.
There is a focus within the club on how to improve away attendances. A coherent performance resembling anything close to entertainment might be a start. Should our home form not improve, the focus may be forced to shift to wondering whether an expensive new stand is such a good idea.
The grains of sand in the egg timer of Martin Jol’s tenure in SW6 are reaching the bottom. Whether there will be anyone there to turn it over remains to be seen. Should the insipid performances continue and results fail to materialise, it would be foolish of Fulham to stand idly by.
Of the summer signings, only two, Elsad Zverotic and Fernando Amorebieta, show the hallmarks of a legacy signing – one that the club and not the manager engineered on the basis of the higher recruitment strategy. Michael Calvin’s immensely readable book The Nowhere Men highlights this practice at Fulham, where Roy Hodgson rejected the chance to sign Mousa Dembele from AZ Alkmaar and it was only once he had left the club that Mark Hughes signed off on the deal. Whilst Scott Parker has never before played under Martin Jol he was still widely known and Derek Boateng had played against Fulham for Dnipro two years ago in one of Martin Jol’s first games in charge. Adel Taarabt, Maarten Stekelenburg and Darren Bent are all former charges of the excuse-making Dutchman.
Whether they can gel is squarely on Jol’s shoulders. Having met Alistair Mackintosh and been thoroughly impressed, not least by his ability to mix passion with objectivity, and having heard and read nothing but positive things about our CEO from within the game, I am most surprised that he facilitated such a summer of fraternal patronage.
This is it though; it has been a summer of mixed messages at Craven Cottage. We have the best academy in the country but the oldest first team. We speak of targeting a place in the top ten but have but have been in the bottom five of spending for the second summer in a row. We target sustainability yet sign not a single first team player with sell-on value in mind. We have a manager preaching offensive football yet led the league in long balls last season.
Is it any wonder the fans don’t know what to think?
For a team entering its 13th consecutive season in the top flight, where fans will regularly spend over £1000 a season following their team, the prospect of another year looking over our shoulders is a hard one to stomach.
Below the first team, the summer again showed our growing reputation. The most pivotal deal of the summer might be 17-year-old French striker Moussa Dembele signing a new contract. After his hat trick in the academy final there were doubtless bigger clubs considering a move for the most exciting player in our youth set up. The recruitment of 15-year-old Yaya Toure impersonator Foday Nabay from the fringes of the Birmingham City first team could also prove significant in years to come.
At senior level though, our rivals have out spent or out performed for too long. Newcastle fans are justifiably irate with their management at the lack of a single penny spent in anger, but at least they deserved their 3 points against us last weekend.
The summer of disenchantment ended with the sale of fans favourite Kerim Frei to Besiktas on Friday. The 19-year-old winger who was shunned by Martin Jol has left without even an explanation as to why. A player who 18 months ago was seen as the jewel in our crown has left for a marginal fee without so much as a goodbye. One suspects this sale was more to do with Frei, who having been showered with too much praise and a four year contract at an early age may have forgotten the hard yards had yet to be done. It is though, another mark of disappointment for a fanbase devoid of energy.
The threat of relegation looms large and is not one the club can afford to ignore. When the Jacksonville Jaguars season comes to an end in January it could be too late. With no room to manoeuvre in the transfer market, all eyes will now be on management. Can an ageing and piecemeal squad come together and play as a united force? I’m not convinced and I’m not sure who is.