So, another loss was compounded by another tactically absent performance last night
Having taken the decision, a few weeks ago, to take an emotional step back from Fulham for a little while, I must confess my life has been quite refreshing. Following the draw with West Brom and the loss to Cardiff quite a few fans, myself included, whipped ourselves up into quite the frenzy. What good can come from that?
In the meantime, Fulham have won a fortuitous home victory against a toothless and tactically mis-managed Stoke, beat a hapless Crystal Palace thanks to two world class goals, lost abysmally to Southampton and gone out of a cup that we were lucky to still be in after being the second best team in the victories over both Burton and Everton. In essence, we are back to square one.
Except there’s now one major difference, this time around nearly the entire social media-active fanbase is in a frenzy. Last night saw an enormous number of impassioned cries for heads on spikes, and one head in particular.
There appears to be a head-in-the-sand mentality in the club’s hierarchy : “If we keep our heads down, maybe the supporters will forget there’s a systematic problem”. Random acts of individual brilliance will only get you so far, but they do work in temporarily deflecting attention. They have also, frustratingly, saved Martin Jol’s job on more than one occasion already.
Had Hugo Rodallega not equalised at Burton Albion, we could be several months into a new regime. We could already be talking about an integrated tactical system and optimistic youth development, rather than an absence of tactics and youth getting a maximum of one representative in the first team at a time.
Therein lies the problem. The current on-pitch management of Fulham is tactially inept, though it almost feels wrong to use the word inept as that implies there are tactics. There don’t seem to be any at all. The chosen pathway for the first team appears more akin to chaos theory than the beautiful game. Jol’s mantra of putting eleven men on the field, a couple of whom are still within a few years of their prime, in the vague hope that perhaps they will magic three points is becoming so blindingly frustrating that I’m sure it’s not just the fans who are getting ready to lay down their arms in exasperation.
As time presses on, what is becoming increasingly evident and worrying is the off-field management’s refusal to address the issues at hand. Last week saw Shahid Khan, our undeniably charismatic new owner, in London as his Jacksonville Jaguars were in town for the first of their four annual matches at Wembley. What became increasingly obvious during this visit is that the pigskin form of football is where his priorities lie, at least they seemingly do for now. When your football club becomes third on the list of your owners’ business priorities, it takes special day-to-day management to keep the ship straight.
Fulham’s Board of Directors now consists of four men – the aforementioned Khan and Mark Lamping, his right hand man from Jacksonville and the lone non-exec Director of FFC, along with CEO Alistair Mackintosh and Finance Director Sean O’Laughlin. Mackitosh and O’Laughlin have to run the business, covering every management role from Director of Football to Operations. Yes, there is a management board in place, but show me another successful limited company with a turnover stretching into nine figures with a board of this size and I’ll show you a pig that can fly.
While both Mackintosh and O’Laughlin appear football savvy, and both are genuine fans of the game, to give them what is akin to day-to-day absolute power is a considerable risk from Khan. If I were buying a £200m business in an industry I had no idea about, I might look to take an expert or five with me, just to make sure those already running the business there were doing a decent job.
At Fulham, there is seemingly nobody there to view the situation from a step back. Perhaps then, it is no surprise that decisions are taking longer to be made than they should. Football is not the NFL, a season of failure followed by retrospective accountability, as was the formula in Jacksonville, is not a viable plan here. Relegation looms large. Operational synergy can get you a sponsor or two, but it doesn’t win matches and to downgrade the club’s ambitions to mere survival is, at this stage, tantamount to heresy when Mohamed Al-Fayed spent over a decade working hard so that Fulham could look forward, and not back.
Last week’s Google session with Khan and several fans was little short of orchestrated gimmickry under the watchful eyes of the ever-controlling Fulham press department. Khan’s answers to the mostly pre-determined questions were bland, non-committal and largely unsatisfactory. Did you wonder why none of the mainstream press picked up the session despite doubtlessly being sent to all of them in a press release.
When asked about young players, Khan was justifiably able to tout Kasami thanks to his wonder-strike the night before, though he ignored the fact Pajtim was the only player under-25 on the pitch for FFC that night. When asked about ticket prices, he spouted nonsense about players wages, and when asked about the Riverside Stand he refused to say anything concrete despite the planning application receiving full planning permission in July.
The press interviews that circulated with Shahid Khan on Friday were, on the other hand, rather impressive. Khan is a master of neutral audience PR. Talk of respecting heritage and operational synergy sounds great to a less heart-invested mind who won’t ask “how?”.
I don’t want to indefinitely judge the man on the basis of his first three or so months. Coming into the Premier League as a self-confessed football newbie must be incredibly daunting, even if he chose to pay £200m for the privilege and lives on another continent. He clearly invests emotion in the team as was shown by his celebrations at Palace. Perhaps we can only hope he becomes a fan like us. It is, after all, important for an owner to remember why football clubs were founded in the first place.
The next three months will prove crucial in Fulham’s season and in Khan’s tenure as custodian. If the head-in-the-sand management continues past January, the trouble that’s been brewing will have become a fully-fledged superstorm, and we all know how much the UK press love a storm. Should Martin Jol’s management stretch much beyond a loss to Manchester United in three days’ time, Khan may find a few more people, rightly or wrongly, turning the focus of their attention to his chairmanship.
He could of course prove the ruthless and demanding Chairman that there are whispers he is behind the wide smile. Should Martin Jol’s charge come to an end in the hours or days to come that is only the first half the job. Choosing the correct replacement is a far harder task than simply deciding whether or not to pull the trigger. But losing can become an indelible habit and without stage one of the process, the club cannot expect to move forward.
This quagmire has been developing for some time; Khan’s arrival has merely fallen at a time when affirmative action was needed, not a period of learning and indolence. Under-spending, indifferent results and poor performances stretch back beyond the short term memory of just this season. Time has been and gone, and now come again, for something to change, and change very soon. If it doesn’t, then I doubt I would be the only fan taking a step back, and I’m not sure how that fits into the Chairman’s plan for a sustainable business.