Rene Meulensteen eventually took the call from Florida on Wednesday. Despite all the talk of managerial change after the previous night’s 1-0 FA Cup defeat by Sheffield United, though, the message from Shahid Khan remained the same: “Stay focused, stay optimistic, we’ll clear this situation”.
The Fulham owner cannot be accused of inconsistency. His comments to Meulensteen fit with the mantra reportedly being spread around Craven Cottage over the past few weeks: relegation is “unthinkable”.
The problem with that point of view is that if they do slip into the Championship, it may require a genuine realignment of how the club think about themselves, the future and the way they have handled the very recent past. This season’s struggles, after over a decade of mostly mid-table and middle-class comfort, come at a particularly unfortunate time.
With QPR back looking to learn from the mistakes of 2012-13, and Brentford already acting on hugely ambition plans ahead of the construction of a new stadium, Fulham’s place in west London’s football hierarchy suddenly looks precarious.
There can be little disputing the club’s unique status over the past decade. As former player Alan Mullery puts it: “There’s something special about Craven Cottage, to go there and watch Premier League football.” Even Jose Mourinho expressed his warmth back in August: “I like Fulham a lot, they are my neighbours.”
Ideally placed by the Thames to attract the tourist who fancies top-level football but can’t get a one-off ticket for the likes of Chelsea, the club initially took full advantage on returning to Craven Cottage in 2004. The application for a “neutral end” licence was a masterstroke, giving them both an extra revenue stream and a somewhat envious status. The first few months of last season could even have been regarded as an optimum for a mid-table club, given how Fulham initially used the freedom from pressure to play free-scoring football.
The key question now is why it has all evaporated so suddenly; there is now poor football, few goals except those going into the Fulham net, and an awful lot of pressure. David Lloyd, the editor of the fanzine There’s Only One F in Fulham, argues that the decline is actually not sudden at all. Far from building on their position, the club are paying for long-term complacency about it.
“We’re rubbing our eyes in disbelief at what’s going on, given the previous stable nature of the club – the fact it’s just been allowed to drift with a sort of ‘Oh well, we’ll get it right next week then’ mentality,” Lloyd says. “Up to now, next week hasn’t arrived. Lack of investment has played a big part.”
The last day of the latest transfer window emphasised this. After five consecutive windows in which the former manager Martin Jol spent no more than £4 million net, Fulham brought in six players, including the £12.5m Kostas Mitroglou. They were all the kind of purchases people had been saying for three years that the side needed.
Meulensteen has already talked about how Lewis Holtby has “lifted the whole place with his energy”, adding youth and spark that was previously lacking. It remains to be seen whether it is enough to lift them out of the relegation zone.
The situation appears an attempt to press any button in the hope of one working. Fulham have made a number of quick-fix purchases for an inexperienced manager with a long-term approach, aided by the old-fashioned knowhow of the first-team technical director, Alan Curbishley.
In the two months since taking charge, Meulensteen has overseen the worst points return of all 20 Premier League clubs, and Fulham currently have the third worst defensive record in the top flight over the past 40 years.
Given their perilous situation, they could do with the clarity and structure demonstrated by Tony Pulis’s Crystal Palace. Yet Holtby believes that will arrive.
“I don’t think [the approach] is too open,” he says. “All week we’ve trained to keep our shape. It’s not easy for a gaffer coming in the middle of the season, in the relegation battle, to bring his system in. Very short time, a lot of games, no pre-season, so he’s trying to do it now and we all believe in it, every player.”
Meulensteen says that is why Khan’s comments were so important, “to make sure you keep believing in the right things”. Ahead of the Fulham manager’s return to Manchester United for the first time since departing his role as assistant manager in the summer, he revealed that Alex Ferguson said much the same to him, warning that: “[If] you lose your focus, you might start to do things that don’t help the team.”
Fulham must hope that the club as a whole have not started to realise that too late.