Fulham have entered the wilderness of the football league. Our season can aptly be described by three m’s: mediocrity, mismanagement and missed opportunity.
However, hope doesn’t have to be lost. Scraping a draw at home to Rotherham can be a watershed moment if we let it be. We are a club with potential. Premier League infrastructure, the ground and our academy mean than we are not a lost cause. Things have to change. A top to bottom re-organisation of the entire football club is needed. If not, we risk wasting another season.
Fulham need a radical new approach. There is obviously no secret formula or every club would do it. Even clubs with stellar football DNA and a model system can have shockers, see yesterday’s departure of Jurgen Klopp from Borussia Dortmund as Exhibit A.
However, in order to avoid another year of stifling mediocrity, there are for my reckoning three key policy areas that need to be re-thought:
1. Coaching & Management
The club must find a manager who has that blend of experience and ability. Kit Symons was appointed amongst a wave of optimism and popular opinion but even back when the five man panel was deliberating it was possible to see that he might not have been the long term solution. It was an opinion voiced in private as any doubt over our performances was outweighed by the upturn in results, caused mainly through a mix of confidence and sheer determination, that followed his temporary appointment. Even when we were winning whilst he was still caretaker we weren’t playing particularly good football, but Symons’ appointment provided the club with a much needed cuddle at the time. It has however, transpired to become a nod to accepting a lost season and simply being barely good enough to survive. Hindsight is once again waving its fickle finger at Fulham.
You feel for Symons though. He accepted the poisoned chalice with such reckless abandon and glee that it was hard for anyone to not be taken in by his enthusiasm. He has, of course, not helped his downfall with lacklustre team selections and substitutions and a complete absence of tactical wherewithal. Yet, this was always going to be a tough job, even for a manager with experience, let alone one with none. Symons has gone from having the entire Hammersmith End signing “Stand Up For The Kit Symons” to having the entire ground sing “You Don’t Know What You’re Doing”. This cannot be easy to take, let alone for someone who holds the club dear, but we cannot let sentimentality rule the head for a second time when it comes to Kit’s future over the summer.
I for one hope Kit has the humility to accept his own failings and request the opportunity to fade back into the background of youth coaching or assistant work, the club needs a new Ray Lewington and Kit is not our new Roy Hodgson. If he doesn’t though, the axe must not fall in vain. Kit mustn’t be dismissed only to be replaced by whichever name happens to be flying in the wind on the day.
You only have to look at Norwich for what can be achieved. They appointed their own in-house manager Neil Adams last season at a time when they needed to look from within. Following relegation and a mediocre start that looked positively successful in relation to ours, they let the head rule the heart and replaced Adams with a manager with real ability but no name who was plying his trade in Scotland, getting experience from the coalface to throw onto the fire. It has worked, they are within touching distance of automatic promotion and are guaranteed the playoffs at a minimum.
2. Player recruitment
This is the key strategic element of any new approach at Fulham. We must stop signing has-beens and veterans. It is almost a broken record to say the club must start thinking about sell on value, but we have wasted the first year of parachute payments and will soon need new ways to fund ourselves. Clever recruitment is one of those.
Even more importantly than that though, Fulham need some players in their prime. At the moment we don’t have anyone who is logically within their peak performance years. Well, maybe Smith and McCormack, but those aside, are there really any players in our squad who you look at and go “yeah, we’re getting the best out of him”. Fair enough having players who are developing and are approaching their peak, but to waste valuable resources on players with diminishing returns is simply beyond the point of it being acceptable.
Fulham have addressed recruitment with the appointment of Mike Rigg to oversee the process, so we wait with baited breath to see if he has a positive impact. However, this season has simply been an extension of the previous years of mismanagement when it comes to transfers. Last night we had 4 loanees starting in a must win game with another on the bench. Of these loanees, 3 were from teams within our division, meaning teams above us had decided they weren’t good enough. This is not a recipe for success. Desperate times call for desperate measures but this is not a long term solution. Hopefully we are now safe and the loanee firefighting technique has worked enough to allow us to crawl to the finish line, but it is not a strategy and cannot be allowed to continue unabated going forward.
So what should be the recruitment strategy? Well, I’d firstly instigate a rule that nobody over 26 signs for the club unless they are a defensive player, and even then nobody over 28. I’d then place greater emphasis on physical characteristics such as speed and power. Finally, I’d like to see a greater emphasis placed on scouting the lower leagues. If we do this we have the best chance of hitting the ground running come August, or at least developing a squad for the long term.
3. Develop Our Own:
This is a point we’ve all been reiterating for some time already, so I’m sorry for doing it again. This season there has been no obvious plan in place for how to integrate and develop our young players. With the exception of Marcus Bettinelli in goal, we have seen youngsters come in and out the team with alarming frequency.
Let’s look at the examples:
Jack Grimmer has looked steady in his development but finds himself usurped behind a loanee at right back. Lasse Vigen Christensen was diabolically rushed back from injury in a pointless cup game and has lost the second half of his season as a result. Cauley Woodrow has hovered on the bench, while Moussa Dembele has been used with such irregularity he’d have to wonder whether he’d be best suited elsewhere. Emerson Hyndman was thrust in too soon then disregarded. The same can be said of Cameron Burgess. Sean Kavanagh has been used too often and never in his natural left back position. George Williams was played then sent out on loan only to injure himself. The crowning mismanagement has been the treatment of Patrick Roberts. Undeniably Roberts isn’t ready to start every week, but Symons’ reluctance to embrace the most exciting player at the club, even off the bench, has jeopardised our ability to keep him at the club, something which in itself is unforgivable.
On top of this, some of those slightly older players approaching their peak years like Sean Hutchinson and Dan Burn have never been given consistent game time. One mistake often leading to banishment to the bottom of the pecking order. Alex Kacaniklic was recalled from his loan at FC Copenhagen only to be given game time out of position. Now he’s lucky if he’s warming the bench.
The problem this season is that we simply haven’t ever been good enough to put together a consistent run of form (if you exclude losing every week). It is hard to justify giving players experience if it is at the detriment of the result. In truth though, have results been any better when the youngsters haven’t played in favour of the experienced or the borrowed? No.
Next season and beyond there needs to be a clear strategy on who is going to be used and how. This year there was no joined up squad thinking. As such we have been left with one that has been criminally unbalanced. In US Sports, the concept of a depth chart is familiar, Fulham need one. Constantly changing tactics and players leaves youngsters with no direction and no development plan. Our best hope remains that these young players develop into solid first teamers. Of course, not all will, but at the moment, we are not even giving them the chance.
For too long now we have been beholden to short termism, and it has failed now for three seasons in a row. The club has this week offered some solace in reduced season ticket prices, and good on them, not all teams would, but when you are staring down the barrel of a gun, you have to do something radical.
For me, this starts at the top and filters down from there. None of the above can be done without fresh leadership at the top. Chief Executive Alastair Mackintosh has been at the helm throughout the entire sinking of the good ship Fulham. To put all of this at his door is not appropriate but there comes a point when a new start means a new start.
Mackintosh is like a firefighter in a city with no fires, he keeps having to start a few in order to keep himself in a job. Unfortunately for him those fires have now burnt down his house. Whilst he may have been working with a mandate, our owner is not here and does not live and breathe football. He has a CEO who does that for him and the buck must stop with him. With Symons very much doubtful to remain as our manager into next season a time must come when you have to wonder if it’s not the managers, but the system in which they operate that is the bigger problem.
From a personal standpoint, I would be sad to see Mackintosh leave as he has been good to the Fulham Supporters Trust, meeting with representatives of Fulham supporters on a monthly basis. He doesn’t have to go for the club to instigate a complete rethinking of strategy and implementation, but at this point, we are running out of places to look. If we keep our senior management the same, then there certainly needs to be a change at board level.
As I wrote here last summer, we simply do not have the resources or club representation at board level to succeed. A four person board is not appropriate for a club of Fulham’s size, especially when two members are overseas and two work at the club on a daily basis. There is no independent oversight and no long built passion to ask pertinent questions. If there had been, perhaps someone would have questioned Felix Magath’s appointment, Kostas Mitroglou’s waistline or Kit Symons failure to believe in wingers.
Macintosh’s desire to at least superficially involve the fans is very admirable and is not to be taken for granted, but the club need to go further. It might be fanciful to hope for fan representation on the board, but that was the case under Al-Fayed and we had our most prosperous ever years.
We are at a crossroads. Continue to walk into the wasteland or embrace change and start again. It’s time to hit the reset button.