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A Tale of Two Teams: The Jacksonville Jaguars Week in London

This past weekend saw the Jacksonville Jaguars roll into London for their annual road show and a game against the Dallas Cowboys at a packed Wembley Stadium. As a Fulham fan and one of the NFL in general, the events of the past week have provided insight into the on-going relationship between Shahid Khan’s two sports clubs, as well as the still considerable differences between them.

Nowhere is the difference in cultures more obvious than in something so simple as the pronunciation of the word Jaguars. At Wembley on Sunday the stadium announcer called for us to welcome “Your 2014 Jacksonville Jagwars” onto the field, a far cry from the recent Jaguar car advert featuring the full vowel English annunciation of Mark Strong, Tom Hiddleston and Sir Ben Kingsley.

Pronunciation of Jaguar aside, the showpiece game at Wembley was the embodiment the NFL as a spectacle. There was Joss Stone and Jeff Beck, fireworks aplenty and Boris Johnson performing to coin toss. Big screen replays were “Texas Replays” and even the hour long pregame time when the players warmed up was the “DiscoverAmerica.com” Player Warm Up. It is cliché to say everything about the NFL is bigger and brasher than it’s English equivalent, but as with most clichés there is some underlying truth. Indeed the entire event was unlike anything we’ve got in this country, and in its own different way is absolutely marvellous.

Before kick off, the Jaguars mascot, Jaxson De Ville, abseiled / bungee jumped from the Wembley roof down to the pitch and proceeded to get the entire crowd chanting “Let’s Go Jaguars”. There is no elevation at Craven Cottage from which Billy the Badger could make such an entrance, and even Billy’s weekly half time welcome from new mic-man Ivan seems a bit contrived in comparison. Whereas Jaxson’s daredevil antics earned him a standing ovation, Billy the Badger has only ever made the headlines for a brief obsession with break dancing a few years back. The British predisposition is just a tad more reserved I suppose.

Whilst there are no material ramifications of one mascot’s antics versus another, the way they are appreciated is indicative of the environment they are in.  US sports can almost at times be as much social activities as they are pure sporting theatre; sporting events are also more than just the sport, at Wembley, with fans of all teams in attendance creating a heightened environment of neutrality, the off-field entertainment became even more noticeable. The constant off field entertainment was there to keep the crowd energised in between the short sharp bursts of action in which the majority in attendance did not have true emotional investment.

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American Football in particular is an event for which the game is only part of the day. That a vast proportion of the near 90,000 crowd spent the afternoon in the Wembley car park at the official tailgate event proves this. All the extras do not at all mean fans view the result of the games themselves as insignificant, however losing does not carry the same death spectre with which it does in football.

This is a polar difference between the situations Khan has inherited in Fulham and Jacksonville. Should the Jaguars continue to underperform, the team will be rewarded with a higher draft pick from which to select one of this year’s premier college players coming into the sport. The draft system is balanced so that the worst teams get the first picks in order to promote fair competition, so you have the not unlikely scenario that fans will not mind their team losing in order to bring a potential superstar to the team via a draft. Indeed, what is one win now, when a superstar draftee could mean plenty of wins down the line. The ramification of failure simply carries a different price.

Fulham have already paid that high price for failure, with relegation to the Championship last May. Relegation has itself presented a different series of challenges for the Fulham – Jaguars relationship. We played a friendly at EverBank Field, home of the Jaguars, in July, but our fall in status meant the match fell behind a concert in the promotional billing. Whilst half of the Jaguars cheerleading squad, the Roar of the Jaguars, performed at a cold Craven Cottage on Saturday, there has otherwise been a distinct lack of cross promotion between the teams this week.

Fulham players and staff got tickets to the match on Sunday and Wednesday night’s Fulham game with Blackpool was sponsored by the “delegation from Jacksonville”. However, there has been a distinct and noticeable lack of cross-selling on this visit. The Jaguars stayed at the Grove Hotel outside Watford, the customary base for the designated home team for the NFL’s Wembley games, and made no use of Motspur Park. Player appearances were limited to official NFL events. This was a business trip for the Jaguars, and in the short and intense NFL season, there is little time for frippery and certainly little time for your sibling team who are outside the glamour of the Premier League.

The sides do however have their similarities. On the Wembley screens on Sunday we were treated to two video excerpts of “Legendary Moments” from Jaguars history; one a blowout victory on route to a loss in the final game before the Superbowl a decade ago, with the other a last second win in a meaningless regular season game. The relative insignificance of these moments was not lost on the Wembley crowd but shows the similarity to Fulham. Neither of us are teams steeped in a long tradition of success. Although Fulham and Jacksonville are teams of different ages, our position have nearly always been as underdog.

Fulham compete with Chelsea, Brentford, AFC Wimbledon and QPR for West London’s football fans. The Jaguars might be the only team in their city but not only have a pair of other NFL teams in Florida, the Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but also suffer from having several traditionally dominant colleges located in-state. Between them, the University of Miami Hurricanes, University of Florida Gators and the Florida State Seminoles likely command a far wider and more passionate legion of fans than the state’s three NFL teams. Indeed the relatively minor, in American distances, 75 miles between The Florida Gators’ Griffin Stadium in Gainsville and EverBank Field in Jacksonville means there is a direct competitor for fans nearby. Throw in other teams like the University of Central Florida Knights, for whom Jaguars rookie quarterback Blake Bortles used to play, and the Jaguars’ fight for domestic attention becomes quite obvious.

The differences between College Football and the NFL are vast, not least in the cost to attend, so any comparison is somewhat rudimentary, but in simple terms, growing the Jaguars fanbase domestically is likely to prove impossible unless the team suddenly becomes a lot more talented and successful than it is at the moment. What Shahid Khan has done in Jacksonville since taking charge three years ago appears to be an attempt to solidify the fanbase he has there whilst then using the games in London as a way of expanding their fanbase internationally.

Much has been written and said about the purchase of Fulham as a way to establish a network here, but the lack of in your face promotion between the two teams of late suggests it is not as one dimensional as simply hoping for a few fans to jump on the bandwagon. Undoubtedly being outside the Premier League does not help matters, but it strips the relationship back to a more cerebral one, where knowledge sharing plays a premium role.

There has to be a concern though for Khan and his team, that the underperformance of both teams will hamper any efforts to grow fanbases on either opposite side of the Atlantic. For all the Bortles, Cyprien or Shorts III jerseys that were on display at Wembley on Sunday, a few more years of coming here to lose, and the number of fans willing to spend £75 on a replica shirt will soon dry up. The same can probably be said of Fulham in Jacksonville. If we are to play an annual friendly in Florida, without Premier League exposure, there is hardly likely to be a queue of new fans waiting for their Christensen or Williams shirts.

On Sunday, I went to Wembley as a NFL fan cheering for the Jaguars rather than as a Jaguars fan. As a Washington Redskins fan I sported a Robert Griffin III jersey in deference to the fact I hoped the Cowboys would lose, but was offered little to persuade me to pay the £75 to switch to the black and teal of the Jaguars. Indeed the NFL is famous for the amount of costs it levies on fans. As an example, parking passes for the Dallas Cowboys’ next home game in a fortnight are currently changing hands for a minimum of $40 on ticket re-selling websites. That’s not a match ticket, that’s a parking ticket! Considering most NFL stadiums are located in the middle of nowhere surrounded by gargantuan parking lots, the cost of a day out can become a lot more prohibitive. One suspects a US version of the Cost of Football survey would make for eye gouging reading.

Sunday’s game itself was a largely one sided affair as feared. Jacksonville made a good start, scoring the game’s opening touchdown with a Denard Robinsion run, but proceeded to hand Dallas the initiative on a silver platter. The ironically named Ace Sanders dropped a simple punt return, gifting the Cowboys their route back into the game, before a fumble from the aforementioned Robinson helped them move into the distance. What followed was a veritable annihilation that was only stopped as the game wore on by the Cowboys willingness to play clock consuming running football as soon as the game was effectively over as a contest.

Watch highlights here

Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley and his defence would have been wise to spend Saturday afternoon at Twickenham picking up some tips on technique watching England take on the All Blacks. Jacksonville’s open field tackling technique left a lot to be desired and enabled Cowboys running back Demarco Murray and wide receiver Dez Bryant to have the freedom of the field. The NFL’s obsession with speed and power, at the expense of true technique becomes apparent when a good team takes on a bad one. Whilst Jacksonville’s players might have been as fast as those in white and blue, they were significantly inferior on the day.

As Sunday’s game wore on, it descended into the mundane reality of a routine Dallas win. Those of us in the crowd filtered home, left contemplating whether or not next year’s somewhat underwhelming fixtures at Wembley are worth the £80 or so pounds it costs per ticket. Undoubtedly having Dallas as the visiting team was a coup for the International Series. The self-proclaimed “America’s Team” bring star power that Jacksonville will probably never be able to match. The image of Shahid Khan mingling with Boris Johnson and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones before the game shows the value of this fixture to the Jaguars. Jones is a prominent figure in the NFL and as powerful an owner as there is, he even appeared as himself in a recurring arc on hit tv show Entourage; if the London games have his blessing, you can bet they’re here to stay.

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For now, as a one off, the spectacle is worth the ticket price, but I’m not sure I’d go more than once a year. The novelty seems yet to wear off though. All three games this year were sell outs, which is a statistic the Football Association could only dream of when talking about England’s home games.

Sooner or later though, the Jaguars will need to start winning. Even the British can only support the underdog for so long.

Hurricane Khan: Martin the Eye of the Storm

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.

 

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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.

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The Week That Fulham Went Global

It is said that a week is a long time in football, and the last week at Fulham has certainly proven this statement to be true. In the space of the last 7 days, we, as fans, and as a club, have been on a rollercoaster of excitement and hyperbole that is only now beginning to plateau into something of a bed of regularity.

Our story here begins a little over a week ago upon the breaking of news that our beloved, now former, Chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed was in the process of selling the club to a mysterious unnamed American. What ensued was three days of absolute radio silence from all parties. The presence of water tight legal non-disclosure agreements having something to do with this I’m guessing.

Inside the heads of fans, ideas whirled and sizzled for the latter half of the week. Was it true? If it was true, what would the new owner be like?

With the rumour first surfacing on an internet messageboard two days before the papers got the story, I think there were more than a few fans seriously doubting whether it was indeed happening. That most the newspapers ran the same story incorrectly categorising all three new summer arrivals as free transfers just added to the vision that the popular press give little time to researching and fact-checking stories about Fulham.

Then, at 9.15pm on Friday, the news broke for definite. Mohamed Al-Fayed, stalwart owner of Fulham Football Club for the past 16 years was selling up, with the moustachioed billionaire owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shahid Khan, to be our new owner.

There is not a lot a can say about Mr Khan that you’ve not already heard, read or seen. His story has been well told over the past week; born in Pakistan, he moved to Illinois, USA aged 16 and has gone on to found and run one of the most successful automotive parts suppliers in North America. A keen sports fan, Shahid Khan attempted to purchase the St Louis Rams before finally landing himself a National Football League franchise when he purchased the Jacksonville Jaguars for the princely sum of approximately $500m in 2011. Biography over.

 

 

Following the announcement confirming the change appearing on the club’s website on Friday evening, a press conference was scheduled for Saturday lunchtime at Craven Cottage. From the realm of rumour to putting a face to camera within 24 hours was, it has to be said, superb media work from the Fulham press team. Weeks of uncertainty could have caused serious ructions within the fanbase, whereas, almost universally, the feelings towards the takeover have been positive from the Fulham Faithful.

The downside of such a quick turnaround is that it has been hard for us all to adequately look back at the remarkable 16 year journey Mr Al-Fayed took us on. The excitement of looking forward to the Shahid Khan era has simply been too alluring this week. In truth it still is, with Martin Jol meeting Shahid Khan this week so we are told, perhaps we only have a little bit longer to wait before our summer transfer window can kick back into gear having been previously stalled for what are now obvious reasons.

I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank Mohamed Al-Fayed and wish him all the best for the future. As the only Fulham chairman I’ve ever had the fortune of supporting FFC under, he was quite simply the best Chairman we could have asked for. Sensible and outrageous in equal measure, Mr Al-Fayed came to resemble Fulham itself. From the statue that shall not be named to the superb one of Johnny Haynes, the club would not be what it is without 16 years of determined leadership, vision and financing from Mohamed Al-Fayed. For this, and much much more, Thank You Mo.

The press conference on Saturday was itself akin to theatre. In the way that only Chairman Mo could, he turned up to welcome Shahid Khan wearing an oversized fake moustache (which, note to club, should be given away to all at the Arsenal game!) to replicate our new owners remarkable trademark facial hair.

The answers delivered to the press were clearly calculated, as you’d expect after a debt free £200m transaction. They were also though very comforting. If Mo has chosen this man to be his successor, then we owe him at least a chance to show why. It has however, not become a question of owing Mr Khan a chance, the nature and content of the rhetoric spoken has led most fans to embrace our owner with open arms.

Whilst all of this was going on, Martin Jol was on a plane to Costa Rica with our first team squad seemingly none the wiser. What marvellous timing. The distraction of a change of ownership can often derail footballing preparations. The Costa Rica trip, planned presumably months ago, has provided a superb escape for our players and management to bond and physically prepare for the rigours of a new league season with the nagging backdrop of questions about off field matters left some 3,000 miles away back in South West London.

 

 

 

 

The Costa Rica tour has also provided Fulham with an opportunity to explore a football mad Latin American country unopposed. While all our domestic and European rivals are sweating in the humid well-trodden streets of the likes of Bangkok, Jakarta and Nagoya, Fulham have had San Jose to themselves. Fulham’s friendly matches have been against opposition of a higher calibre than the “All-Star” South East Asian XI’s put together to face certain other teams on their travels. Yes, Costa Rica’s national team players are off at the Gold Cup, but Cartagines and Alajuelense have provided decent opponents for our opening preseason gambit, with Deportivo Saprissa still to come.

The use of Costa Rica’s national team facilities and national stadium has added quality to this adventurous backdrop, while the tropical humidity is likely to be such that you’d be hard pushed to see even a dedicated cupcake aficionado fail to lose a few pounds after a few days of activity, let alone a squad of some of the fittest footballers on the planet working hard to get into game ready condition.

Then there is the x factor reason for our trip west. Bryan Ruiz. Fulham’s new number 10 [after an offseason change in number from 11] is Costa Rican, and the best one at that. The trip to his homeland was a two way stroke of genius. Use Bryan’s commercial popularity to sell brand Fulham, whilst simultaneously giving our leading creative asset the best possible preparations going into a season where his form could well dictate our level of success.

Bryan has scored two goals in two games; the third goal in Sunday’s 3-0 win over C. S. Cartagines and a very well taken third in Wednesday’s 3-1 win over his old club L. D. Alajuelense in tropical downpour conditions.

The trip has served to bring the new acquisitions and various youngsters into the first team fold, with the likes of Mesca, Pajtim Kasami and Derek Boateng particularly impressing alongside establish talent such as Dimitar Berbatov.

The week is yet to reach its conclusions though, with manager Martin Jol, team captain Brede Hangeland, ceo Alistair Mackintosh and new owner Shahid Khan to hold a press conference in Jacksonville later this evening. Presumably not to unveil anything or anyone major, this will likely be an introduction of Fulham to Khan’s US sports marketplace.

Following the weekend’s friendly with Saprissa, Fulham will finally return home, and hopefully, the transfer window can open at Motspur Park. For while this week has felt like a summer, there is still time left for Fulham to get the chequebook out and improve a squad in need of reinforcements. Time is beginning to get away from us. While the veil of secrecy shrouded over the takeover enabled it to be completed within an incredibly short timeframe, it also appears to have hamstrung the pursuit of on-field talent over the past month and a half.

This will only prove an issue if Martin Jol’s chief targets have already gone elsewhere. For everyone’s sake let’s hope this is not the case. Time is of the essence.