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Fear and Loathing in South West London

The mixed range of emotions felt by Fulham fans over the last three months has been quite the rollercoaster.

First there was happiness at the impressive early transfer activity. Then there was shock, surprise, intrigue and excitement around Shahid Khan’s takeover as Fulham Chairman from Mohamed Al-Fayed.

This was followed by a period of slowly increasing anxiety at transfer inactivity and mild despair after a trio of poor friendly performances. Frustration made way to hope with the arrivals of Adel Taarabt, Darren Bent and Scott Parker. These signings, coupled with a hard fought victory at Sunderland on the opening day then led to a breakout of mass excitement and evergreen optimism before last weekend’s home opener against Arsenal.

Now, following a meek surrender in that game to Arsenal, and a dismayingly poor showing from the First XI at Burton, we are here, at a point of fear and loathing as the scene that will be left in the aftermath of a turbulent summer begins to reveal itself.

The past week has, quite frankly, not been a good one for Fulham and its fans. The pair of aforementioned poor performances were compounded by a debacle surrounding the last minute placing and notification of a camera gantry smack in the middle of the Johnny Haynes Stand for the Arsenal game. Obviously with this issue there are forces at play beyond purely the club’s control, but, it is the offhand dismissal of the issue by the club, league and tv company who broadcast the game that has caused more frustration than the camera itself.

The performance at Burton was three minutes from being the final straw for many fans. Having suffered the ignominy of watching near ten months of consistent mediocrity on the field, especially at Craven Cottage where our home form is disappointing to say the least, this is most certainly a fan base lacking energy and enthusiasm at present. Had Hugo Rodallega not volleyed home a barely deserved equaliser in the East Midlands, there would have been more than a few voices calling for certain heads to roll.

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The mood amongst fans is though, ever changing. One win, one performance, one signing and the mood in the gallery would lift immeasurably. Yet is important to try and stand back and view the scene as a complete picture. With mere days to go until the end of the transfer window, the picture could yet change significantly. But will it?

There is an increasing sense that there are certain people at Motspur Park are sat in an Ivory Tower of Self-Defiance. Transfer policy and team selection seem to be dictated by a wretched stubbornness to appreciate the bigger picture beyond our metaphorical four walls.

It is not good enough to simply worry about what we are doing. The business of football inherently forces your performance to be directly correlated to that of your rivals’, and this summer, there is little doubt we have been left somewhat behind.

Our transfer policy shows a lack of financial firepower that is less a nod to sustainable financing and more a sign of frugal penny pinching. This same transfer policy also exudes the kind of footballing nepotism that belies any intelligent scouting system. Of our 6 summer signings, 3 have previously played for our manager, 1 played against us in a European fixture and has been wanted since, 1 is a former England international known to every fan and his dog and the other a La Liga defender linked to several clubs in the tabloid papers in January. Not exactly the fruits of a well established and in depth scouting system, even though I am sure Fulham posses such a system as scouting at youth level has been remarkable of late.

Martin Jol often talks about having to be clever in the transfer market, signing players when they are bad or out of favour and making them good again. There is an argument for this, but there is a school of thought that says being clever in the transfer market means finding some of your players before your competitors do. Sometimes it is not good enough to just sign players on the decline, hoping to rekindle their former glories; sometimes you have to sign a player in their prime. Without anyone in the prime of their careers, is it any wonder performances have been trifling for so long, when other clubs have perhaps lesser players performing at their peak week in week out.

There is a financial sustainability argument behind a scouting based transfer system. Sign a 20-25 year old, build him up and get years of the player in his prime whilst then benefitting from sell on value.

Our three domestic signings this August show little financial long-term planning. Parker is 32, so his wages and transfer fee are a sunk cost, where any financial uplift is based purely on the gain for the team as a direct result of his performances over the duration his long 3 year contract. While any benefit of Adel Taarabt’s play will result in an increase in his sell-on value to the profit of his parent club. Darren Bent meanwhile is little more than an expensive borrowing. A football bridging loan designed to help us muddle through another season.

Of course that is the glass half empty look at those signings. They should all help us this season, even if they were not what we exactly needed going into the window. I believe all three could have a significant impact on the team if we are flexible enough on-the-field to prevent them appearing as square pegs put in round holes.

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For a club who’s prevailing message, especially since the takeover, has been sustainability, the transfer activity has all been rather short term in outlook, with significant non-recoverable costs.

This would all however, be completely fine, should we not have a manager who refuses to show faith in the young players the club has invested heavily to get to and through the academy. Maybe as fans we are simply impatient. But it is now 3 years since our academy first reached the national final, yet the squad is still dominated by players over 30.

Rather than signing another aging former big name player, why doesn’t our manager give one or two of our supposedly prodigal young talents an opportunity to develop on the big stage? The refusal to trust Matthew Briggs for long enough to see his real potential and the complete reluctance to even put Mesca, Chris David or Marcello Trotta on the bench at Burton is mystifying to even the most casual of Fulham observer. Would Gareth Bale be worth the £80m plus he is today as a 24 year old if he had sat in the reserves into his 20s?

Sustainability as a club must come from both on and off field means. Year to year survival is crucial, but it is not a strategy. By not developing a club philosophy, a long term on-field strategy and an off field plan to execute it, you increase the danger of falling prey to a bad run, a single season of disaster where all your hard work is undone.

The other point of contention with this summer’s strategy has been the lack of a marquee signing. Whilst the losses last summer of the still yet to be replaced Murphy, Dembele and Dempsey were all painful, it is impossible not to tip your cap to the signing of Dimitar Berbatov. This was a signing that meant more to Fulham than football. Brand Fulham was boosted by Brand Berbatov. Fans around the world, those same ones who will have benefited from the dugout footage from the Johnny Haynes camera against Arsenal, know and love Berbatov. This was a signing that boosted Fulham’s stature, in both our minds and those outside the club.

Scotty Parker is loved by vast swathes of cockney London but he’s unlikely to set pulses racing in Singapore or Shanghai. The same could be said of Bent, prior goals records are all well and good but the Aston Villa reserves is not exactly a glamour business partner. There is little marquee about fending off QPR and Crystal Palace for your big name transfers.

There remain at least three positions that sit unfilled by transfer incomings. A starting left back, back up right back and a passing midfielder to sit next to newcomer Parker are all still AWOL. These are not new problems either. The midfielder has been missing for almost exactly a year, while left back in particular has been a problem in waiting for some time now.

All could change in the next four days. A win at Newcastle, or even a loss with a cohesive, dedicated performance, would see doubters silenced for a little longer. There is, however, a cloud forming over Craven Cottage. An underwhelming transfer window and an alarmingly poor home record will soon hit Fulham’s plan for sustainability hard. We all love this club, but we need a reason to be excited, another year like the last one and there’s trouble ahead.

To Newcastle and the transfer deadline beyond.

COYW

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.