In the end it was a marriage that just wasn’t meant to be.
Following another home defeat that was more humiliating than humbling, Kit Symons was dismissed as manager of Fulham Football Club over the weekend.
The defeat to Birmingham City on Saturday was the fourth time during Symons’ tenure that Fulham have conceded 5 goals at home. Saturday’s result highlighted the crippling defensive problems that will last as one of enduring legacies of the former defender’s time in charge at Craven Cottage.
What mustn’t be forgotten once the dust has settled on Symons exit is that Kit has left Fulham in a far better state than he found it. Whilst his reign as manager was not spectacular, or even overly successful, it served a very important purpose given the position inherited following Felix Magath’s departure.
Under his immediate predecessors, Fulham went from Premier League stalwarts to becoming very serious candidates for Championship relegation. Symons’ year in charge was the first step on the long road back. From a position of considerable weakness, Symons leaves behind a solid platform on which to build.
The move by Mike Rigg and Fulham to move on from Symons is one that points to the future as much as it does to the past. This isn’t a move born simply out of results, although Saturday’s defeat undoubtedly made it easier. It is a conscious decision to take Fulham above and beyond where Symons would have been able to take us.
On paper Symons had everything we could want in a Fulham manager – a former fan favourite, off pitch affability and a genuine desire to take the job. Unfortunately it became fairly obvious not too long after he was given the job permanently that those off-field credentials were not backed up by any natural managerial talent. If that sounds harsh, it is not meant to. He was the right man at the right time last season, but this season was just a step too far for a man with no managerial experience. Eight horrendous games at the start of last season are no reason to accept mediocrity this season.
A mutual parting of the ways back in the summer would have been better all round. Even after he was allowed to drop the “Caretaker” from his job title, Kit’s role last season was really that of extended caretaker, getting us to the end of the season when the whole club could start again.
Whilst even his most ardent detractors (and there were an ever steady and increasingly growing number) would admit much of last season’s malaise was due to the poorly assembled and browbeaten squad he inherited, his managerial inexperience often showed. Aside from his inability as a former defender to organise our defence, Symons leaves behind a record of consistently inconsistent performances and results.
In moving into a second season, Kit gave up any chance of being treated with a degree of home-grown forgiveness when it came to his job status. Ours is a fanbase that has become accustomed to disappointment over the past few seasons. Success breeds short memories and disappointment lingers. Whilst Symons was excused for last season, he was under pressure from Day One this year. After a full season in charge, there became a point when tactical naivety began to a lot like ineptitude and it was obvious this was as far as he could take us.
The warning signs were ominous, in less than a calendar year, the Hammersmith End went from singing “stand up for the Kit Symons” to “you don’t know what you’re doing”. Symons’s early success had set him up for failure.
It is a sad end to a long Fulham career, but as soon as he threw away the shackles of caretakerdom, Kit exposed himself to the harsh realities of management. His departure is the right decision and my hope is that in time, Symons is remembered as the man who stepped into the breach when called upon and saw us through in our season of need. He does not deserve anything less.
Like many Fulham fans I wish Kit Symons well. I would be surprised if he is offered an immediate return to management elsewhere, but hope that in time that Fulham can find a place for him to return home in another capacity, and that Kit could find the humility to return.
Deciding to replace Symons is only the first step, where Mike Rigg goes next is the most important part of the entire story.
Like the rest of the fanbase I sit with baited breath to see who comes in.
Last week I posted the first half of my thoughts on the coaching and management, focussing on the coaching side of things. This second instalment looks into the world of management and in particular the appointment process for managers in the Football League.
Before embarking on the research that shaped what you’ll read below my thought process revolved around a couple of questions. How risky was it for Fulham to appoint a rookie manager in Kit Symons and how is the perception of his performance skewed by our collective affection for him as a former Fulham player?
To answer those questions properly would probably require some multi-faceted research worthy of its own thesis, but as a start, I thought it would be good to look at Symons relative to his peers at the other 71 Football League clubs.
That meant splitting the question into two parts when looking at each of the 72 managers across the Championship, League One and League Two;
· Did they play for the club they currently manage?; and
· Did they play for the club at which they were given their first managerial job?
Starting in the Championship, only 12.5% of current managers are also former players of their current club. 12.5% is 3 managers, and of these three managers, Kit Symons is the only rookie in his first job.
Nottingham Forest’s Dougie Freedman is in his third job, whilst Birmingham City’s Gary Rowett is in his second.
Freedman was also given his first job at a former club (Crystal Palace) and is now on his third club in the division despite not having really excelled at any point along the way.
Rowett was also given his managerial start at a former club, Burton Albion. However, down in League Two, he was able to develop under a less intense microscope. In two seasons at Burton, Rowett showed real talent getting to the play-offs twice, losing in a semi-final and then a final. His stock was obviously rising having been offered the Blackpool job only a short time before he took over at Birmingham. The lure of a former player to a former club proving too strong for either side in that instance.
With the Championship having just 3 out of 24 managers having played for their current club, how does this compare to the lower divisions? Well, combined, 14 (or 29%) out of the 48 League One and Two managers are former players of their current team, with 11 of those currently in their first job. That is a staggeringly higher number than in the Championship and could reflect any number of factors ranging from a willingness to give young (and cheap) managers a start, less intense pressure meaning the risk associated with appointing a rookie is slightly lower and an inability to attract successful experienced managers.
For a club in Fulham’s position to have appointed a rookie manager in the Championship appears something of an unnecessary risk given the fact that the division appears laden with experienced bosses. However, this then leads to a question I will have to leave unanswered. How many of those managers who took their first job at a former club got their chance first as a caretaker before being promoted after a series of good results? With caretaker managers often being on the receiving end of the boost in performance after clubs change manager, how many of these appointments ended up being misjudged, with the first few results under a caretaker not being indicative of their actual managerial ability?
To what extent do players need former clubs to give them their first opportunity? How many good managers have fallen through the cracks through a lack of opportunity and how manager managers who shouldn’t be managers are given an undeserved chance?
Across the entire Football League, a whopping 63% of managers got their first job at club they played for. That’s 45 out of the current 72 managers.
Split between the leagues, the Championship has the lowest percentage, with 58%, followed by League Two at 63% and League One at 67%.
The conclusion is that the cream rises to the top. The extrapolation of both sets of stats together suggests that the more successful managers are those who did not start at a former club…although with the trend coming down to just a few managers, that might be something of a tenuous conclusion.
A more sensible conclusion is that managers, whether or not they started at a former club, benefit from having experience lower down the Football League pyramid. Championship clubs evidently prefer experienced candidates, although that isn’t always the case.
While, at the moment Kit Symons at Fulham is the only club home-grown first time manager in the Championship, there are five others in their first professional managerial job; Paul Clement (Derby), Chris Ramsey (QPR), Lee Carsley (Brentford), Aitor Karanka (Middlesbrough) and Karl Robinson (MK Dons).
Of those, only Karanka and Clement were hired from outside the organisation and Carsley is a temporary appointment. Karanka and Clement both came to the division having been Real Madrid assistant manager, Karanka to Jose Mourinho and Clement to Carlo Ancelotti, so although both are rookie’s neither are exactlt inexperienced.
That leaves Robinson, Ramsey and Symons. Robinson has been MK Dons manager since 2010, and was previously assistant manager to Paul Ince and a coach at Liverpool and Blackburn. His was not a sentimental hire, rather a young coach being given an opportunity in testing circumstances. However, he still got his opportunity thanks to a club giving a chance to someone they were familiar with and is an example of how in-house appointments can succeed. However, MK Dons have been patient with Robinson and Milton Keynes isn’t exactly a pressure cooker environment for a manager.
So to answer my initial questions, was it a risk to appoint Symons? Yes, of course it was, appointing any rookie manager is a risk. Whether or not you believe he’s had the benefit of home-grown goodwill is a lot harder to answer and depends upon who you talk to – one man’s former hero is another man’s current public enemy. So while sentimentality definitely played a part in his appointment, as the data shows, that’s not unusual. How he’s treated as his managerial career progresses may well dictate whether or not sentimentality proves to be a good thing or a bad thing.
As a footnote, whilst we’re not currently in the market for a new manager, when we are it might be worth noting that Cambridge’s Richard Money and Swindon’s Mark Cooper are the only other Football League managers who have played for Fulham, while in Italy, our former striker Vincenzo Montella is currently without a club having left Fiorentina.
For now though, Symons is in his own way defying convention and regardless of anything else, it is human nature for us all to want him to do well.
If last week’s general election has taught us one thing, it’s that social media can often be a bit of an echo chamber. One opinion becomes the vocal majority. But is the vocal majority actually a majority?
In the case of Kit Symons’ future as Fulham manager I’m not sure. We know for sure that the vocal majority want the Fulham manager to be someone else, but is it actually a majority of Fulham fans that want Kit gone?
It certainly looks and sounds for now as though Symons is to remain Fulham manager; but what follows is an in-depth look at his performance as Fulham manager to date and the reasons people may or may not want him replaced.
Back to social media; what is so unique to the Symons situation is that there is much less vitriol in this debate than over the fates of previous managers such as Jol and Magath. Their departures were very much wanted sackings. In the current scenario, it is not so much that fans seem to want Symons sacked more that they just want somebody else to have his job. Symons is like a politician with a good personality and bad policies.
The Symons question is as much an existential one as it is one simply of results. After two lacklustre seasons in the Premier League that culminated in our relegation in 2014, the majority of the fans expected something better last year, both in terms of performance and results. Regardless of the start under Magath, it has been the lack of quality football under Symons that has led to his alienation as much as the results.
Symons’ tendency to revert to risk aversion in every situation led to some dour football at times, often manifesting itself in substitutions and tactics that seemed only to make sense to him. However, given our precarious position when he took over, was that justified? As paying customers we are several years removed from Fulham being classified as value for money entertainment, but Symons’ job last season was predicated on results and not entertainment – so did fulfil his job in keeping us up?
So here’s the crux of my question? Has Symons simply proven the victim of a poisoned chalice, where the situation meant he could never truly succeed or is he now in a hole of his own doing and at the limit of his managerial potential?
To answer that question we have to be both subjective and objective. As well as asking what do we as fans and paying customers want from our football team next season, and who is likely to be best placed to deliver those wishes?
There were three periods of management last season; Felix Magath, Kit Symons – Caretaker & Kit Symons – Manager. We know the first eight games under Magath were a disaster, so let’s write them off. So dividing Symons’ tenure into two, we have the eight games he was caretaker and the 37 he was permanent manager.
In order to assess whether or not he is the right man for Fulham going forward I will look at the following areas; Results, Performances, Style and Intangibles.
|Kit As Caretaker
||Average Points Per Game
|Kit As Manager
||Average Points Per Game
As you can see, results under Kit got considerably worse after he was appointment the permanent manager on 29th October. Interestingly enough, an average points total of 1.19 per game extrapolated over the course of the entire season would have had us finish in 17th, the same position as we actually did. The totals in the table above include the four cup fixtures we played under Symons after he became permanent manager. If you remove the cup fixtures, the PPG total becomes slightly higher at 1.21, which would still have had us finish 17th.
What can you conclude from that? Symons’ good start merely served to balance out Magath’s bad one. 17th was a justified league position based on the entire season. Yes, it was Magath’s squad so that must be taken into account, but with two loan windows and the January transfer window, Symons’ cannot be given a free pass. Symons’ had a total of 39 league games and we finished a thoroughly justified 17th.
One of the big accusations against Symons’ Fulham was our lackadaisical defending. To the naked eye, Symons, as a former defender, has shown a staggering lack of ability to get any improvement out of our defenders. Is that the case statistically and how much of this is down to them being the wrong players to begin with?
What is interesting is if you compare our goal difference over the two Symons periods:
|Kit as Caretaker
||Goals for per game
||Goals Against Per Game
|Kit as Manager
||Goals for per game
||Goals Against Per Game
In truth, the defence maintained a nearly identical level of performance throughout Symons’ entire tenure. However, the attack got considerably worse. If we delve even deeper into the numbers, it is possible to see that Fulham under Symons actually had a break even goal difference all the way until we played Blackburn at the end of January.
I find this worsening of performance particularly concerning as you would expect a team to perform better once a manager has had a time to coach and influence a team, especially considering the loan and transfer windows. However, under Symons, we got considerably worse once the initial gloss of his appointment wore off.
It was this performance over the latter half of the season that has turned many fans against him as there was simply no sign of any improvement, and certainly no sign of any coaching impact on his behalf.
If you believe the theory that luck and confidence played their part in his caretaker spell, these numbers might give your theory some credence.
One of the big criticisms levied at Symons is his lack of adventure. He is tactically the equivalent of a man who goes to an ice cream parlour and orders vanilla with no toppings. Worse than that though, at times the football under his leadership appeared to lack a coherent purpose or style other than trying to eke out as many points as possible. Symons’ philosophy was certainly one of the glass being half empty. Why enhance a lead when you can protect it?
However, the end of Fulham’s season was characterised by panic tactics. We were in trouble and needed points to keep us up. This led to Matt Smith’s recall from Bristol City and a change in style. If we compare Symons’ tenure as permanent manager when Smith started and when he didn’t, the results look particularly ominous:
|Games When Matt Smith starts
||Average Points Per Game
|Games When Matt Smith Doesn’t Start
||Average Points Per Game
When Matt Smith didn’t start, Fulham’s PPG total was 1.13, a 0.3 PPG fall from games when he did start. Considering it was Symons who loaned Smith out in the first place and then showed reluctance to use him, we can assume his eventual inclusion was out of desperation rather than desire.
When Symons played his tactics, i.e. not the emergency long ball to Smith, our PPG fell below his overall average PPG, meaning we were worse off results-wise when Symons was left to his own devices tactically.
Goal statistics don’t make for better reading:
|Matt Smith Starts
||Goals for per game
||Goals Against Per Game
|Matt Smith Doesn’t Start
||Goals for per game
||Goals Against Per Game
Stylistically this doesn’t bode well for Kit. With Smith, we play a tighter, simpler and more controlled game (long ball doesn’t exactly take much instruction). We score less but we concede less. Simply put, we are boring, but reasonably effective.
Without Smith, we are a bit more interesting, but considerably worse. Symons systematically failed to strike any kind of balance between style and substance. This is something most of us could have said without statistical evidence. Our football was rarely aesthetically pleasing and Symons never really showed any grasp of consistent tactics. The obsession with a narrow diamond formation was a particular failing. Tactically it fast became one game to the next, survive and protect. Considering our start that’s hardly surprising, but it was very bad to watch at times.
This is where the debate becomes personal and very subjective. There are some fans who just don’t like sacking managers, while there are undoubtedly some who do. There are some fans that’ll defend Symons because he is a “Fulham man”, there are others, myself included, who feel that shouldn’t come into it.
However, there are several other unquantifiable intangibles to Symons’ management style that will contribute to his judgement:
A) Stalled development – I’m not going to claim that with Roberts and Dembele playing 40 games we’d have won the league, far from it. However, Pat Roberts played 450 minutes over the course of the entire season, and Dembele 575. That’s less time than it would take to sit through the entire Hobbit trilogy. How on earth are they going to develop into a position where he can help us next season by playing so little this year? The same can be said of George Williams, Moussa Dembele and several others, such as Jack Grimmer who was dropped in favour of a loanee who was not discernibly better. All the while 21 year old Sean Kavanagh played over 20 games despite largely floundering.
B) Favouritism – Symons’ inconsistent and at times “teacher’s pet” style of team selection certainly wound up a large proportion of the Craven Cottage crowd. Players like Jazz Richards, Kavanagh and Tunnicliffe were all at times shown favouritism that was hard to comprehend. On the reverse, the likes of Chris David, Roberts, Dembele and Matt Smith were often cast aside without warning.
C) Square Pegs in Round Holes – McCormack as a left midfielder, Tunnicliffe as a winger, Kavanagh as midfielder, Bodurov as a right back. Symons’ team selections were often hampered by a lack of players to choose from and littered with players playing out of position. How many more points would we have gotten should Ross have played the entire season up front? Why did Kit both refuse to play with width and then not sign a single winger?
D) Hands in the Pockets – This is a minor point, but I’d really like a manager who is less passive during the matches. Contemplative can begin to look like cluelessness if it’s your only move.
E) The Smile – this isn’t a list of reasons he’s not the man. If we play well, Kit and his enthusiastic smile are very easy to like. We just didn’t play well often enough.
F) The Squad – our squad balance was poor last season, but Symons had opportunities to re-shape it and didn’t set the world alight with his choices. However, the summer is the best time to buy and sell players. Does Kit deserve a summer window? Or indeed will he get to control the squad framework even if he does stay on? With Mike Rigg controlling talent identification now, there is an argument to say having a good coach as the manager is more important than ever. Is Symons that man?
G) Experience – Kit Symons’ managerial career is 37 games old so let’s not put the cart before the horse and call his career over. However, he’s had several seasons managing at youth level so we’re not talking about an ex-player taking the immediate leap. If Kit stays in his post and shows signs of learning from last season then I’m all for giving him a chance. However, there is a school of thought that suggests 37 games is more than enough to show your capabilities.
H) Substitutions – I’ve alluded to this above, but Symons’ biggest flaw in the eyes of many fans is his mis-use of substitutions. Either he wouldn’t use them or he’d be defensive. The very few times we did manage to see the likes of Woodrow, Williams, McCormack and Roberts on the field together were electric, but all too few and far between. The conundrum facing fans and ownership alike, was this risk aversion a product of circumstance? For all our sake I hope so.
I look at the current situation as an opportunity. We must decide whether or not Symons is the man to help develop and implement a strategy to return Fulham to the Premier League. As a club, we must stop being reactionary and start to get ahead of the curve. If Symons stays on just because people felt “he deserved a chance”, only to lead us on to the path to 17th next season and get sacked, then we as a club will have failed. No ifs and no buts.
Do I think he deserves that chance?
Symons was the right man at the right time after Magath. The players and fans needed a smile, a hug and their hands held. Symons did that, and we stayed up, but next season is an opportunity for a clean break from recent failings and, for me, that includes a fresh start at manager as well.
I think for Kit to actually be sacked would be mighty harsh considering his modus operandi last season. I’d like to think the club might make room for him to stay either as an assistant or back in the youth ranks where he succeeded before. Or I’d love for Kit to admit his own limitations and step back into a reduced role, but I think we all know he’d be too proud to do so.
This summer is a time to grab our future as a club by its undercarriage and take control. That might mean being ruthless. Just look at Norwich, they were in a very similar situation to us 12 months ago and let one of their own, Neil Adams, stay on as manager last summer only to dismiss him during the season as results didn’t improve. They now sit 180 minutes from a return to the Premier League.
No longer can Fulham amble on the path to mediocrity. Starting from the top, Fulham must come out of this summer with confidence and a clear, united message. If that means Kit Symons is manager then I hope and expect him to show a willingness to learn and the club to show him support whilst displaying progress on and off the field. If they do that, then they have my full support and I suspect they’ll have yours too. However, if this is simply another risk not taken, another stride towards the middle ground, then the club is on a hiding to nothing and it won’t take them long to find that out.
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.
The announcement this week of contract extensions for both George Williams and Cameron Burgess, the latter of whom immediately went on loan to Scottish side Ross County, comes as most welcome news for Fulham fans.
This season can so far be best described as a voyage of discovery. We are in a new league, with new players and a new manager against new opposition in new stadiums set amid a background of new, ever changing expectations. There have been some new lows and a few new highs (who knew a 3-3 draw at Rotherham could mean so much!). Are we getting promoted this season? No we’re not. Are Kit’s substitutions and tactics sometimes frustrating? Yes they are. Do we need to panic buy this month? Absolutely not.
Of course, should the right player who could help bring this club forward for the future become available, then of course we should move to bring them in. However, for the first transfer window in recent memory, it is not the potential incomings that are bothering me.
Fulham’s best hope of sustainably rebuilding and re-establishing ourselves a division up is to keep and develop our talented young players. In truth, expectations on most of these youngsters are so high, that even if half of them come close to reaching their full potential, we would have a side more than capable of reaching, and staying in the Premier League.
Our goal for now is staying in the Championship with enough time to spare so that the young players can get progressively more game time as the season comes to a close. At the moment, too many of the youngsters’ development is being restricted to 5 minutes off the substitutes bench because the senior players aren’t getting the job done and games can’t be risked.
The most fun time to watch Fulham is if we are winning and somehow we end up with Christensen, Woodrow, Roberts and Williams all on the pitch together. But we have a risk averse manager and are not, unfortunately, often in a position for such frivolity.
The problem though, and this is the perennial conundrum with player development, is that many of the young players simply aren’t ready to play 90 minutes week in week out. Yet in order to develop to a point where they are ready, they must play games. It is a catch 22 scenario. You see why Kit Symons, a manager who himself is learning his craft, is almost on a hiding to nothing?
Let’s look at the players individually; of the homegrown young players, the only ones who have really stepped up this season are Lasse Vigen Christensen, Marcus Bettinelli and Jack Grimmer. It is of no coincidence that these are the ones for whom game time has been the most consistent. None were in the side at the start of the season but all will be mainstays for years to come as long as they don’t leave. Christensen is the particular standout and the Danish Energizer Bunny’s form has seen him linked with Aston Villa in the tabloids. In years to come he shall surely play at a higher level but for now, the best place for him is being the first name on the Fulham team sheet.
Grimmer is a particularly interesting case study. In and around the squad under Martin Jol because of a dearth of right backs, he was sent out on loan last season to Port Vale where he excelled. This season he was sent out again, to League Two table toppers Shrewsbury Town, where he once more excelled. He was recalled to Fulham after goal machine Tim Hoogland suffered a hernia. After struggling to adapt in his first few games, Grimmer has noticeably stepped up in recent weeks. Each passing game is evidently having a positive effect on both his confidence and his abilities. The particularly adept way he marshalled Bakary Sako of Wolves in the FA Cup a fortnight ago was telling considering Sako had run riot on us back in August. If he continues at this rate, Jack will be in the Scotland squad before the year is out.
Why then, have these three particularly stepped up? It is not a matter of loan experience, for Christensen has none at all and he is our best player, Ross McCormack aside. Age, and more specifically, maturity, might hold the key. For George Williams, Patrick Roberts, Emerson Hyndman and Moussa Dembele, all of whom have shown glimpses of what their future holds, this season may have simply come a year too soon.
Williams and Roberts are both exceptional and exciting attacking talents. Williams has several full Wales caps to his name and Roberts is the golden child. Yet neither is quite ready to take the league by storm. When you consider they were playing in the FA Youth Cup less than a year ago, is that really surprising? When given starts, both players have bright spells but appear to go missing for long spells. As explosive attackers, their strengths are about taking defenders on. You simply cannot do that for 90 minutes.
Roberts in particular still has a lot to learn about the nuances of 90 minutes at senior level. Yet at the moment, his development is not going as fast as we’d like because he only really gets on for a few minutes at a time, if he’s lucky. Hyndman benefits from being a part of the US Youth National Team set up with additional games and training camps. Others, like Roberts, Williams and Dembele appear to need a more structured development plan. Not 90 minutes every week, but consistent and increasing game time off the bench.
For the young attackers, the maturity and composure required to develop into regular starters will only come with regular game time. However, this cannot be at the expense of the team whilst they are still developing. It is all very well and good learning when to shoot, but we must stay up, so some of those shots need to go in, hence the catch-22.
Dembele, for example, appears to have an issue with his composure. If he acts on instinct, and instinct alone, he is as lethal as he was at junior level [see the Derby cup defeat where he scored 2]. Yet if he has time to think, he has not yet played enough games and scored enough goals at this level to know the correct decision to make. He will only get this experience by playing games, something he is not, and will not do as our 4th choice centre forward.
We could send him on loan, but as Huw Jennings has said, not every player has the personality for a loan spell some are better suited to staying under the watchful eyes of their existing coaches. We also won’t send anyone on loan unless there is a realistic chance they will play regularly. With Fulham traditionally wanting (if not always successfully) to play a certain way, and with the young players bread in our youth sides to play passing football, would a loan in the rough ‘em tough ‘em lower leagues really do them any good? It is why defenders and goalkeepers often get loaned, but we have been hesitant to send out our creative players.
There are other players whose development is coming along nicely. Cauley Woodrow for example is progressing into a very good player. As the 3rd choice striker he has had semi regular game time this season to go with his loan at Southend last year. He has all the technical attributes to succeed, and given experience and some physical enhancements that come with age, strength and speed etc, he is well on course.
Others like Sean Kavanagh have been a pleasant surprise, and will only benefit from continued interaction with the first team. While others, such as Dan Burn, seem to have stagnated. In Burn’s case, his decline has allowed for Shaun Hutchinson to emerge out of the shadow of his early struggles. At centre back though, we still have Cameron Burgess and Liam Donnelly in the ranks, even if they’ve been lost in the system for the last few months.
There is no formula for successfully developing young players. Between Symons and academy director Huw Jennings, we have the staff in place to practice the alchemy required to strike the right balance with our youngsters, but it remains a crucial and fragile process. The loss of Steve Wigley to Nottingham Forest has clearly hindered the Academy, as has the loss of the majority of their players to the first team where we are seeing several years graduates all at once.
While most successful teams might carry one, two or even three young players in their regular squad, Fulham have gone Full Boyle and flooded the team with them. Coupled with the fact we have the likes of Alex Kacaniklic, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Shaun Hutchinson and Kostas Stafylidis, all of whom are still relatively inexperienced, no wonder there has been a heavy burden on the senior players.
So this January, instead of bringing in yet more new faces, I would like to see Fulham concentrate on doing whatever can be done to further progress the players we do have. Securing them on new contracts, like with Williams and Burgess, is the place to start. It both engenders confidence in the player and provides us with a level of security should the vultures begin to circle.
Our best hope long term is to keep this young squad together and to make sure they progress and develop. If we do, it will be a better investment than any signing could be.
Oh and can Chris David be allowed back in?