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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

Strategic Improvements

To spend or not to spend?

Ah the eternal question facing the football fan in the summer. To be pleased with what your side has done, or to always focus on what they are yet to do.

This is the dilemma facing not just Fulham fans at the moment, but probably those inside the club as well. With a around 3 weeks remaining until another fraught summer transfer window comes to a close, it is the question that will be on all our minds for some while yet.

The dilemma permeating my Fulham obsessed brain is that while the business done so far is actually very good, it is all a little underwhelming. Adel Taarabt is a signing I championed here over a month ago, but as a loan signing with no clarity on whether there’s a purchase option, he is frankly not the marquee name a billionaire takeover should merit.

It was actually Martin Jol’s post match comments following the 1-2 defeat to Parma on Saturday that really hit a nerve. He said that should we sign no more players we would have a season exactly like the last one. Well, firstly I’d argue that is not true, as the sea of teams around us has improved markedly over the summer, and secondly, Martin’s memory must be hazy as last season was all a little too close to call relegation-wise for all of our collective hearts.

I hate to be reactionary voice in our collective quagmire of nervousness, but in these long summer months, a day without a whisper or a rumour feels like a week, and the two months between Maarten Stekelenburg’s signing and Taarabt’s unveiling felt like the Hundred Years War.

With the season mere days away, there is at least, some solace in the inactivity of other teams to counter act the schizophrenic commotion of others. Indeed, were I a Newcastle fan I would be rightfully using these pages to launch a diatribe against the ineffective and dawdling ponderousness of Joe Kinnear, whereas the casual Sunderland fan might indeed be worrying about how Paolo Di Canio will get his cavalcade of mercenaries [10 new signings and counting] to play as a team.

For a team like Fulham, the summer transfer window needs to be about strategic improvement, not wholesale changes. There is however, a balance that must be struck. Queens Park Rangers were relegated last season after signing too many of the wrong players, while Reading were relegated after signing too few of the right ones.

Following the departure of Mark Schwarzer, Fulham have signed world cup finalist Stekelenburg. This should be an upgrade with Schwarzer’s performances slowly declining, but Maarten was largely benched at Roma last season and may take a while to really show his class so the question marks will linger a little longer.

Adel Taarabt is largely a replacement for Urby Emmanuelson who spent the latter portion of last season on loan from AC Milan and only began to really show his talent towards the end of his spell in White. Derek Boateng is a replacement for Eyong Enoh, another successful loanee, whilst also absorbing some of Mahammadou Diarra’s workload. Whilst the capture of Fernando Amorebieta is impressive, the only out and out strategic upgrade, there are still both holes in the squad to fill and major pinpointed strategic upgrades necessary.

With Mladen Petric yet to be replaced and no sign of Marcello Trotta being promoted, there is a gaping hole in the strikeforce. No matter how many games Hugo Rodallega is given, there will still be a gaping hole up front until a striker of genuine quality is signed or a youngster is given a chance. When you also consider that Chris Baird and Simon Davies have left, and Stanislav Manolev has not been signed following his loan, there are still other openings in our squad to be filled, and that’s without that all important central midfield playmaker we all know is missing.

By my reckoning then, that leaves two full backs (a reserve right back and potential starter at left back), a central midfielder and a centre forward still to come in. The central midfielder and the striker both need to be of a calibre good enough to force their way into the starting line-up, as without them this summer cannot be classified as a significant period of wholesale upgrade.

All this aside, and I still have both faith and hope. Still Believe we sang. Still Believe I do.

Where Fulham are concerned, transfers are done behind closed doors. Were it not for a leak onto a QPR messageboard, there is a chance none of us would have got a sniff of the Taarabt deal until he was seen holding up the Fulham shirt. Indeed, in his interview with Sarah Brookes following his arrival, he stated that negotiations took around 3 weeks. That means for all we know, Fulham most likely have engaged their major targets already, and the future is looking brighter, even IF we just can’t see it yet. [Since I wrote this news of a possible new signing this week has broken]

There is also a larger point to be made. Shahid Khan has arrived as new owner with the well-rehearsed mantra of sustainability the central tenet of his message to supporters and journalists alike. Well, for a club like Fulham, a significant method for self-sustainability is the development of young players into saleable assets. The Udinese model of ‘develop-and-flog’ is perhaps a drastic example, but the process of scouting, signing and playing young talent can make a club a lot of money and excite the fans in one fell swoop. Constantly signing players whose value cannot possibly rise over the course of their Fulham career, or those whose value can rise, but for another parent club to benefit, shows a level of short termism that is tantamount to hypocrisy from a club preaching sustainability.

Winston Churchill said that “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results”. The results of last season indicated that there was no strategy. Now is the time for Fulham to make that statement, to execute their strategy and to put in place the on-field structure that the growth and performance off it dictates. Sustainable growth though may just require some speculation.

Onto the Stadium of Light.

COYW