Just over six years ago, Fulham faced an impressive Atlético Madrid in the final of the Europa League, but this summer the club will once again prepare for life in England’s second tier, their third successive season at this level.
Long gone are the glory days at Fulham when the club regularly competed for places in the upper half of the Premier League, and the next chapter begins as new Head Coach, Slavisa Jokanovic looks set to be given the green light on another overhaul of the club’s playing staff.
Previous marquee signings such as Kostas Mitroglou, Moussa Dembele and Ross McCormack may all depart in the close season, leaving the club with the unenviable task of once again trying to build a squad that is capable of getting out of this division. Financial Fair Play restrictions mean that even the financial backing of Shahid Khan doesn’t allow Jokanovic to spend as freely as he may like.
In recent years, there have been quite a few surprise sides making the promotion and playoff spots – AFC Bournemouth took the league by storm through honest application and endeavour in the absence of any stand-out performers, while this season Brighton narrowly missed out on automatic promotion despite their relatively low transfer budget and wage bill.
Teams that have reached the Holy Grail of promotion to the top flight in recent seasons have provided an alternative blueprint for success, greatly at odds with the supposed formula for success employed by recently relegated teams. While QPR and more recently Hull and Middlesbrough have tried to rocket launch themselves out of the Championship by financially obliterating all who cross them, the same ends can be achieved with some imagination and sound succession planning. Could this be a more suitable path for Fulham to follow?
A back-to-basics approach could suit Fulham this year, as well as the wherewithal to realise that promotion is ultimately now a project that could last as long as the club’s time spent in the Championship to date.
Manager upheaval has created a conveyor-belt of starters meaning that any long-term momentum is easily lost and difficult to regain. The reality is that the Fulham squad has been bloated with players that are all of similar ability or position. Each manager will have his favourites while players that started in previous regimes are shunted to the fringes and often cause more disruption to the squad than good. Players like Jazz Richards featured heavily under Kit Symons, were openly criticized by Jokanovic, casting his long-term future in doubt. A £1m signing, which no longer serves any purpose under the current regime. Noticeably, consistency in player selection was the same reason why Leicester City won the Premier League this year. It allows the players to have good relationships off the pitch, so that positioning and understanding of what’s around them becomes a second nature, rather than worrying if they will be picked next week and scared of making a mistake. Not only that, but Fulham need a real sense of leadership pumped back into the squad. Too many times Fulham’s heads have dropped or simply played with one tactic throughout a game, rather than trying to establish something different. While, the change must come from the manager, the players have to stand up and be counted – if there is a lack of leadership on the pitch, who can the players turn to for guidance and inspiration. While, some may discuss that Scott Parker is too old to offer the club anything on the pitch, his experience and leadership has a clear effect on the side. Whenever he is on the pitch, he constantly barks instructions and plays with his heart on his sleeve and that attitude is infectious. It’s that pure passion and love for the game, that earns points.
The success of Roy Hodgson’s men in Europe was solely down to the fact that he had consistent set of 15 players. Under Roy Hodgson you could predict the starting eleven each week as the side had a style and system that was well drilled from the first day of Roy’s reign. While that may have been quite direct, Fulham were a defensive regiment and knew how to counter. It was successful and was performed excellently by the squad due to the leaders on the pitch. Fulham had numerous leaders in this squad, with players who had either captained at a former club, or captained their national side Players like Brede Hangeland, Chris Baird, Aaron Hughes & Damien Duff had all captained former sides or international teams, and they constantly ensured instructions were carried throughout the squad, ensuring that everyone in a Fulham shirt battled until the last kick. That passion, leadership and managerial expertise was clearly demonstrated when Fulham beat Juventus 4-1 when everyone had written them off in the build up to the game. That desire to comeback and progress has been missing for a number of years now, and the re-build has to start from the top. The board must ensure that the right characters are brought into the club at every level, and the belief that anything is possible flows around the club.
I do strongly believe that this is slowly happening at Fulham. Slavisa Jokanovic has been recruited, who has an impressive CV and will be heavily backed this summer. While, new board level staff have been recruited, with Casper Stylsvig being poached from Manchester United to help with the financial running of the club. For those of you unaware of Casper, he has been behind some of the most lucrative sponsorship deals in football – including Barcelona’s partnership with Unicef. Both of these appointments bring a high calibre of expertise to the club, and while the next chapter of rebuilding may take few years, the right steps to a brighter future are being taken.
As always, the end will justify the means. Fulham need to sustain a top ten finish to build upon the following year, and how that is achieved is not a concern of the club, even if disgruntled fans may expect champagne football in a beer and cider league. At the end of the day, you only have to look at Stoke City to realise that once you become a stable Premier League side, you can change your style and players due to the Financial power that the Premier League offers to clubs. Rebuilding projects take time, and despite Fulham completing rebuilding their squad for the past two summers, they need to build a core squad to develop and strengthen over the next two seasons. Just like Stoke City’s rise in the Premier League, they had squad built of leaders and characters which guaranteed them Premier League safety for a number of years, securing vital financial opportunities and European football, which in turn provided them with the funds to revamp their style of play and attract bigger name players along the way. While Fulham may be backed by the wealthy, Shahid Khan, patience is more important than money at this moment. Fulham need to have a plan for the next few seasons rather than expecting to turn it around with just another summer overhaul.
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