Despite the fact that the new season is very much at an embryonic stage, concerns about the direction Fulham FC are moving in are starting to arise amongst supporters. In fact, were you to log on to a messageboard on Sunday evening after the abject performance and defeat by Wolverhampton Wanderers and you would think the team had just lost a end-of-season relegation decider, that our fate was sealed and the doomsday scenario of relegation lay before us.
Whilst this is perhaps indicative of the highly exaggerated and over-emotional reactions found on almost any football forum, the fact is there is certainly some grounding in the worries of some supporters. It is not so much down to the team’s on-pitch performances; although it is true that we have hardly been impressive in any of our matches so far, most fans understand that Martin Jol will need time to familiarise himself with the squad and work out its strengths and weaknesses, and vice versa the players need to acclimatise themselves with the way he wants his team to play. Indeed, our previous two managers both had difficult starts, and very few would convincingly argue that either was anything but a success.
So whilst Jol’s somewhat baffling decisions to play Aaron Hughes at right back and to start the increasingly laboured-looking Dickson Etuhu over the Steve Sidwell can be tolerated with a small dose of the benefit of the doubt, what is abundantly obvious is that the squad needs investment. Most notable are the limitations of Jol’s frontline options; Zamora seems to really be struggling with fitness, Johnson is hard-working and useful when playing off a partner but is totally ineffective on his own, and Moussa Dembele, whilst listed on the squad page as a striker, isn’t really one at all. Despite being linked with a whole host of centre forwards over the past few weeks (Jerome, Cole, Ruiz, Cisse, Borriello), nothing has materialised and time is beginning to run out. It would be crazy to go into the season with our current striking options, particularly considering the rigours the Europa League will likely place on the squad. Whilst Dempsey managed to step up and fill the goalscoring void left by Zamora’s absence last season, it is risky to expect him to do it again. Quite simply, at least one striker is needed before the window closes in a week’s time.
The frustration inspired by the squad’s perceived thinness is heightened by the club’s apparently frugal spending policy. Reports of ‘half-bids’, from FC Twente referring to an offer for winger Nacer Chadli, are likely to provoke much eye-rolling and sighing from supporters who, since being bank-rolled to the Premier League by Al-Fayed’s millions, have been forced to accept that the expenditure has had to be reined in. There is no arguing with the logic; after all, the club has a noose of £150-200m debt around its neck, a fact that most seem to deal with by simply ignoring it and assuming it will all work out ok, but one day the club will have to move onwards without Al-Fayed’s financial backing propping it up. Attempts to make the club self-sufficient will no doubt be applauded by supporters, but nevertheless the club cannot afford to be negligent in terms of player recruitment. From the outside, it seems that there must be more money available; the club haven’t really granted significant spending on players since Hodgson’s first summer in charge in 2008 (when Andy Johnson was signed for circa £8m), around £10m was received for Chris Smalling from Man United in 2010, plus there’s the money earned from getting to the Europa League final. Added to the usual incomes budgeted for, such as Sky money and gate receipts, and fans’ frustrations at the unwillingness to pay the necessary transfer fees to attract quality players become more understandable. Mark Hughes walked out on the club because he didn’t feel they would sufficiently back him in the transfer market, and the lack of significant arrivals have perhaps vindicated his decision somewhat.
It certainly feels that Fulham are currently standing at a crossroads. Three years of almost unprecedented success under the guidance of Roy Hodgson and Mark Hughes have left the club in a healthier position than ever – comfortably established in the Premier League, recognised throughout Europe for the incredible Europa League run, a highly-reputed manager and, of course, European football. All this has been done on a relatively meagre investment, but the consequences are starting to come home to roost; key players are all getting old together and, whilst Jol has begun the process of bringing in young players to eventually replace the old guard, the process is unlikely to be easy or cheap. The club can either invest more to consolidate and further build upon the strong position in which we find ourselves, or continue with their prudency and jeopardise the good work that has been done so far. The distinct impression gained is that the next seven days will be very revealing as to the extent of the club’s ambitions.