Fighting FFP

Image: The Times

Financial fair play has caused a summer of excitement and high expectations to give way to a familiar sinking feeling ahead of a Premier League season…

The club continue to score PR own goals despite coming off the back of the most successful season under Khan ownership. Fulham are fortunate to have a wealthy and clearly generous owner. Things could be far worse, as a glance at Derby County or Blackpool would prove. But under the current regime, frustration is abound at the seeming lack of lessons learned from previous mistakes. Recruitment is the constant among a myriad of gripes, and it would now appear that poor strategy in the past, is impacting the present, beyond just the transfer market. People with far more knowledge of football finances than myself, had warned that Fulham’s FFP position was tight and there was very little room for manoeuvre in the market. The sale of Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa bought some breathing space but, it seems, not enough.

While fans were still hopeful of a successful window, anticipation for the first game of the season was high, despite the daunting prospect of a visit from Liverpool. Upon the announcement of ticket prices, there was widespread outrage at the extortionate cost of attending The Cottage for the Premier League curtain raiser. Having been fed the rhetoric of football being nothing without fans, a near 100% increase on ticket prices in the Hammersmith End, while fans navigate a cost of living crisis, had many supporters feeling undervalued and exploited by the clubs hierarchy. In the aftermath Shahid Khan participated in a very friendly interview with the clubs official media channel, FFC TV, where he mentioned the need for the club to generate revenue in order to satisfy FFP regulations. He lamented the framework and inferred that it was the reason for an increase in ticket prices, while he referenced the newly developed Riverside Stand. It seemed to be a thinly-veiled excuse. Admittedly, for a club the size of Fulham, ticket revenue is more influential than it is for a brand as strong as Manchester United, but there is no equation that justifies charging around 3000 fans, double the cost of a ticket just three months after sealing promotion. It was the first own goal of the summer. The suggestion from the supporters trust recent meeting, is that there could yet be more such instances.

Ultimately, Fulham find themselves in this situation because of a terrible strategy around transfers in previous seasons. As far back as 2018, the club has splashed out on players that, aside from Anguissa, have provided no financial return. Alfie Mawson departed this summer after the culmination of his contract. Michael Hector did the same, as did the rehabilitated Jean Micheal Seri. Other players that have been bought are now no longer part of the current managers plans, with the club reportedly open to offers for eight-figure expenses Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert. Neither of the wingers appear to have any takers at present, while Terrence Kongolo is expected to go out on loan following two years and one league appearance.

It all means that every deal is now being negotiated to within an penny of the clubs capabilities, and has led to a difficult window, and more importantly, a less than ideal pre-season for Marco Silva and his staff. Following the final pre-season friendly Silva stated that the players at his disposal are ready for the challenge ahead, but that the squad was not equipped with the necessary depth. Entering the week ahead of the big kick off with two senior centre-backs doesn’t seem to be from a lack of trying, there have been many links and reported discussions, but the club is in a weak negotiating position. Selling clubs know the need for a new central defender is extremely high, and will demand high fees. Fees the club cannot commit to due to walking a financial tightrope of their own making. 

The tightrope was so perilous, that when the opportunity to bypass paying a fee for Manor Solomon, the club took advantage of an upcoming FIFA ruling to land the Israeli winger on a one-year deal for effectively nothing. The cycle continues however, as Fulham will not see a financial return should Solomon decide his future lies elsewhere should he impress in West London. Even if The Whites survive, Solomon is due to return to Shaktar Donetsk, at which point he will be free to negotiate a free transfer with any club of his choosing, and join them upon the expiry of his current contract with the Ukrainian club in the winter. More likely, a club will negotiate a reduced fee with Shaktar for a player in the last six-months of his deal. Fulham’s negotiating position will again be weaker than their competitors, due to the desire to save on what was an already reduced fee. 

The situation in Ukraine makes this deal a moral issue too. Capitalising on conflict in another country shows the club are willing to put finances before anything else, and it would appear that previous failings are influencing contemporary decisions. Beyond that, there is the questionable sponsor that will adorn the shirt this season. There isn’t much to know about W88 beyond the concerns of some reputable journalists. Sponsorship is a tricky subject because ultimately the club has to get the best deal possible. The truth is that in the current climate, the club can’t afford to be picky, and for some of the fan base, this is another blot on the copybook of the powers that be.

So much for the friendly, family club that many an opposing fan has a “soft spot” for. Fulham has never been the most successful, but the nature of the lab has always felt rather wholesome, even if that is used mockingly by others. Players of the past have mentioned it, pundits often refer to it, and fans take pride in it. When Fulham paid more than the was necessary to secure Antonee Robinson from Wigan in the wake of their relegation, they were generally lauded by fans of both clubs. We’re a long way from that now.

There can be no contesting that a full pre-season and game time would have benefited Solomon, and thus Fulham. Especially in the wake of the news that last seasons chief provider of goal scoring opportunities, Harry Wilson, appears to be out for the start of the new campaign. A well prepared Solomon would certainly have softened that injury blow. But Silva was at pains to point out that Solomon has not had the required game time in preseason because of the registration rules around his one-year acquisition. When it appeared the deal was agreed prior to the summer, fan frustration becomes even more understandable. 

Fans for their part have been somewhat understanding of the importance of value for money. When it became apparent that Liverpool were willing to price Neco Williams out of a stay in SW6, fans accepted that a near £20million fee for rotation player was probably too much. The club found another option in Kevin Mbabu, but the Swiss international has only played six minutes of preseason football in a white shirt. Getting Mbabu for a more affordable price meant waiting longer for his arrival. 

Further deals that appear to have been held up due to the financial situation include Bernd Leno and Issa Diop. Leno would be an undoubted upgrade on The Cottagers current options between the sticks, and having him in to gel with his shallow back line could have proven invaluable. Alas, the saga continues into August, with Fulham trying to convince Arsenal to release the German international for a reduced fee. Diop is another who’s club have made it apparently clear how much compensation they expect in order to part with their asset. In normal circumstances the club may have accepted that they will have to pay a premium in their position, and that premium can more than justify itself by providing the all-important time it gives the coaches and the squad to prepare. Money can buy time in this instance. Experience tells us that there is no time to waste, while Alastair MacIntosh and Tony Khan are of the opinion that Fulham cannot afford time. 

In the summer of 2018 Fulham spent big, and brought in players throughout the window, but crucially, a significant number arrived late in the window. The same happened in 2020, but with significantly less outlay. Money had already been spent on the aforementioned Cavaleiro and Knockaert, as well as the reliable Bobby Decordova-Reid. Late business led to early relegation. Fellow west Londoners, Brentford lost just one of their first seven league games en route to Premier League survival. That buffer allowed them to survive a mid season slump in which they went winless in eight. Of their ten summer arrivals, seven arrived at least three weeks before the season started, and only two joined The Bees after their first game of the season. That doesn’t feel like a coincidence. 

We are now at the point where late business is better than no business. Marco Silva will be hoping that it is late, rather than later.