It’s been a highly frustrating season for us Fulham fans, having to stay away from the Cottage for so long, all whilst watching on helplessly as we completed an unwanted hat trick of relegations in 3 consecutive Premier League seasons.
When the drop was confirmed, Parker mentioned the word ‘rollercoaster’ several times in his Burnley post-match interview and I suppose it is an appropriate analogy: it’s had a few ups; plenty of downs; and we’ve reached the end feeling distinctly nauseous!
The only way we are going to cure this yo-yo syndrome is if we resolve the problems at their roots. Here is my take on our Director of Football, our Head Coach, the club’s transfer policy and a proposed solution, so that we may one day (preferably in the not-too-distant future) get off this ride to nowhere…
TONY KHAN – DIRECTOR OF FOOTBALL
It seems quite telling that several managers have tried to keep us up during our past 2 Premier League campaigns and none of them came even close to being successful. This does pose the question, can they really all be that bad? The problem must be bigger than the head coach and more to do with how the club operates as a whole.
We recently recorded a podcast to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Tigana promotion season, which was of course under the ownership of Mohammed Al Fayed. Kit Symons was a guest on the show and something he said when explaining why he joined the club really stuck in my head: “Although we were in the third tier and weren’t exactly the biggest club in the world, you wouldn’t have thought it because the club was run so professionally.” There’s no denying that Al Fayed was a character but when it came to the football side of things, I always felt that he employed experienced people who were best qualified to either advise and/or make the big decisions for him.
I ask myself if I think there’s another club in this country who would have appointed Tony Khan as a Director of Football? The answer is such an emphatic NO that the more I think about it, the more ridiculous our reality becomes. To make matters worse, he also has significant roles at the Jaguars and AEW! I find it astonishing that someone overseeing such a big position at the club with so much responsibility can be allowed to juggle 3 jobs, which could be full-time roles on their own. I don’t know how this time is split but that is irrelevant as the Director of Football should have no other distractions to compromise his time, no matter how much he suggests that he’s a workaholic.
To top it off, his use of social media to address the fans has been embarrassing at times, especially considering his role at the club and I don’t see how that relationship can ever be recovered. I’ve seen people criticising that he hasn’t tweeted about Fulham for several weeks as if it’s a bad thing. Don’t complain! I don’t see how it has ever done anything but throw petrol on a fire and I would encourage him to keep a low profile because the whole situation has become very tiring, as well as often embarrassing.
In an ideal world, Tony Khan would step down completely but it seems very unrealistic to even suggest it.
To an extent, I can see the benefit of using stats. A compromise that could work for all parties is for Tony to remain in charge of the stats operation but be demoted into a background role as an additional pair of hands when stats searches are required. The final decision should be made by a Director of Football who has been involved in the game for a long time and can work with Scott Parker, offering the judgement required to find players who fit the footballing philosophy that Fulham have been trying to build.
It’s not essential that they have a connection with the club but having an added awareness of the clubs history can certainly do no harm. I’ve suggested John Collins in the past as someone who ticks many boxes for this position and I stand by this. Having been a top student at the Tigana school of total football, firstly with Monaco and subsequently, Fulham, John has both a passion and a very good understanding for the brand of football that made the 2000/01 season so iconic.
When you factor in Brexit, it’s going to be difficult to sign hidden gems, playing in the lower leagues across Europe, because in most cases they won’t be eligible for a work permit. This will make player development from the academy into the first team another area we need to maintain. Ensuring we keep the right balance of quality over quantity in the first team squad, to keep a pathway open for youngsters to break through. John was essentially a mentor in a team full of experienced players and we saw how Sean Davis made giant leaps in 2000/01 from a boy to a man alongside the guidance of John in midfield.
I’ve always considered Fulham to be slow in the transfer market and the Brexit dilemma will also make it important to be one step ahead of other clubs when it comes to scouting in this country, as homegrown players will become more in demand. John has a wealth of experience and knowledge of the English and Scottish leagues and has had spells in the past as a Director of Football and a Manager.
Surely someone who had a successful career as a player, has been in the managers shoes before and was the go to player/coach when the total football messiah, Jean Tigana joined Fulham, is more qualified for the position than someone who just happens to be related to the owner of the football club?
THE TRANSFER POLICY
A lot of the signings made this season have appeared to be good on paper, making our business somewhat easy on the eye. Admittedly, I was quite content with the players brought in and felt that most of them improved the squad significantly. However, when you dig a bit deeper and think about the type of players we are bringing in or how they can be assembled into one system that suits all, suddenly it becomes a lot more disjointed than it first appears and the type of mistakes that you wouldn’t expect a DOF with an understanding of the game to make.
Far too often we look for short term solutions and leave the squad lop-sided. An example of the lop-sidedness would be putting all your eggs in Mitro’s basket, which was a gamble in itself. We all know that he’s a striker who thrives on crosses, so why would you follow that up by signing Cavaleiro, Knockaert and Lookman whose trademark is to cut in and shoot rather than cross? It’s also one of the biggest weaknesses of Antonee Robinson’s game, whilst Tete is more defensive minded. For 2 seasons, we haven’t signed any wide players who are suited to giving Mitro the service he wants and invariably needs. Where is the logic in that?
This forced Scott’s hand into reverting to a counter attacking style. If he didn’t have the tools to suit Mitro, he had to find another way to get the best out of the other attack-minded players in the squad. It worked in spurts but highlighted their inability to convert chances. Either way, with or without Mitro, the players didn’t suit each other and it was an example of just buying players for the sake of it and assuming a coach can make it work.
The new Riverside Stand gives the impression that they are in this for the long haul, so why is there seemingly no long-term plan in place for recruitment? We loan players like there’s no tomorrow and find ourselves pushing the reset button and rebuilding a squad every season. That unsurprisingly limits the likelihood that we can have a strong start to the season because it’s always a mad rush to bring players in and expect a manager to make them gel. It’s absolutely no coincidence that every season for the past 4 years we have been playing catch up, be it for promotion or to avoid relegation.
We also seem very reluctant to sign players over a certain age, presumably because they are deemed as has beens with no sell on value, which is massively naive from a footballing perspective because it overlooks the invaluable experience they can add to the team. You might not make a profit, but they can certainly provide value for money in what they bring to the club, especially if that experience and knowhow keeps us in the Premier League. Meanwhile, we are always clinging onto players like Neeskens Kebano and Abou Kamara by giving them contract extensions, forcing this cycle of short-term solutions that are barely good enough for the Championship, let alone being capable of the transition into the Premier League.
Another key ingredient that a computer fails to detect is a player’s attitude/personality. Where are the leaders? Where are the fighters? Where are the players whose heads don’t drop when you go a goal down? We have just been relegated with a group of players who only managed to accumulate 2 points from losing positions all season and whilst most clubs in the country have struggled without the home support, ours recorded the worst home record in our entire history. This is why Scott Parker should have a much bigger say in which players are brought to the club. This is a man who was captain for most of the clubs he played for and has been in dressing rooms featuring a multitude of mentalities. From competing for titles to fighting for survival. There isn’t a person more qualified at the club to know which characters are needed in a team environment and that experience will always have superior knowledge to emotionless statistical analysis.
A prime example of everything I’ve just mentioned is the way Burnley Football Club are run. I have never thought much of Burnley as a team but the night our relegation was confirmed was eye opening. I saw a group of players who were basically a clone of each other. There was a specific look and feel about every player: all on the same wavelength; all focused on the same goal; and all willing to fight and grind out results. Clearly Sean Dyche has developed a model template for the type of player he wants at the club and I’m sure as much thought is put into the attitude of the players recruited, as it is how good they are. They have the smallest budget in the division but it’s arguably the most effective. No square pegs in round holes. No Bryan Ruiz-type signings that would look completely out of place. Every player, every position, carefully thought out to fit the system and the football club. That is what you call having a philosophy. So, before we do anything else, we need to decide what our philosophy is and work as a club to pull everyone in the same direction to make it a success.
Although we haven’t quite seen a perfectly executed version of the style we played under Jokanovic, it’s clear that Parker is trying to implement something similar. This brand of Football has become our way of playing and if that’s the case, that’s the philosophy we need to base our transfer policy around. Recruitment needs to identify players who fit the system so that we don’t have anymore scenarios in which we are trying to find a formation to suit a particular player. Every piece of the jigsaw needs to fit, otherwise the puzzle is never complete.
I don’t know if there is an age cap currently in place for recruitment but if there is, it should be scrapped. Every signing should be based on what the individual can offer the club and what we require at the time.
It’s all well and good wanting to be a sustainable club but the only way to make that happen is to use a transfer policy that takes a long term view. Loan signings for example should be kept to a maximum of 3 in one squad, so that there isn’t a huge void to fill every summer when they return to their parent clubs.
Harrison Reed and Tosin Adarabioyo are prime examples of the transfer model we should be following. They are homegrown players who didn’t require an excessive transfer fee. This will help us to stay within Financial Fair Play and gives us a team full of young players who have something to prove and are capable of making the step up to the Premier League.
SCOTT PARKER – HEAD COACH
There’s no denying that Scott did a great job to get us promoted in his first season in management and people continue to highlight that in support of him. It was a season that was always going to be defined by whether or not we achieved promotion and despite the dull football and a lack of desire to win games by more than one goal, Parker’s reputation as the ‘one to watch’ sat on the right side of a very fine line between doing a good job and being another Paul Bracewell.
In contrast to the expectations in the Championship, this season was always going to be a big ask for any manager. Especially dealing with the Covid restrictions, playing with no fans in the ground and the disadvantage of having an incredibly short turnaround after the playoff final. There’s even a strong argument to suggest that we made our signings too late, with Lookman, Tosin and Andersen arriving 3-4 weeks after the season had started. However, you can’t hide behind other people’s incompetence for everything. I appreciate that in an attacking sense, the players aren’t good enough and the transfer policy let Scott down in that department. But just like all the other excuses, it’s a very easy get-out-of-jail-free card to play.
Fulham have only scored 9 goals at home all season. The Cottage has probably seen more of Parker’s coats than it has Fulham goals! To put that into perspective, the side with the worst Premier League points tally (Derby County) scored 12 at home in the season they went down with 11 points, proving that it is possible to get a tune out of the most inferior of squads. Even more telling is that this season is the worst home record in our entire history for points, wins and goals. If we don’t score on Sunday against Newcastle, it’s also the lowest home goal tally in the history of the Premier League and we’d need 2 goals for it not to be the joint worst. Simply not acceptable.
I’m of the opinion that both the lack of goals and the lack of wins is down to the cautious approach we have taken for most of the season. In the ‘must win’ games vs Brighton/Southampton at home in December and the back-to-back Brighton/WBA away games in January, we drew all 4, with 3 of them ending 0-0. That sums Scott Parker up for me and was always going to be the likely scenario when your mentality is to avoid defeat.
It’s as if we are programmed like a robot, to know what to do to perfection up until we enter the final third of the pitch. Whilst I defended choosing to leave Serbia’s all-time leading scorer on the bench for most of the season because of the options around him, there were many occasions where it felt like Parker was very reluctant to even bring him off the bench which seemed like cutting your nose off to spite your face. I’ve been disappointed by the way Parker has persistently given certain players loads of game time despite being poor, whilst the likes of Bryan and Mitro have had to feed off scraps.
My biggest concern at the moment is that I find his style of play boring. Surely none of us could be accused of supporting Fulham for the glory but I want to look forward to going to a game and seeing a match that’s entertaining regardless of the outcome. I fully appreciate that there are games where a cautious approach is needed and a 0-0 draw would be a magnificent point but I’d like to see the handbrake released more often.
Ideally I’d replace both of them, starting the rebuild from scratch but I guess the main reason I’d consider keeping Parker is because I can’t see who else is available right now that’s a guaranteed upgrade.
Despite being in the bottom three for the majority of the season, I never thought at any stage that the players weren’t giving 100% for Parker. For a young manager in our situation to keep the squad’s morale and togetherness generally high is impressive. He knows the squad and continuity in that respect might be worthwhile, especially if he can convince the right players to stay.
If he is to stick around, I would like to see him add an attacking coach to his backroom team. After watching two seasons of his style of play, I’ve concluded that elements of it work but something is missing in the way we are coached to attack. We saw him evolve his style by reverting from possession based to a counter attacking system. A bold move and one that showed he is willing to try new things. I’m sure he will continue to change as he progresses through his career and another thing that will evolve over time is his backroom team. He clearly has a good relationship with Matt Wells, whilst Stuart Gray has been at the club for a few years and has contributed towards 2 promotions, so I’m not suggesting getting rid of anyone.
Adding an attacking coach would allow Parker to carry on focusing on the defensive side of the game but gives the players a fresh voice with more knowhow in attack, to build up confidence, chemistry and an understanding in front of goal. It may also educate Parker and elevate him into a complete coach who doesn’t require specific coaches around him but there is always something new to learn, especially when you are in the infancy of your career.
I think it’s important to point out that I believe the owners’ heart is in the right place. I’m not happy with the way the club is run, but there’s always potential and hope that those issues can be ironed out. Fans of a certain generation will remember fighting to save the Cottage and the club from merging with QPR. It all happened around the time I was born so I didn’t experience it. Surely that’s what you define as a bad owner and I would like to think there’s a big difference between bad and incompetent. Hopefully, this relegation will finally open Shahid’s eyes, as ultimately he’s the one with the power to intervene and address the real problem. Al Fayed certainly would have done.