Fulham Fight to Keep Flight

Image: Getty

It’s been a turbulent summer at Fulham Football Club, and for that, the blame has to be shared…

After a fairly smooth ride through the return campaign in top flight football, The Whites almost threatened to crash and burn before a ball is kicked in the next instalment of The Premier League. Once again, we approach the eve of a season with a manager bemoaning the lack of transfer activity in SW6, having been courted by the wealth of Saudi Arabia. The same kingdom has also tried to tempt the clubs top striker. All of this has led to an unsettled atmosphere among fans, to say the least.

At the culmination of the Premier League Summer Series in the States, Marco Silva still counts Aleksandar Mitrovic among his squad and has seen two additions to his squad, with Calvin Bassey and Raul Jimenez arriving in time to play in the final friendly against Chelsea. Willian has also returned after protracted contract negotiations threatened to see him ply his trade elsewhere after a stellar season by The Thames last term. Since then the head coach has seen his squad shorn of options as the likes of Dan James, Layvin Kurzawa, Cedric Soares, Manor Solomon, Shane Duffy and, perhaps most notably, Neeskens Kebano for a variety of reasons. Regardless of your opinion as to how much these individuals offered the squad, they still need replacing, in number as much as anything else.

A continued reliance on loan deals is again impacting the team. There has been a shift, with loans now being used to supplement the squad, rather than being key performers, but end the result is still that they leave, and need to be replaced. With those in charge very aware that four loanees would depart, it begs the question why there weren’t moves to replace them sooner. Having been safe since February, at which point European football became a far more likely outcome than a bottom-half finish, let alone relegation, fans were optimistic that the club could conduct business early and get ahead of the impending rush for talent in the summer shopping spree. 

But alas, Tony Khan has long been an advocate for late deals. He has proclaimed that there is a lot of value to be found towards the end of the window, and believes it is best for business. There is some credence to that theory. As clubs see the options to offload unwanted players dwindle, they become more amenable to lower transfer fees, and players are easier to negotiate with when time is against their prospects of regular minutes. But the question has to be asked if the trade off is worth it. For the sake of a fraction of the price, the coaching staff could be afforded valuable time with new players, integrating them and ensuring they are ready to start the new campaign on the front foot. We are seeing at again, with the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi currently part of protracted saga that nears a conclusion that one has to believe could have been reached a month ago.

It was a big part of the failure that was the 2020/21 season under Scott Parker, who eventually received a new back line a whole month into the season. By which point the team had given up a host of points and never escaped the battle at the bottom. It wasn’t the only reason for relegation, but it certainly contributed. Last season, Marco was able to work with two key cogs in his team from relatively early on, with both Joao Palhinha and Andreas Pereira arriving before the group set off for camp in Portugal, and even though he couldn’t play, Solomon was with the squad and training with his would-be team mates and coaches. While the squad was still short in some areas, enough of what would become the core of the XI was present, the season started well and the rest is history. 

But this summer, our two new signings have had limited minutes in which to practice the work that has been done on the training ground during their short time with the club. A bigger issue has been inability to rotate senior players during preseason and share the workload of matches. This has seen much of the main group play more minutes than is ideal in a short space of time, and we have picked up injuries.

It remains to be seen how long Palhinha will be sidelined with his shoulder injury, but there can be hope that he won’t miss a significant spell after images and videos emerged of him going through large ranges of motion against resistance and even training ahead of the trip to Everton. Tom Cairney was also spotted in the same video, raising hope after he limped off against Chelsea. The club captain has had a tough time with injury, limiting his involvement in the last few years. That he started all three games Stateside was probably out of necessity rather than by design. In hindsight, it’s not a shock that his body broke down in the first quarter if his third outing in eight days.

Fortunately those who were absent at the back end of the season look ready for the return of competitive action as Andreas played the final 25 minutes of the Summer Series before getting a further run out against Hoffenheim both behind closed doors and at the Cottage. Tim Ream offered a positive update on his own recovery, suggesting he’d be ready to play Everton on the opening day of picked, following a cameo against the German club.

Any newcomers will now need a settling-in period, meaning we may not see the best of them right away. The positive is, that much of the starting XI will be made up of familiar faces, lessening the pressure on fresh faces to get up to speed. Silva has been clear in what he requires for the squad to be deemed fit for purpose, with wingers, fullback and a central midfielder on his wish list. He has stopped short of blaming the clubs hierarchy publicly, but it was well reported that his hesitation over signing a new contract was linked to a lack of confidence that he would be backed with transfers. An odd idea, when you consider that for any and all of their faults, the Khan’s have never fallen short of backing a head coach with transfer spend. And while the business is again being done late, some of that blame falls at the door of our Portuguese schemer. 

He has contested the idea, but surely a player will be slower in committing their future to a club where the manager’s situation is not clear. Silva has been a key influence in attracting players since his arrival. His conversations with players has been cited time and again, as the reason for individuals being won over by the idea of playing at Craven Cottage. Palhinha and Pereira are prime examples. So his hesitation to commit to the club, can only have had the same effect on prospective signings. Hudson-Odoi’s move is said to have been held-up due to the speculation around Silva’s offers to take up roles in Saudi Arabia.

He is of course staying, and hopefully that will help increase the flow of incomings. Silva is an intelligent man, and whatever long game he is playing, he knows his own future has had a bearing on his side’s preparations. He may not see himself at The Cottage beyond 2024, but he has to take some responsibility for the issues around squad depth heading into what could be his final year in SW6. 

One person who has not rejected Saudi Arabia outright is Fulham’s number nine, Mitrovic. Enough has been written and said on this topic, and ultimately there is no way in which the Serbian comes out of this situation in a positive light. Whether it’s agents, the player, the prospective buyers or a combination of all three, fans only see the player, only care about the player, and only interact with the player. If, as is starting to seem more likely than not, Mitrovic is still a Fulham player at the end of August, he will be one with far less credit in the bank than previously. Penalty misses will not be tolerated because it “helps maintain his confidence”. Outbursts at officials will no longer be “part of his game that you don’t want to lose” because it gives him a “competitive edge”. Whatever the outcome, much like the signing of new players, the sooner it is resolved the better.

Of the two key personnel linked with moves to the Middle East, The Whites are, at least, holding onto the more important one for the time being. Silva has been fundamental in the clubs ability to stick the landing in the Premier League, and his influence is far greater than any one player. Indeed the team survived long spells without the talismanic number nine last season, owing to injuries and a lengthy suspension following the meltdown in Manchester. Losing your top scorer and focal point in attack is never a good thing. But it would be far worse to lose the pilot of this plan, even if it only to buy us time to draw up some new plans ahead of the following season.

Silva has navigated this turbulent summer fairly well to this point, but now needs support from the control room to ensure Fulham maintain altitude.