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Fulham Chairman Shahid Khan in London to focus minds

last updated Monday 28th March 2016, 5:00 PM

Fulham Football Club

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Fulham Chairman Shahid Khan flew into London during the international break to focus minds on a big problem at Fulham. The thing is, he is not quite sure what the problem is, apart from a lowly league position that means if they lose at home to Milton Keynes Dons on Saturday, the club that seemed ensconced in the Premier League when Khan bought it two and a half years ago will fall into the bottom three of the Championship, with relegation into League One an enraging, bewildering prospect.

Khan has never pretended to be a football expert but, as a self-made billionaire, he can make persuasive claims to knowing a shrewd investment when he sees one. And a price of around £150m did not seem bad in July 2013 for a club that had just finished 12th in its 12th consecutive season in England’s lucrative top flight.

However, the Premier League is not a closed shop like the NFL, where the Jacksonville Jaguars continue to play and make money despite not having a winning season since Khan acquired them in 2011. In English football failure can be very costly.

As he addressed Fulham’s players and staff at the club’s Motspur Park training ground last week – geeing them up while contemplating what to do if the club drops even lower – Khan perhaps reflected on an accumulation of blunders that risk turning a storied club into a case study in ineptitude.

It is true that Fulham needed work when Khan took over, as the previous owner, Mohamed Al Fayed, devoted less money to them in his last year before selling up. Khan has funded many well-intentioned changes but results, that most callous of judges, suggest that so far his attempted makeovers have made things worse.

Fulham’s relegation from the Premier League was an ugly farce. During that season Khan employed three managers – Martin Jol, René Meulensteen and Felix Magath – before an incoherent team fell with an emphatic thud. Magath was allowed to stay to lead a swift return to the Premier League and was given 14 new players, including the £11m striker Ross McCormack from Leeds United.

Seven matches into the Championship season Fulham were bottom, with one point. So Khan ousted the German and installed a five-man search committee to make sure he got the right manager this time. In the interim Kit Symons was promoted from the youth team to run the first team: he did well enough in six weeks to be given the job full-time.

Khan seems to have decided then that another new manager was not enough, that the club needed a stronger sense of direction. That apparently meant two things: first that Alistair Mackintosh, the accountant-turned-CEO, needed to spend less time making football decisions and instead concentrate on commercial matters, and the planned stadium redevelopment (plans that may be affected by results over the coming weeks); and second that a powerful “chief football officer” was required.

So in December 2014, two months after appointing Symons, Khan headhunted Mike Rigg, who had been a technical director at Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers before joining the Football Association, where, under the title of head of talent recruitment, he helped devise the playing and coaching philosophy guiding the FA’s attempts to establish a unique identity for England’s national teams, the so-called England DNA. Trumpeting Rigg’s arrival as a major coup, Khan announced that the new man would serve as a sort of director of football “whose sole responsibility was to focus on the short-, mid- and long-term product on the pitch”.

Fulham finished 17th in the Championship last season. The charge for a play-off place never materialised and the team’s quality and style were still uncertain, though an increased tendency towards long balls could often be discerned and the defence remained prone to self-destruction. Rigg appears to have concluded that Symons would do better with a full pre-season and several new players.

The club stress that there was no disagreement over the identity of those players, that Symons was happy to welcome the likes of Tom Cairney, Ben Pringle, Richard Stearman, Tim Ream and Jamie O’Hara. All those signings had a certain pedigree but so far only Cairney has been an indisputable success, the former Blackburn Rovers player bringing midfield creativity not seen regularly at Craven Cottage since the departure of Danny Murphy.

Symons was sacked in November because Fulham did not yet look a proper unit. Sometimes they were formidable, as when they thrashed QPR 4-0 in September, but they rarely performed solidly for a full match and were frequently undone by their preposterous ability to shoot themselves in the foot and an unpardonable sluggishness, as in the 3-0 home defeat by Wolves four days later. After a 5-2 home trouncing by Birmingham City, Symons was let go. Rigg had no one lined up to replace him.

Steve Clarke, Nigel Pearson and Mark Warburton were among those who decided not to go for the job and during the next seven matches, under two different caretaker managers, Fulham did not win and fell from 12th to 18th. If this was stability and progress, their disguises were masterful.

When the new manager, Slavisa Jokanovic, was finally appointed just after Christmas he knew he could not improve the squad with January purchases because of a transfer embargo imposed on Fulham for breaching the Football League’s financial fair play rules the previous season.

Jokanovic has found it hard going, winning three of 16 matches so far. Last month, however, the team’s most coveted player, McCormack, demonstrated his belief that the club is now on the right track by signing a new contract and declaring, rather damningly for what had gone before, that “the manager is starting to mould a style of play into us and the lads are pulling in the same direction, which maybe hasn’t been the case … the intensity in training has gone up since he has come in. There seems to be a method to what he is doing.”

Alas, Fulham have not won since McCormack said that and two weeks ago they were beaten at home by Bristol City in a match that Jokanovic labelled a “must-win” in the fight against relegation.

Fulham could go anywhere from here. It is still easy to make a case for their survival: after all, despite their position they are the second-highest scorers in the division, thanks mostly to the strikeforce of McCormack and Mousa Dembélé; and some of the loan signings they were permitted to make in January look good, especially Michael Madl, the Austria international centre-back brought in from Sturm Graz.

That signing was influenced by Craig Kline, who, after impressing Khan at Jacksonville with a unique statistics-based recruitment model, was drafted in to work under Rigg at Fulham. The club insist there is no clash of duties between the two recruitment specialists. Rohan Ince, brought on loan from Brighton in January, has also made an impact, opening the scoring in the team’s last match, a 1-1 draw at Birmingham.

Jokanovic had put a priority on solidity against Birmingham and the team were generally tighter and more energetic – but eventually they conceded when the 6ft 5in Dan Burn was beaten to a header by Michael Morrison, a player eight inches shorter. That sort of defensive lapse has been a defining part of Fulham’s identity for nearly three years. That is the main reason why MK Dons will travel to Craven Cottage with optimism.

Fulham’s chronic defensive problems appear to be mental. Players such as Burn, Stearman, Ream, Luke Garbutt and Fernando Amorebieta have qualities but they, and many others, have made costly mistakes.

Questions must be asked about the preparation of a team that has conceded 29 goals from set pieces this season, more than double that of most other teams in the Championship (except Charlton, 25, and Rotherham, 16). Maybe, as McCormack indicated, there was a lack of focus and rigour for too long. Maybe confusion from above has made players timorous and rash.

Fulham have looked particularly jittery at Craven Cottage, where they have lost half their league games this season and the atmosphere verges on hostile. MK Dons will not try to silence their hosts but will hope to hear the groans, swearing and howls that are now common in a ground that used be an admired Premier League venue but risks becoming London’s swankiest League One destination.

Source Paul Doyle at The Guardian
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