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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Welcome to Fulham: the Premier League’s Unashamedly Middle-Class Club

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US owners have restored the team to the big time, building around an attack-minded manager and an energetic squad

Of all of London’s football clubs, Fulham is the most middle-class. Tucked on the north bank of the Thames amid a neighborhood of million-pound housing and leafy avenues, Craven Cottage is where the residential swell of well-to-do south-west London begins, reaching out to suburbs where rugby union is the preferred sport. Along with rowing, that is. The Oxford-Cambridge University Boat Race, held since 1829, starts on the Putney Bridge many visitors cross to reach the stadium.

To the traditionalists, Fulham was always a second-division concern, welcome in the top division for the pleasantness of the surroundings and the club’s commitment to attractive football. And it is a club with no fierce rivalry of note, with near-neighbors Chelsea far more interested in crosstown rivals Tottenham.

Queens Park Rangers and Brentford have never much cared about Fulham, either. Nothing personal: Fulham and their fans have rarely been a threat to anyone. After dark days in the 1980s when bankruptcy threatened, these have been largely happy times among the lawyers, City workers, marketing execs, new media whiz kids and project managers who make up the modern archetype of a Fulham fan.

Fans of Fulham do not expect to collect trophies like Arsenal or Chelsea but recent years have moved the dial on expectations. Alongside the club’s bourgeois locale, the club’s mission-critical is to establish itself as one of the Premier League’s middle-class, with relegation only a fleeting concern and qualifying for European football a hopeful possibility.

The club of Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson, important, popular players who follow in the Cottagers’ tradition of being a happy home for American players, look capable of safety this season, despite some turbulence. And safety remains the main objective of a club looking to modernize under American ownership while trying not to stray too far from traditions.

The economic drift towards England’s capital city that has taken place in the UK, and the proliferation of foreign players in the Premier League, has been helpful to Fulham. Foreign players like to play football in London. The success or otherwise of levelling up, a promise made by the UK’s Conservative government to the provincial regions throughout its various administrations since 2010, may actually be best demonstrated by the changed power dynamics in football.

The Manchester clubs are economic powerhouses, Liverpool have made a similar leap, and Saudi Arabian resources have regenerated Newcastle. But London clubs like Fulham, West Ham, Crystal Palace, and even Brentford farther west and once the city’s little brother, have benefited from the economic and social advantages gained over rivals in the Midlands and north. Clubs like Brighton and Watford and, this season, Luton, have also reaped the rewards of being readily accessible from London. The Premier League has rarely been so southern-biased; the old First Division that preceded English football’s 1992 relaunch followed a similar pattern.

As well as players, foreign owners have been drawn to London, too. Particularly Americans. Todd Boehly and Clearlake have held the reins at Chelsea for 18 eventful months while the Kroenke family has been in overall control of Arsenal since 2011. Since 2015, Crystal Palace have been owned by a trio of American businessmen. Shahid Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, celebrated 10 years of ownership of Fulham in July, a decade of ups and downs, of lessons learned and new directions taken and redrawn. The current setup, though, with Marco Silva as manager, represents by far the greatest stability – and best football – since Khan took over.

His son, Tony, runs the day-to-day as director of football operations and has done since those early days. Until last season’s 10th place in the Premier League, the Khans had presided over a club maintaining the yo-yo traditions of many decades past, and been just as cutthroat with managers as previous owner, the late Mohamed Al Fayed, Egyptian tycoon and father of Dodi Fayed, companion of Diana, Princess of Wales in their fatal 1997 Paris car crash.

Living up to the media profile of Al Fayed, is clearly not the aim of the Khans, with Tony and Shahid preferring to stay in the background unless absolutely necessary. Unless they sign up to All Or Nothing, neither are likely to be featured characters in a streaming TV smash, like the Fayeds have been in The Crown. Mohamed Al Fayed’s eccentric regime left behind the dubious legacy of the statue of Michael Jackson, a close personal friend of the businessman. Previously installed at the Hammersmith End, its taking down was one of the first things to change as a new era began at Fulham.

Perhaps removing Wacko Jacko was something of a curse. The first season under Khan ownership, 2013-14, was an utter disaster. Martin Jol, a capable Dutch manager had lost his way and was replaced by compatriot René Meulensteen. Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United retains a reputation as a fine coach but was no manager. That he was replaced by Felix Magath, admittedly a three-time Bundesliga-winning manager, showed off the lack of experience at the head of the club. Magath could not arrest a plunge towards relegation and is best remembered for telling Brede Hangeland, the club’s towering Norwegian defender, to rub cheese on a knee injury.

Four seasons in the Championship were days of disquiet. Al Fayed had brought star names to the club, like Kevin Keegan and Jean Tigana, two managers who played handbrake-off attacking football. Meanwhile, the Khans’ attempts to modernize the club were stymied by the economics of lower-division football. In any case, to perform that modernization kicks against the constraints of the club that Fulham is, and fans hope will always be.

After 10 minutes of walking through the leafy Bishops Park by the Thames, Craven Cottage appears out of the trees. The stand on Stevenage Road is a step into a bygone era, the early 20th century. It is the longest surviving creation of Archibald Leitch, the Scottish architect whose art-deco designs were used for the likes of Anfield, Old Trafford, Hampden Park and Tottenham’s old White Hart Lane. Such grand designs have long passed into history but Fulham’s home preserves the old master’s genius.

Craven Cottage, named after the cricket-style pavilion on the corner of the field where players still change for matches, is another relic of football’s Corinthian age. Playing away from home is supposed to be hostile. Europe is filled with loud, raucous stadiums, built to intimidate the opposing team and their supporters. Even the gentrified, modern Premier League can muster serious menace on occasion. Craven Cottage is different, though; it can still get raucous when sound rattles round its antiquated stands but it’s almost always a nice day out for all concerned.

Fulham was the neutral’s club, and until recent years housed a “neutral stand” for visitors wanting to catch a Premier League game. Fulham tickets were even available at the same city-centre booths tourists could buy tickets for West End shows but opposite Leitch’s creation is a vision of the club’s future. It has also been a millstone. The Riverside Stand, its towering exoskeleton appearing during the Covid lockdown, provides shelter from what can be an icy Thames wind, but it remains unfinished. Sections of seats will be occupied on match days but the upper tiers and executive facilities remain empty and unused.

“A real gamechanger for Fulham Football Club, our neighborhood, and all of London” is what Shahid Khan called it, and yet, after the building contractor, Buckingham Group Contracting, filed for financial administration it will not be completed until, at the earliest, the start of next season. Liverpool’s reconstruction of their Anfield Road stand is also delayed for the same reasons. Meanwhile, in an echo of similar disquiet down the road at Chelsea, those fans who do get to sit in the new construction have complained bitterly against £100-plus ticketing. The accusation is that American sports franchise owners like Boehly and the Khans are trying to charge NFL-style prices to an English football audience that still wants to pay the working-class weighted prices of previous eras.

Will the Riverside Stand kick off next summer to Premier League football? The chances are decent, though back in August they looked far less certain. The loss of Aleksandar Mitrović to Saudi Arabian football’s riches was a tortuous process while it seemed like Marco Silva, the manager, might follow him to the Gulf. The Portuguese manager has a peripatetic reputation, showing off talent as a coach during brief spells at Hull, Watford and Everton before sharp exits. A stubborn, self-aware type, Silva has been keen to point out he did no worse than Everton’s many managers before and since, and at Fulham, he has finally found a more permanent home.

Silva is an attack-minded coach, and after a promotion season in 2021-22 that saw 106 goals scored, Mitrović accounting for 43 of them, his team hit the Premier League running. Jürgen Klopp took his Liverpool team to the Cottage and found them out-run and outfought in a 3-3 draw that almost got away from a rocked-back Reds team whose last competitive match had been the Champions League final. The key man that day, and on so many last season was João Palhinha, a late-developer from Portugal who immediately arrived as one of the most tactically aware – and most adept at tactical fouling – midfielders in the English game. That Palhinha was chased so hard by Bayern Munich last summer to the point of his being pictured in a Bayern shirt, and yet stayed in London, is a heavy indicator he may not have much longer for life by the Thames. He has performed a similar, screening function for Portugal in their perfect, 100% record in Euro 2024 qualifying.

Meanwhile, Ream and Robinson continue to be mainstays, the former evergreen at 36, a club legend just as cherished as Clint Dempsey and Brian McBride were when Fulham’s Stateside connections were first made two decades ago or so. Robinson, galloping up and down the left flank, is often the most eye-catching performer in a team that presses high and where defenders are encouraged to pour forward. He has become a linchpin of the USMNT. In a Premier League era where full-backs have become far more appreciated, Robinson, like Palhinha, would capture a significant transfer fee, and the new contracts he and Palhinha recently signed – both until 2028 – were attempts by the Khans to protect their best players’ resale values.

With the Premier League’s bottom four looking adrift, and Everton docked 10 points for financial irregularities, Fulham should be safe once they find a way of replacing Mitrović’s goals. The Khans’ $100m-plus spend after a previous, 2017-18 promotion granted then-manager Slava Jokanovic a disjointed, Frankenstein squad. Lessons were followed; Silva has never been granted such riches, has had to find from within – or in the budget range – replacements for departed players like Mitrović or Fábio Carvalho, inspirational during the promotion season yet cashed out to Liverpool. In Fulham’s last match, a 3-1 loss to Aston Villa, Raúl Jiménez, the Mexican striker jettisoned by Wolves, scored his first Fulham goal in 11 matches, ending 22 Premier League matches of drought.

Wilful, ambitious, well-connected, there may soon come the time when Silva is tempted away. For now, he represents their best chance of reaching into – and staying within – the middle classes of the Premier League that the Khans aspire to.

Source: The Guardian

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