ONE YEAR after newly-promoted Fulham were throwing money around and buying players for fun, the Cottagers found themselves back in the more humble surroundings of the Championship. The moneyball experiment, if that’s the right word for the way the club accumulated quantity over quality, was over and some of the higher profile names, notably some under-performing Ligue 1 captures, had been sent out on loan as their contracts are run down.
Craven Cottage basked in the summer sunshine and received a battering from the unseasonal winds that whistled down the River Thames. The march to the stadium seemed to have a smaller cast than last season, but then Fulham’s capacity has been reduced owing to the redevelopment of the Riverside Stand.
Forty-seven years after their SW6 neighbours, Chelsea, played in front of a three-side ground, Fulham are about to do the same. Anyone who remembers how Chelsea’s fortunes declined among the hard hats and steel girders will be hoping that Fulham adjust to the transition better than their more celebrated neighbours at the other end of Fulham Road.
Judging by the photos, they will have an eye-catching stand on the banks of the river. The contrast between a new state-of-the-art facility with the Edwardian-era, Archibald Leitch stand on Stevenage Road will be considerable.
Fulham hosted Blackburn Rovers for their first home game in the Championship. The construction work meant the club had to relocate their fans from the stand to the Putney End, which means away supporters are literally touching distance for Fulham’s regulars. This will not be a problem for most people as Fulham’s clientele are generally not punchy (the recent incident at Barnsley was out of character), although one fan did deliberately position himself among the Blackburn Rovers travelling contingent to prove a point. This made the stewards a little uncomfortable and a prolonged discussion took place with the burly Fulham supporter who didn’t move easily. Millwall are Fulham’s next visitors, it would seem unlikely that freedom of movement will be permitted – where have I heard that phrase before?
With parachute payments to cushion the blow of relegation, Fulham would normally start the season as one of the favourites for promotion. However, the manner in which they succumbed to the drop in what was a truly dreadful season, hardly inspired confidence. It is difficult to agree with those that point to the players and say, “it’s a Premier squad” for the results in 2018-19 demonstrated that despite the significant outlay, it was far from an outfit that could give a good account of itself in the Premier. At times, the defence, which conceded 81 goals in 38 games, was appalling.
It was something of a surprise that Fulham kept hold of Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrović, but in doing so, they have two key players who could galvanise the team and mount a challenge for promotion. They couldn’t hold on to Ryan Sessegnon, who joined Tottenham on transfer deadline day. Club chairman Shahid Khan clearly expects Scott Parker to work quickly. His programme notes noted that the squad is being built for “immediate and lasting success”.
It’s not quite that easy for relegated teams. Most have a bit of a clear-out predominantly to ease the wage bill, but psychologically, adapting to life in the second tier takes time. Fulham, of course, are a club that has played at all levels, so they have no right to Premier status – they also don’t seem to expect it, certainly not among the fans, anyway. To the club’s credit, there was no toxic atmosphere as the result of falling through the Premier trapdoor.
The Championship is incredibly competitive and less predictable than the Premier. In the past five seasons, 21 different clubs have occupied the top six places. In the last two, teams coming down from the Premier have not won promotion back at the first attempt. In 2018-19, for example, West Brom finished fourth, Swansea 10thand Stoke 16th. Clubs spend money in the Championship, too much in fact – the wage to income ratio is well over 100%, which suggests clubs are desperate to win promotion to the Premier.
Interestingly, Fulham seem to have found renewed faith in the players that won the Wembley play-off in 2018. The team that lined-up against Blackburn included six players who beat Aston Villa in May of that year. A year ago, when Fulham played Crystal Palace after a hectic summer bringing in around a dozen new faces, only four from the play-off took the field. In short, they temporarily discarded those that had won promotion in favour of new signings.
Fulham have brought in some new players, though, but there’s been less hurrah about their acquisitions. They’re mostly loan players on a one-year deal, playing to Mr. Khan’s comment about a team being built for a job. They include: Ivan Cavaleiro from Wolves, a tricky Portuguese winger; Anthony Knockaert, another wide-man from Brighton and Irish midfielder Harry Artur from Bournemouth.
Artur, Knockaert and Cavaleiro all started against a Blackburn side that finished 15thin the Championship in 2018-19. Among their new signings was Stewart Downing, the 35 year-old former England international, but began the afternoon on the bench.
Both Fulham and Blackburn lost their opening day games, Fulham surprisingly going down 1-0 at Barnsley and Blackburn going down by the odd goal in three at home to Charlton Athletic.
Parker has adopted a “play from the back” approach this season and in the early stages, this almost caused problems for Fulham. Blackburn looked the better side early on, but in the 35thminute, Tom Cairney struck a superb goal from distance, calming the nerves and temporarily muting the away fans.
Blackburn did create some good chances with the two Bradleys, Dack and Johnson going close with headers. They never really tested Fulham keeper Marcus Bettinelli, though, despite having the better of the first period.
Fulham looked in control in the second half and the result was put beyond doubt with nine minutes to go, Mitrović tapping-in from close range after persistent work by Joe Bryan. There was no coming back for Blackburn.
A steady, if unspectacular start to the Craven Cottage season, but there was also a sense of relief about the result. Fulham don’t need another crisis autumn – Scott Parker certainly doesn’t want a stuttering start to the campaign. He needs no reminding that the club had three managers last season.