Fulham are back, now for the struggle

FULHAM Football Club is one of those popular institutions that people find hard to dislike. They have a picturesque stadium, sitting on the banks of the River Thames, their neighbourhood is full of well-heeled professionals sitting on millions of pounds worth of real estate, and the club itself has rarely posed a threat to anyone. An afternoon at Fulham is a pleasant experience.

But for the past five years, Fulham have led a “Grand Old Duke of York” existence, in other words, they have lived in a strange half world that has a foot in both the Premier League and the Championship. They’ve just secured their third promotion in that period, achieved with no small amount of panache.

Fulham have become the classic yo-yo club, but you get the feeling they are going back to the Premier in a better condition than they were in 2018-19 and 2020-21. There has been none of the waste that accompanied their stint in 2018 when the club’s owner, Shahid Khan, allowed his son to play Fantasy Football with the first team squad. They spent a lot of money in 2018 on average players and were the third biggest spenders in English football behind Chelsea and Liverpool, but they nosedived back to the Championship, employing three managers of the way. At the end of 2020-21, they were relegated again after immediately winning promotion in 2020, but the popular Scott Parker decided to leave Fulham for Bournemouth.

The appointment of Marco Silva didn’t fill everyone with confidence – indeed, Silva had experienced relegation at Hull and was sacked at both Watford and Everton after poor results. It worked out well this time as Fulham played with carefree abandon and scored goals for fun – 98 in 42 games so far. Furthermore, the mercurial and occasionally brilliant Aleksandar Mitrović, who has yet to light-up the Premier League, scored 40 goals up to and including the club’s promotion night.

Mitro is a character but he’s now 27 and no longer a man with potential, what Fulham are seeing is what they’ll get. But he needs to prove he can score goals in the Premier League and their survival in 2022-23 depends, to some degree, on how the Serb adjusts to life back in the top flight. This may be his last chance of proving the sceptics wrong.

Fulham have other talents that will interest Premier audiences – Harry Wilson, the winger signed from Liverpool, for example, and Neeskens Kabano. Fabio Carvalho would also be one to watch, but he looks bound for Wilson’s old club.

Fulham’s promotion can be attributed to a very generous owner in Shahid Khan. He has converted his loans to the club into equity, now totalling over £ 400 million, and has propped-up the club’s relatively high wage bill. In 2020-21, for instance, the club’s wages were £ 114 million, representing 98% of revenues. This was Fulham’s last relegation campaign and overall income reached a record £ 116 million, almost entirely due to the £ 105 million of TV money that came with Premier League membership. While matchday was wiped out by the pandemic, commercial income increased by 26% to £ 11 million. 

Fulham made a pre-tax loss of £ 94 million in 2020-21, high even by Premier standards, but losses are not new to the club, they last made a profit in 2011. Their deficits would be lower if they made more money on player sales, but over the past half decade, they have generated profits on player trading of less than £ 60 million. Since 2017, Fulham have spent over £ 200 million on new recruits, making them a top 20 player in the transfer market.

After almost an entire season without crowds at Craven Cottage, attendances have averaged 17,600 in 2021-22. Over the past two years, the club has been building a new Riverside stand, which will increase Fulham’s capacity to just under 30,000 and significantly improve gates at one of London’s oldest and much-loved venues.

Marco Silva said Fulham are going back to where they belong. The jury has to be out on that verdict, but there’s no doubt most football followers will welcome their return. Survival beyond the first season will not only change the perception of Fulham, it will also have a profound impact on the club’s finances.

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