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.

The roller-coaster ride of Fulham

WHEN Fulham kick-off the 2021-22 season against Middlesbrough on August 8 at Craven Cottage, it will herald the start of their fifth consecutive campaign of changing divisions. Promoted twice, in 2018 and 2020, Fulham have also suffered two relegations, in 2019 and 2021, and undoubtedly, they will be among the favourites for promotion from the Championship in 2022. Life is rarely dull in Stevenage Road, London SW6.

Fulham have recently published their 2019-20 financial statements (why does it take so long for football clubs to reveal their finances?) and although the they were successful on the pitch, they posted a pre-tax loss of £ 49 million. This should come as no great surprise as the club saw its revenues drop by 58% in 2019-20 to £ 58 million, once more underlining the imbalance between the Premier League and the English Football Club  – in 2018-19 they generated £ 137.7 million. 

Fulham may have offloaded some of their bigger earners after relegation in 2019, reducing their wages from £ 92.6 million to £ 72.6 million, but the wage-to-income ratio almost doubled in 2020 from 67.2% to an intimidating 125.2%.

The club’s bottom line was improved by a £ 25 million profit from player trading, a tenfold increase on 2018-19. Their last notable sale was Ryan Sessegnon who moved to Tottenham for around £ 25 million in August 2019.

Fortunately, Fulham have a generous, and it would seem, patient owner who has funded the club’s ambitious plans, including something of a spending spree when promotion to the Premier was achieved in 2018. Fulham spent over £ 100 million in 2018-19, the third highest outlay in English football that season, but the data-driven acquisition of mostly little-known but potential-rich players didn’t yield the envisaged success – Fulham went through three managers and were relegated after looking naïve and lacking in experience. The club is still paying for that summer of high enthusiasm and even higher hopes.

A more cautious approach in 2019-20 saw them win promotion again via the play-offs. Shahid Khan, the owner since 2013, injected £ 78 million of cash into the club in 2020, which has been converted into equity. Without Khan’s backing, Fulham’s finances would look a little scary.

But they still need to have more than one eye on Financial Fair Play. Their loss limit for 2019-20 was £ 61 million, so they were heading ominously towards that figure. However, the rules have been loosened a little around FFP due to the pandemic and will treat 2019-20 and 2020-21 as a single season and work on an average loss over the two. 

As well as relegation in 2019, the 2019-20 season was hampered by the pandemic, which meant matchday income dropped by 48% to £ 5.6 million and broadcasting revenues were 60% lower at £43.7 million. Even commercial income, which has held up well at many clubs, dropped by 52% to £ 8.5 million. Overall, Fulham’s revenues were the highest in the Championship, although Leeds, West Bromwich Albion, Huddersfield, Swansea and Stoke were not far behind. Fulham’s matchday income should increase in the near future as the redevelopment of the Riverside stand nears completion, a project that will add more than 4,000 to the capacity of the popular and iconic Craven Cottage.

But Fulham’s swift return at the end of 2019-20 should come as no great shock given their wage bill, which was the second highest in the Championship after Leeds United, who were also promoted. There are also parachute payments to consider, Fulham received £ 42 million and were one of seven clubs benefitting from post-relegation compensation.

Fulham’s status at the moment is a club with strong ownership that just cannot consolidate in the top flight. Their financial strength gives them an advantage over many clubs, but after securing promotion, they come up against opponents with greater resources and more savvy. 

Stability is needed for Fulham to look beyond one-season stays in the Premier League, which includes both income and team management, as well as a pragmatic mindset. Just a few seasons among the elite, as opposed to the current game of snakes and ladders, would make such a difference to one of English football’s most popular institutions, both on and off the pitch.

@GameofthePeople