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

Barnsley chop down Fulham, despite Dennis

THE RECENT Soccerex Football Finance 100 showed that English football is the dominant force in world football at the moment. Of the many clubs from the Premier League and Championship, there was one name that certainly made you look twice to ensure your eyes were not playing tricks  – Barnsley, the 65th strongest football club in world football.

Barnsley? The team of Michael Parkinson, cricket umpire Dickie Bird, Skinner Normanton and brass bands? One of those clubs that, to a large degree, is a standard bearer for regional identity.

Barnsley it certainly was, sitting at the bottom of the Championship on the morning of February 15. How could a football club with a turnover of around £ 14 million and a wage bill of £ 11 million be so high and be looking down on luminaries like PSV Eindhoven, Lazio, River Plate, Boca Juniors and CSKA Moscow?

Big Barnsley

Did the Barnsley fans who travelled to London and Fulham realise their club was mixing in such exalted and decorated company? The Tykes may have won only five times in the league before heading down south, but they are apparently “bigger” than PSV, a club that won the European Cup in 1988 and has played host to some of European football’s big names.

Such is the nature of modern day football, where a wealthy gang of owners can transform the business perception and reality of a club. It is, however, a tall order and we’ve seen what happens when overseas owners dip their toe into provincial Britain and then realise that, after all, the UK economy and media revolves around London. More often than not, such investments end in disillusionment, but Yorkshire needs a few more successful football clubs – there’s only one representative in the Premier League (Sheffield United), although Leeds United could join them in 2020 if they don’t implode once more.

Barnsley, of course, had a brief flirtation with the Premier League in 1997-98, but it was a one-season affair and it had a long-term effect on the club in the years that followed. In 2017, the ownership model changed at Oakwell when an international consortium rolled into town and bought 80% of previous owner James Cryne’s stake.

The consortium comprised an intriguing group of individuals, including: Chien Lee, a Chinese billionaire who still has a stake in Swiss club, Thun; American businessman Paul Conway and his partner Grace Hung, both of the Pacific Media Group; data expert Neerav Parekh; and the Billy Beane or Moneyball fame. Media reports suggested that Barnsley’s ownership group was the second richest in the Championship, hence the high placing in the Soccerex Football Finance 100.

The arrival of this group of investors created no small amount of excitement, particularly among fans who salivated over the prospect of Barnsley competing with the big guns in English football, but the message was one of realism and a gradual increase in the financial power of the club. Barnsley were relegated in 2017-18, just a few months later, and their coach, Paul Heckingbottom, who had just signed a new contract, left Oakwell to join Leeds. The new era had to start at the lower level of League One.

In 2018-19, Barnsley won promotion back to the Championship with coach Daniel Stendel in charge, but the popular German was sacked in October 2019 with the club in 16th place in the Championship. Some Barnsley fans were upset about the way the board treated Stendel. His replacement was Gerhard Struber, an Austrian who was previously Wolfsberger’s coach.

Better off?

It’s questionable whether Barnsley are actually any better off for making the change. Since Struber took over, and before facing Fulham (a club that has used Billy Beane’s methods to build their squad with varying degrees of success) he had won four games out of 16, almost identical to his predecessor, and had lost eight times compared to the seven defeats suffered by Stendel. But rather than 16th place, Barnsley were now bottom and 16 more games had been played. In other words, the situation was deteriorating. And in meeting Fulham, they were up against a team chasing promotion. Their only away victory in 2019-20 was in London, at Millwall.

The boisterous Barnsley fans, who gave their club a low satisfaction rating over ownership (27.5%) in a recent survey, had plenty to cheer about at a wet and windy Craven Cottage. Fulham were woeful, but the Tykes seemed to have a spring in their step. Barnsley deserved their 3-0 victory on the banks of the River Thames and in the face of the oncoming Storm Dennis. Players like the tricky Conor Chaplin and Cauley Woodrow impressed and Fulham really didn’t rise to the occasion and looked a little leaden-footed. Their Slovakian goalkeeper Marek Rodák had an afternoon to forget.

Barnsley fans taunted the sedentary home fans with a chorus of, “you must be shit, we’re winning away”. If any team looked like promotion contenders, it wasn’t the one in white, despite their wage bill being more than four times the amount paid by Barnsley.

It is possible that Barnsley just need to consolidate this season before some sort of promotion plan is put into play for 2020-21 and beyond. Investors with big money will not want to be playing League One football again and in the unpredictable, dog-eat-dog world of the Championship, a well organised and fit team can be moulded into play-off pretenders. Fulham manager Scott Parker said there are no surprises in the championship, but at the same time, he revealed he was “shocked” by the result. Some Fulham fans are now calling for Parker’s head, a premature and knee-jerk reaction if ever there was one.

The Premier League is on Fulham’s agenda this season and at some point, Barnsley’s monied owners may well be looking at steering their investment towards the big time, knowing full well that the club’s last sojourn ended with problems. First, though, there’s a six-point margin between Barnsley and safety. That has to be reduced quickly, for there are only 13 games to go, starting with a home game with Middlesbrough on February 22.

 

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA