MONTPELLIER, France (AP) – Fulham was one of the pleasant surprises of the 2010-11 season, finishing eighth despite changing coaches and losing their leading goal scorer for most of the season. Looking at their 2011-12 chances, Chris Mann assesses if the Cottagers can maintain their place in the league's upper half.
When writing about Fulham it is all-too easy to slip into the rather patronizing realm of clich. The West London club, we are so often lead to believe, are sporting ephemera - a charmingly nave team in a division dominated by the gnashing teeth of corporate behemoths. However, soon to begin a 10th consecutive season in the Premier League and having competed in a major European final, Fulham more than deserve to be taken seriously as a genuine force in Englands highest tier. The Cottagers are no longer the charming, inoffensive plaything of an eccentric billionaire. They are a sporting institution worthy of very genuine respect. On paper, 2010-11 was another successful season on the banks of the Thames. A strong eighth-place finish was complemented with qualification for the Europa League courtesy of the UEFA Fair Play Award, but those achievements were tinged with bitterness and disappointment as Mark Hughes announced his resignation at the beginning of June. Hughes, who had done a fine job of continuing the superlative work carried out by Roy Hodgson before him, left Craven Cottage apparently in full anticipation of being offered the vacant position at Aston Villa, only to be overlooked for Alex McLeish at the last minute. The Welshmans actions only served to play into the hands of those who see Fulham as a small team, but the clubs actions since his departure have been those of an organization looking to make the realization of its lofty ambitions a frequently visited reality.
Just five days after Hughess dramatic departure, owner Mohammed Al-Fayed announced the appointment of Martin Jol as his clubs new manager. Like Fulham, Jol has the pleasant habit of engendering affection in the neutral, and the Dutchman appears to be well-suited to the team of which he now finds himself at the helm. A coach who has achieved modest success at all of his clubs, Jol has a continental pedigree which has quite rightly inspired a degree of optimism in Fulham supporters ahead of the new season. Equipped with an experienced squad and despite some potentially serious debt issues (the club is 190 million in the red but has its arrears offset by Al-Fayeds interest-free loans) a workable transfer budget, there is nothing preventing Jol from building on the fruitful endeavours of his predecessors. A small but tenacious squad, Fulham are built around a stellar spine of Mark Schwarzer, Brede Hangeland, Clint Dempsey and Bobby Zamora, seasoned players more than accustomed to the vagaries of the Premier League. Complemented by the industry of the likes of Danny Murphy, Simon Davies and Damien Duff, The Cottagers are a well-balanced and cheaply assembled combination of graft and flair. Indeed, with a number of players including John Pantsil, Zoltan Gera and Diomansy Kamara offloaded this summer, the Craven Cottage wage bill has been trimmed and the squad given a more streamlined feel.
With a little budgetary breathing room created, Jol has used his funds adroitly to bring John Arne Riise in from Roma for an undisclosed fee, an impressive signing which will greatly strengthen Fulhams left side after Carlos Salcido failed to produce consistent performances of the level we saw from him in a Mexico shirt last summer. Still just 30 years old and signed on a three-year deal, Riises muscularly offensive brand of full-back play and dead-ball prowess will give an extra dimension to his new teams play. Alongside the Norwegian there have been three other albeit lower-key arrivals; Hungarian goalkeeper Csaba Somogyi, Swiss U-21 international Pajtim Kasami, and Czech midfielder Marcel Gecov (joining from Rkospalotai, Palermo and Slovan Liberec, respectively). There was also talk of Jol pursuing Birmingham Citys Cameron Jerome at the start of August, but it has since been reported that a 3 million bid for the striker was rejected by the St Andrews club. With around three weeks to go until the close of the transfer window its unlikely that we will see any further activity in the market from Fulham, but the squad looks in good order and more than ready to begin the domestic season.
Having hired a safe pair of managerial hands and kept a blossoming team together, Fulham fans have every right to be buoyant heading into the new campaign. While the Cottagers are unlikely to improve much on last seasons finish and break into the top six (given the financial chasm between that particular sextet and the majority of the divisions other members), maintaining their status as a top-eight side and perhaps gilding it with another decent run in Europe should be the ambition for the next nine months. If Jol can rotate his squad effectively and avoid the ravages of an injury crisis (something which may be easier said than done given that Fulhams season started on June 30th), those goals are more than achievable. However, despite the short-term successes achieved by the Craven Cottage side, many harbour longer-term concerns as to the viability of the club and its capacity to maintain its presence in the top half of the Premier League. With one of the highest gross debt figures in the division, Fulham is single-handedly being kept afloat by Al-Fayeds generosity, his restructuring of the clubs loan agreements in 2007 significantly easing its financial burden. With the Egyptians loans not necessitating repayment, for the time being Fulham is relatively impervious to its debt problems, but that situation with the clubs finances hinging on the deep pockets of their octogenarian benefactor is potentially subject to rather rapid change.
When we add into the equation the fact that many of the Cottagers better players are in their thirties and nearing the end of their deals, it could well be that a major rebuilding process will be required sooner rather than later. With this in mind, it could be that Al-Fayed and Jol use the next couple of seasons to resolve contracts and bring in replacements for the older members of the squad. There may be murky shadows of doubt hanging over the clubs future, but, at least for now, things are rosy in the Craven Cottage garden (a garden dominated by a rather kitschy statue of Michael Jackson). Fulham is a team steadily breaking loose of patronizing clichs and establishing itself as one of the Premier Leagues most consistently impressive sides. There may be trouble looming in the far distance, but there is no reason why 2011-12 shouldnt be yet another fruitful season down by Putney Bridge. This is Fulham. Underestimate them at your peril.