With financial uncertainty and franchising in the air, Barney Ronay looks at Fulham's 'temporary' move
Fulham fans really are extremely stylish and well dressed individuals. Certainly, the group of people queuing to buy tickets on the morning of the Cottagers’ first Premiership fixture at Loftus Road look a sartorial cut above your average football supporter. Designer labels mingle with vintage denim. Beneath immaculately styled hair, Gucci sunglasses glint in the August haze. The Fulham look is retro, perfectly accessorised… and strangely Japanese.
Of course. The crowd outside the ticket office are Junichi Inamoto fans. Inamoto is currently signed to the Fulham FC Soccer Franchise, based at London’s Loftus Road. One of the ambling fashionistas is wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Phuture”. Above his head, the black and red Fulham FC crest sits uneasily on the corrugated Hoop-blue cladding of the South Africa Road stand. Is this the phuture?
The groundshare in W12 between low-pressure local rivals Fulham and QPR is looking an increasingly odd arrangement. Initially accepted by both sets of fans as a pragmatic solution to, on the one hand, the redevelopment of Craven Cottage, and on the other a serious lack of cash, the cohabitation has already been extended from one year to two. Talk of covert merger plans has begun to do the rounds. Homeless and deep in debt, Fulham are, by their own admission a club “in limbo” and no one is quite sure what the future holds.
Only, right now no one wants to talk about that. Today is the first day of the Premiership season and, given the chance, football fans just want to be football fans. On the pitch a small, animated man is parading along the touchline. Mohamed Al Fayed is already feeling very much at home, even if by the end of his circuit the 30-degree heat is taking its toll. If the fans’ reception for their benefactor seems muted, it’s probably just because most of them are still milling around asking one other if they know where the Upper Loft is.
The ground looks slightly strange anyway. A whole stand’s worth of ITV Digital adverts has been taken down over the summer and nothing has yet replaced them. The odd Barclaycard banner hints at the new arrivals’ elevated status, and a huge tarpaulin stretched across the School End advertising something called “QPR Financial Services” is apparently not a joke.
As the game kicks off everyone is still very much on their best behaviour. Ten minutes into the first half Fulham open their account with a penalty from Louis Saha – who appears to be grooming himself to become the fourth member of Destiny’s Child – and seconds later the chants of “Al Fayed, Oooh-way-oh” have started, the final couplet (“He wants to be a Brit/And QPR are shit”) sung with particular relish. Twenty minutes later Sylvain Legwinski scores Fulham’s third. Three sides of the ground are singing “Jean Tigana’s black and white army”. The sun is shining. It feels like home. For now.
At the end of last season it looked like a smart move for everyone. With Fulham’s first season in the Premiership safely behind them, a year of taking the short hop down the road to Shepherd’s Bush seemed a fair enough price to pay before a triumphant return to an all-seater Craven Cottage. As for QPR, they just needed the money, and taking a wealthy lodger was always going to help make ends meet.
So a modern marriage came about: one of the nouveaux riches of the Premiership – complete with eccentric sugar daddy chairman and toothpick-chewing foreign manager – shacked up with their nouveau poor, post-ITV Digital neighbours. The only people with any reservations were the fans.
“Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are QPR supporters,” insists David Lloyd, editor of the fanzine There’s only one F in Fulham. “The problem was, and still is, that for lots of Fulham fans the identity of the club is inseparable from Craven Cottage.”
Lloyd is quick to point out that the situation has already changed significantly since Fulham left the Cottage. Initially the plan was to spend only one season at Loftus Road. Planning permission for the new stadium was granted, but development stalled as a group of local residents calling themselves “The Fulham Alliance” launched a determined and well funded appeal. One season has already turned into two, and a growing number of Fulham fans are beginning to suspect that the club may never return.
A bid for permission to develop another site within the borough has recently been rejected, and the Fulham press office has “no definite answer” as to where the club will be in two years’ time. The official line is that they need a bigger ground, and size, not location, is the bottom line.
Which is where board and fans start to disagree. The club had no choice but to redevelop the sub-Taylor Report parts of Craven Cottage. But there are those among the Fulham faithful who feel the current owners have been slightly too willing to leave the ground, and not desperate enough to structure the redevelopment plans to ensure that, come what may, Fulham Football Club remains in its historical home.
While the stands at Loftus Road were almost full on the opening day of the season, the fear is that the club is gambling its future on the kind of casual support for whom going to watch Fulham play is a consumer choice and nothing else. Already disorientated by aspects of the club’s rise through the divisions – the erosion of the close relationship between club and fans, for example – there are those among the long term Fulham support who won’t be making the trip up Shepherd’s Bush Road. And what will happen when the good times no longer roll? Will the Armani-clad groupies still block-book Row M when Junichi is plying his trade in Serie A?
David Lloyd is disappointed by the lack of information coming out of the club, and this perceived silence has only served to fuel the conspiracy theories. The worst case scenario is that a covert merger is already under way, with the groundshare just the first step towards a west London über-club, combining Rangers’ all-seater arena with Fulham’s Premiership status.
Rumours range from the shady (Al Fayed has been funding QPR’s survival in order to keep the possibility of a takeover on the table) to the labyrinthine (Al Fayed is bankrolling the Fulham Alliance in order to scupper his own bid to redevelop Craven Cottage and provide a smokescreen for the merger plans). Whatever the truth, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that all is not well behind the scenes. Jean Tigana came back from his holidays to find somebody called Franco Baresi sitting in his desk. Confusion reigned over the ex-Milan man’s exact role and his relationship with the owner, until he clarified the position once and for all by leaving after less than three months in the job, whatever that job was.
Allegations of secret agendas and hands-on interference in footballing matters are the kind of things that are bound to crop up when you have put as much cash into a loss-making enterprise as Al Fayed has. The impression that that kind of behaviour is going on does nothing to ease the fears of those Fulham fans who suspect a cloak-and-dagger “restructuring” is in the offing.
Of course, this is all just speculation. The future for both clubs is still pretty much wide open. And even enforced ground shares over many years have been reversed in the past. Look at Charlton Athletic, happily ensconced back at The Valley, thanks mainly to the efforts of the club’s fans. Similarly, it was decisive action by supporters that prevented the proposed Fulham Park Rangers hybrid in the mid-Eighties, and the combined might of the Fulham and QPR fanbase would still present a major hurdle to any proposed merger.
But this is the modern world, and strange things have already happened. Just ask a Wimbledon fan. Two years from now, with one set of supporters still groggy from relegation, bankruptcy and constant updates from the club’s administrators, and the other increasingly alienated by an ambitious board and maverick owner, how many Loftus Road regulars will have the heart for a fight if it comes down to it?
The answer, of course, is thousands. And on a sunny afternoon in August, with three points and four goals in the bag, no one seems that concerned. Fulham are happy enough to have found a home that, for now, will do. There will always be rumours. And anyway, no one really wants to see Fulham Park Rangers, do they? For a start, you should never mix black and blue. It’s a classic fashion mistake. Just ask those well-dressed Fulham fans over there.
From WSC 188 October 2002. What was happening this month