Fulham's Premier League life has never really taken off, despite Mohamed Fayed's big plans, writes Will Hawkes
It was almost the perfect start. Twice ahead through Louis Saha away to champions Manchester United, Fulham deserved better than a 3-2 defeat in their first top-flight game since the 1960s. Still, as pundits and press rather patronisingly agreed, the team had performed well and on that showing they’d be a worthy addition to the Premier League in 2001-02.
After all, the club had scythed their way to the First Division title the previous season. Lou Macari, speaking after Fulham had clinched promotion by beating his Huddersfield side, spoke for many when he said: “They’re the best team in the league, no doubt. Fulham are exceptional.” They were, and in the summer they got even better. The title-winning team, which included Saha, Steve Finnan, Luis Boa Morte, Lee Clarke, Sean Davis and John Collins, were bolstered by the arrival of Edwin van der Sar, Sylvain Legwinski and Steed Malbranque. The scene was set for Mohamed Fayed’s Fulham to make their bid to be, as he had so famously predicted on purchasing the club in 1997, “the Manchester United of the south”.
And if they couldn’t be that – and it always seemed something of an unlikelihood – well, at least they would entertain on and off the field. Fulham have often sacrificed success for style (think Best and Marsh dicking about against Hereford in 1976) while Fayed would surely always be good copy. Well, it didn’t turn out like that. Fulham have vigorously avoided excitement in all its sordid forms during their seven tepid, slightly embarrassing years in the top flight. What highlights can the memory muster from those long, unremitting years of mediocrity? That first game against Man Utd, perhaps, and another when Fulham won 3-1 at Old Trafford; solitary wins over Chelsea and Arsenal; thumpings of two hopeless sides in Norwich and West Brom – and a thrilling comeback to beat table-topping Tottenham 3-2 in 2002. At times, neutrals could have been forgiven for forgetting that Fulham existed.
Actually, most football fans did have a very sketchy idea of what exactly went on at Craven Cottage (or Loftus Road, where Fulham played for two seasons), certain as they were that Fulham played “good football”. This was never really the case and frequently the opposite was true, but the myth – perhaps buoyed by rare wins over the bigger sides, perhaps linked to a general affection in the press for the affable Chris Coleman – refused to die till this season.
So what went wrong? The promotion-winning Jean Tigana had a bit of a huff after he was unable to recreate his Championship success in a more competitive league and was replaced by Coleman, who never looked like taking Fulham beyond their comfy spot amid the grey-brown dullness of mid-table (their Premier League positions since 2002 are: 13, 14, 9, 13, 12, 16). Coleman, who was sacked at the end of last season with relegation a possibility, did preside over a few exciting wins but he was hamstrung by his own tactical naivety and a lack of funds.
Ah, funds. When Fulham came up in 2001, there were few clubs who could match their financial clout. In the intervening years, and particularly since the advent of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, that has all changed. Fulham are no longer top of the moneybags league: indeed, since QPR found themselves a trio of wealthy owners, they’re only the third richest club in west London. And while a clearly distracted Fayed’s wealth shrank (in relative terms), he became less willing to spend it on Fulham.
This eventually did for Coleman, who was replaced by Lawrie Sanchez: a bizarre choice, to be certain, although perhaps Fayed (who handed Sanchez far more cash than he ever allowed Coleman) felt that since Coleman had got away with it for four years then maybe Sanchez would, too. He was sacked just before Christmas with Fulham hovering around the relegation zone.
Since then, Roy Hodgson has struggled to turn things around, although performances have improved. With Fulham deep in the mire at time of going to press, despite a memorable win at Manchester City, it looks like they are about to embark on their most exciting Premier League adventure thus far: relegation back to the Football League. Fans could be forgiven for hoping the excitement ends there, though: the last time Fulham dropped out of the top flight, in 1968, they plunged straight through the second tier into the third.
From WSC 256 June 2008