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Monday, 14 November 2005

2485: Fulham: Are new owners needed

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by : Fred Tarow

Just over eight years ago perennially controversial Egyptian Mohammad Al Fayed took control of Fulham Football Club. They had just been promoted from Division Three, after a hellish three year stint in the League's basement division, but were on the verge of losing their beloved Craven Cottage and were in dire financial straits. Al Fayed arrived in a blaze of publicity and pronounced that the club would be playing Premiership football within five years and that he would turn them into the "Manchester United of the south". Al Fayed's public persona has been partly built on some inane and insane ramblings and to the casual observer these claims provided conclusive proof that he was indeed incurably bonkers.

Al Fayed aimed for the stars and while not quite coming close enough to pluck them from the sky he certainly landed on the clouds. Fulham were a Premiership club within four years and are enjoying their fifth consecutive campaign in one of football's biggest cash cows.

High profile managers Kevin Keegan and Jean Tigana have come and gone, as have big earners with big reputations like Edwin Van Der Sar, Louis Saha, Andrew Cole and Steve Marlet in a turbulent but enjoyable roller-coaster few years for the Londoners. But in 2003 the huge investment stopped and big names are no longer linked with, let alone walking through the gates of, Craven Cottage. Arguably the biggest signing of recent times has been the thoroughly underwhelming Tomasz Radzinski for less than two million. So profligate has he been since arriving from Everton that Chris Coleman has recently given the Pole a banjo and cow to practice his aim. Incidentally, the cow's posterior remains in pristine condition.

Al Fayed seems to have realised that throwing money at a Premiership football club does not yield the dramatically successful results that characterised his early chairmanship. In business terms, and Al Fayed is clearly an astute businessman, investment at previous levels was not sustainable and so a tightening of the purse strings was required for any sort of return on his massive investment. With that new philosophy in place Fulham Football Club started on the road to financial self sufficiency when, in March, for the first time since Al Fayed took over they announced profits in the region of half a million pounds.

However the new found prudence has had a negative effect on the football team. The squad now looks woefully shy of talent and depth and although, with the enormously talented Chris Coleman at the helm, they will stay up this season and maybe next, relegation is looming for the Cottagers. Should any more of their stars, most notably Papa Bouba Diop, Luis Boa Morte, Claus Jensen or the irrepressible Steed Malbranque follow Van Der Sar and Saha out the door then it is difficult to see how the already lightweight Fulham could survive in the top flite without heavy investment. If the current lack of ambition continues then the talented foursome (in their mid to late twenties) will surely seek fulfillment of their potential elsewhere. They will have no shortage of suitors.

So perhaps then it is time for Al Fayed to acknowledge a job exceptionally well done, try to recoup his £130 million investment and move on. No doubt that some Fulham fans will see this as sacrilege given all that the Harrods owner has done for Fulham. However past glories, regardless of how plentiful, don't stand up well to current regression. And in terms of squad quality, regressing they certainly are. Take this past summer's transfer activity. The club lost van der Sar, Cole and Lee Clark while Niclas Jensen and Heidar Helguson were the only notable additions. Coleman's ability to unearth gems like Diop on a shoestring budget can only defy gravity for so long.

If Fulham suffer relegation how much weight will the "We're in a better situation now than when Al Fayed took over" carry? If he sells now to someone willing to invest in the team Fulham's Premiership status will not just be preserved but they may actually begin to prosper again.

However, the omens aren't good. Al Fayed recently resisted the overtures of Fulham fan and internet gambling tycoon John Wallis saying that the club "was not for sale". Coleman, perhaps fearing the Al Fayed guillotine, offered the obligatory backing for his chairman saying "I cannot see him letting someone else come in and take it forward because we can do that". While Coleman's loyalty was admirable there has been little recent evidence, aside from empty rhetoric, that Al Fayed possesses the will to take the football club forward. As well as being renowned for his business acumen, Al Fayed is famed for being a fiercely proud man. That pride may well prevent him from doing what is best for Fulham and blight what should be a glorious legacy.

Fred Tarow
9 November 2005

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