Successive revolutions at Craven Cottage failing to have desired effect
Quick fixes falling short as Fulham sink toward Premier League relegation
A few weeks ago, the light-hearted chant was “we’ve got three managers”. Now the worry is that Fulham only have three league wins since they last had anyone with that official title. Instead, they have an unholy trinity at the helm and an almighty mess on the pitch.
While Alan Curbishley is the technical director and Ray Wilkins the assistant coach, there are dual reasons to focus on manager Rene Meulensteen. Curbishley seems his successor in waiting, just as Meulensteen, less than three months ago, proved an internal appointment to succeed Martin Jol.
The Dutchman returns to Old Trafford on Sunday, saying he has been given a vote of confidence. That, of course, merely heightens speculation he will bow out at an old haunt. There is a theory that Manchester United are missing his skills on the training ground. There is insufficient proof that Fulham are benefiting from them.
They prop up the Premier League, have its most porous defence and have lost their last four fixtures, failing to score in 308 minutes. They were knocked out of the FA Cup by a Sheffield United side 71st in the league ladder, scoring once in 210 minutes against the Blades (and even then when they were reduced to 10 men).
The answer to every setback involves revolution: first in the dugout, then the defence, midfield and forward line. Fulham made seven signings in January, bringing in players from everywhere from Seattle to Stuttgart. Often the division’s oldest team, they are embracing the new and could give four debuts today.
If the former United youngsters Ryan Tunnicliffe and Larnell Cole have Meulensteen’s mark, elsewhere it simply seems scattergun spending. The revolving door has opened for Netherlands centre-back Johnny Heitinga, who will presumably be paired with Brede Hangeland at the heart of the leaky defence. Exit Dimitar Berbatov, the miserabilist striker with the magnificent touch, and enter Kostas Mitroglou, the Greek who commanded a club record £12 million (Dh72.3m) fee.
The German Lewis Holtby and the Dane William Kvist debuted last week. The American Clint Dempsey has returned, looking a shadow of the player who scored 23 times in the 2011/12 season.
That, perhaps, is Fulham in a nutshell. They compare unfavourably with their recent past. They were quiet achievers, reaching the Europa League final under Roy Hodgson, in 2010. Now they are noisier underachievers, forever changing something – anything – in the hope it might prove a solution.
Scan the squad and there are plenty of players with pedigree, but several are over the hill. Others are finding individual ability is not enough without collective coherence. This is a club where joined-up thinking is lacking and whose overall strategy is hard to identify: why are three disparate and previously unconnected characters forced to form a triumvirate in charge of the team?
Panic threatens to be the default setting. There are twin causes: the growing probability of relegation beckons – and with United, Liverpool and Chelsea among their next four opponents, things could get worse before there is any chance they improve – and the Pakistani-born American billionaire Shahid Khan’s summer decision to pay £150m for Fulham last summer.
That the Cottagers have appeared in a European final more recently than Liverpool, Arsenal, Real Madrid or Juventus is deceptive. So, too, the fact that this is their 13th successive season of top-flight football. Investment propelled them to the Premier League: their best days in it have come courtesy of astute management and fine signings.
But this is not a club with the infrastructure or the fan base to guarantee a return if they do go down. Staying up, already of paramount importance given the financial gulf between the divisions, becomes crucial. And so Fulham keep bringing in more and more reinforcements.
Yet what a side with seven signings may require is another seven wins. A club with three managers really needs to find a way to take three points soon. If they do not, there may be yet more regime change at Craven Cottage.