Top-5 Things Fulham Need to Do to Return to the Premier League
Fulham begin life in the Championship this weekend as England welcomes a new football season. The Cottagers will be intent on a speedy return to the English Premier League after their 13-year stint ended in May. On Saturday, Ipswich Town will reintroduce them to the second tier, a concept so unfamiliar to Fulham that it had a different name (First Division) the last time they played in it.
Fulham proved to be a great survivor during their time in the EPL. Impressively, they managed to maintain top-flight status, despite only being a middle-market team with budget constraints. In fact, they were one of only seven teams to play in each of the past 13 EPL seasons—Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Everton being the others.
Remarkably, for a team lasting so long, Fulham only managed to record more wins than losses in one of their EPL seasons (2008-09).Throughout the years, the Cottagers were a consistent mid-table club who were only once previously threatened by relegation (2007-08).
But after many years of competitiveness, the wheels came off last season. The cause of Fulham’s demise speaks for itself.
In a nutshell—three managers, 85 goals conceded, 24 defeats and plenty of turmoil in between—culminated in Fulham being condemned to the drop.
The reality of demotion equals more than just 23 new opponents and playing in front of smaller audiences twice a week. Relegation to a lower division also usually translates into wholesale personnel changes. Fulham have been no exception this offseason. Frenetic activity over the past three months has seen a cluster of new players come in—most notably the £11 million signing of Ross McCormack—and many established players depart. The likes of Steve Sidwell, David Stockdale, Ashkan Dejagah, Brede Hangeland, Kieran Richardson, John Arne Riise and Damien Duff have each played their last games in a white jersey.
Some will be missed by the Fulham faithful, others could not be shown the door more quickly. Familiar faces, such as Scott Parker and Bryan Ruiz, will now aim to blend with the newcomers and kick-start a new dawn at the Cottage.
For a team with a successful past, competing in an inferior league should translate into instant success, right? Not necessarily.
In fact, out of the last 30 teams to be relegated from the EPL only seven have earned promotion on their first attempt (23 percent).
Competing in the Football Championship will be a daunting prospect—nine months, 46 games (plus potentially more in the playoffs), as well as cup commitments on top.
Only the strong survive in this gruelling division. The facts prove that even the best sides take their lumps during the course of a Championship season—teams finishing first and second during the past decade have averaged 8.7 defeats per season. Consistency, as well as the ability to bounce back from a loss, is crucial in this league.
Still only five seasons removed from their memorable runner-up performance in the Europa Cup, Fulham remain an ambitious club. Players and management will be hellbent on reversing last year’s slide and resuming normal service.
They currently sit among the teams favoured for promotion in this highly unpredictable league. With the season nearly upon us, let’s take a look at what Fulham need to do in order to secure their return to English football’s elite division.
*The ensuing slides lists what Fulham need to address to gain instant promotion in ranked order. Consideration was given to contextual factors, such as: Club culture, current playing personnel, the nature of their new competition and financial resources.
5. Blood Their Youth Wisely
Fulham boasts one of the strongest youth academies in England. Their U-18 team has won the league three out of the past four seasons, and finished runner-up in the FA Youth Cup last season.
These youngsters will be given plenty of opportunity to perform this year, especially with the aforementioned high player turnover. Prospects such as Moussa Dembele (18) and Patrick Roberts (17) have already had a taste of first-team action last season and made a favourable impression. The former also delivered an eye-catching hat-trick last month in a preseason match versus DC United.
However, manager Felix Magath must resist the temptation to initiate players that are still wet behind the ears too soon. Many seasoned, tough professionals ply their trade in this division and drip-feeding in the youngsters would be a sensible approach. Building the confidence of their youngsters is paramount as the last thing Fulham need is to invest time and resources only to produce the next John Bostock or Francis Jeffers.
4. Have Patience with Their Manager
Felix Magath was given the job of rescuing Fulham’s sinking ship from a precarious position last February. With the team languishing in the relegation zone, the veteran manager was unable to halt their inexorable fall.
To his credit, Magath extracted 12 points in as many games from his side, which eclipsed the output of both of his predecessors who each spent one more game at the helm.
The task ahead for the German this season will not be an easy one.
As mentioned, it has been a busy time at Craven Cottage with a revolving door of players in recent months. Magath’s job will be to make the squad gel and perform together as a unit. With personnel continuing to change right up to the beginning of the season he will have his work cut out.
If results do not go Fulham’s way early, they must resist the temptation to fire Magath. As combinations develop, results should eventually improve. Also, as the team’s third manager in the past year, some stability is much coveted at Craven Cottage.
3. Re-Establish Rock-Solid Defence
Fulham’s lengthy existence in the EPL was built on the back of a bedrock defence. Their stinginess through the years enabled them to compete and consistently get results against England’s best teams.
The Fulham steel curtain was a non-existent entity last season as they conceded a league-high 85 goals. This was nearly double the total that crossed the line just four years earlier in the 2009-10 season (46). In those days, Hangeland and Aaron Hughes were their two pillars in central defence forming a water-tight back line. With both now departed, the last remnants of that side have all disappeared and Fulham must now strive to rebuild their leaky defence.
Left-back has been a particularly weak position for Fulham in recent times. The loan signing of Kostas Stafylidis has paid off so far with some impressive performances in the preseason. Dan Burn and newcomer Shaun Hutchinson are the men now responsible for plugging the middle of Fulham’s defence. The team will be counting on each of these players for big seasons.
There are early positive signs for their new-look defensive wall—five clean sheets out of six in the preseason is a good start.
But league games are to be a big step up and the Whites will need plenty more if they wish to position themselves among the elite of the Championship.
2. Sign Some Veteran Players
Entering the season, Fulham possess a paucity of players accustomed to the rigours of Championship football. Midfielder Scott Parker is a veteran campaigner, but the last time he toiled in the second tier was over a decade ago for Charlton Athletic.
Otherwise, the Cottagers' squad contains a mix of British youngsters and foreigners. QPR are a team that recently benefited from having a bunch of experienced players to help their promotion push—Clint Hill, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Bobby Zamora and Joey Barton to name a few.
Fulham would benefit from a veteran or two who understand this division and how to gain promotion. Players such as Kevin Nolan, who has twice gained promotion with teams in the past five years, would give the side an uncompromising edge. Whether Hammer boss Sam Allardyce would part ways with his favourite player is another story.
There is no doubt that Fulham have the resources to acquire more talent if they so desire.
With owner Shahid Khan’s deep pockets and parachute payments filling the Fulham coffers, they easily have the means to further bolster their squad. A few bruisers added to the mix may give them the edge they need.
1. Re-Establish Their Home Fortress
During the past 13 seasons, Craven Cottage was one of the most difficult places in English football for opposing teams to get a result. Fulham’s top-flight longevity was made possible by turning the Cottage into a cauldron.
Road victories were an uncommon occurrence for Fulham but results at Craven Cottage were a vastly different story.
Tellingly, three quarters of Fulham’s Premier League wins were achieved at their home base.
Even the very best teams had difficulty stealing points at the Cottage. Famous victories were recorded over the years against some of Europe’s biggest clubs, including Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Juventus.
However, the wilting of their nearly impregnable defence over the past few years dispossessed Fulham of its fortress tag. Their number of home defeats and goals conceded last season (11 and 38), both more than doubled the totals from the 2009-10 campaign (5 and 15).
Re-establishing their home dominance is Fulham’s biggest key to quickly rebounding to the Premier League. If goals (and points) are easy to come by there again, Fulham will need to get used to playing away from the bright lights of the EPL for a while to come.
All statistics in this article are courtesy of statto.com
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