Shahid Khan has recently announced he is a man willing to take big decisions.
Having offered up £600m to buy Wembley lock, stock and barrel, it was Khan and not the English Football Association that pulled the deal, the American having had quite enough of the FA suits’ dithering.
Khan the multi-billionaire, owner of NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, is also the owner of Fulham, a club where similar decisiveness might soon be required. In this instance, the cash has already been spent and a salvage job may soon be in order.
The summer saw the Premier League returnees whack out over £100m on the arrival of eight players. A further four came in on not inexpensive loans.
The addition of players like Nice’s Jean-Michael Seri, who Barcelona once coveted as the successor to Xavi, Swansea’s Alfie Mawson, who with a little more luck might have gone to the World Cup instead of Harry Maguire, Luciano Vietto, loaned from Atletico Madrid, and a World Cup winner in Andre Schurrle, on loan from Borussia Dortmund, suggested a club not just happy with settling for 17th place and survival.
Only Liverpool’s £177m and Chelsea’s £129m was higher than Khan’s outlay, with Wolves spending £59m and Cardiff just £29m of their fellow promoted clubs.
It cannot be said that Fulham have not enhanced this season’s Premier League after being away for four years. In fact, in a season without very much intrigue and dulled by a crashing post-World Cup hangover, they have been positively fresh-faced entertainers.
Visitors to Craven Cottage’s famed “neutral section” are almost guaranteed to see some goals, but this is where the problems lie for manager Slavisa Jokanovic. “Slav’s our guy,” said Khan when watching the Jaguars at Wembley last week, but for how long is the floating question.
What the Serb lacks in terms of outward charisma, his voice a whispered growl, his comments usually rather generic, he makes up for in the cavalier style his teams play football.
When Watford dispensed with his services in the summer of 2015 despite Jokanovic leading them up to the Premier League, it was widely reported as a contractual issue, with Quique Sanchez Flores a cheaper, sexier option, but there was also the sense that owners the Pozzo family did not feel Jokanovic’s liberal, indulgent approach was a recipe for survival.
Fulham had the deserved reputation of being the best footballing team in the Championship during almost three years under Jokanovic’s tutelage.
It took a snatched 1-0 victory over Aston Villa in the playoffs to escape the muck and nettles of that division and it was expected that the rarefied air of the top echelon might suit the Cottagers better, especially with significant investment.
Their attacking play can often be a delight, with the muscle of Aleksandar Mitrovic complemented by the skills of Vietto and Schurrle, Seri prompting and Ryan Sessegnon burst forward down the left.
However, their defensive record is positively ruinous, and should the rate of goals conceded continue for the rest of the season, then Fulham would smash all records. It has been 28 in 10 games so far, which over 38 matches would mean 106 goals; Swindon in 1993-4 conceded 100 while having to play four games more.
Jokanovic’s answer to those problems has been to frantically reshuffle his defence for every game played so far.
It is a policy that has singularly failed but when Jokanovic talks of Calum Chambers being his most experienced Premier League defender, as he did after September’s 1-1 draw with Watford, the only league game in which Fulham have not conceded two or more goals, then an issue of recruitment is laid bare.
Chambers, on loan from Arsenal where he is surplus to requirements and still just 23, is few people’s idea of a steady, guiding hand.
Mawson has unfortunately brought his form with him from South Wales, while players like Tim Ream, Cyrus Christie and Joe Bryan have significant distance to travel to look more than decent Championship players. And in front of the defence, the level of protection is wafer thin.
Kevin McDonald, one of the survivors from the Championship, was sent off in last week’s 3-0 loss to Bournemouth, but could barely be blamed for two bookable offences when those alongside him, Seri and Sessegnon, left him slogging out a solo mission.
Monday’s trip to similarly porous if not quite so leaky Huddersfield has the look of a late-autumn relegation six-pointer, the Yorkshire club bottom, the Londoners 18th.
“He wasn’t satisfied, like me,” the Serbian said after meeting Khan last weekend.
A very first clean sheet and a first win since beating Burnley 4-2 in late August may be the only way to remain his boss’ guy for much longer.