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Tough days ahead for Fulham's faithful

Julie Stewart-Binks and Warren Barton break down this season's Premier League relegation race.
Julie Stewart-Binks and Warren Barton break down this season's Premier League relegation race.
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Amy Lawrence

Amy Lawrence is a Contributing Writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since the 1994 FIFA World Cup, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer. Follow her on Twitter.

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The modern method of football club ownership in the Barclays Premier League, that sees Manchester City and Chelsea the posterboys for a style that ripples with huge financial muscle, comes with uncomfortable, loaded question. What happens if the benefactor pulls out? So far the best anyone can do is hazard guesses: Perhaps someone equally generous steps in. Maybe a business plan is in place to safeguard the immediate future, and considering the most radical upgrade has already happened the club would be reasonably placed to sustain their level. It’s possible the whole structure will implode.

A fascinating case study, albeit at a smaller scale, is going on right now at Craven Cottage. Mohamed Al Fayed was a trailblazer of sorts when he acquired Fulham Football Club in 1997. The trend for overseas ownership of English football clubs was in its infancy -- this was five years before the name Roman Abramovich struck a chord with many people outside Russia, eight years before the Glazer family bought a controlling stake in Manchester United, and over a decade before Abu Dhabi’s ruling family began to write checks for Manchester City. Al Fayed moved in at Fulham with grand ideas and a philanthopist’s largesse to transform a London club that had tumbled towards the lowest of ebbs.

It is worth reflecting upon where Fulham were at that time. In 1996, they hit their worst ever league position, languishing at 17th place in the bottom division. Come 1997, they had clambered out of English football’s fourth tier and Al Fayed swanned in brimming with audacious ambition. The Egyptian business magnate predicted that Fulham would be a Premier League club within five years. It was a masterplan that seemed far fetched, but the club rode the crest of a wave in astonishing fashion. Two more promotions in quick succession took Fulham into the promised land.

They have been there ever since. But the Premier League table makes grim reading for Fulham supporters right now. They are propping up the rest, rock bottom, and in such shaky form the pressure is already intensifying for new coach Rene Muelensteen, who is only a few weeks into the job.

Al Fayed’s 16 years as Fulham’s backer were largely inspired. Many of his managerial picks worked out well, with some fine fits for a job that required imaginative work to build teams that had a reputation for solid football with a pleasing style. Roy Hodgson, now the coach of the English national team, took Fulham into European competition, and a thrilling march to the final of the Europa League.

Al Fayed’s style of ownership was mocked when he commisioned a statue of his friend Michael Jackson to embellish the stadium, which was eventually removed. But it’s absurd for that oddity to cloud his achievement in running the club with passion and substance.

Last summer Al Fayed decided to sell the club to Shahid Kahn. During his ownership, Al Fayed had provided the club with almost 200 million pounds of interest free loans. In his final season, he converted those loans into equity in the club, effectively making them debt free. It concluded a remarkable period in the history of the club.

But what now? Fulham are currently in their 13th successive season in the top flight, but that run is under serious threat. It is not inconceivable to imagine they may soon be on their third manager of the current campaign. Where all those years ago Al Fayed took over a club beginning to rise, it is hard to escape the feeling Kahn has picked up a problem on its way downwards.

The season has been painful, and the feeling of decline is obvious. At the beginning of November Fulham were 13th in the table. The likes of Crystal Palace and Sunderland were way below them, and wore that look of doom. But a woeful sequence of losses dragged Fulham into trouble and spelled the end for their former coach Martin Jol.

During the winter time a cluster of the troubled clubs appointed new managers with the hope of turning their season around. But here’s the biggest nightmare for Fulham. Their losing habit has become entrenched, and Meulensteen has been unable to halt it. However, the fellow strugglers are fighting back. Sunderland’s renaissance under Gus Poyet has hauled them up towards mid-table. Crystal Palace have revived themselves thanks to the touch of Tony Pulis to creep out of the relegation zone. Both, at the very least, are playing with hope. Fulham’s is negligible.

Fulham's ineffectiveness in attack vs. Southampton did not help ease their Premier League relegation fears (Image: WhoScored.com).

Fulham’s weekend thrashing at the hands of Southampton was sobering enough in itself, but was made even gloomier by the scorelines elsewhere. Victories for Sunderland, Cardiff, West Ham -- Hull City and West Brom earned useful point -- helped. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” said Meulensteen, which was not quite enough of a rallying call to avert the sense of growing concern.

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Fulham imported some new talent over January, and the likes of Kostas Mitroglou, a proven goalscorer, and Lewis Holtby and William Kvist on loan may be able to make a difference once they settle in. But if there is no swift upsurge in fortunes, Meulensteen’s job may well be passed to Alan Curbishley, who spent many years keeping another London club, Charlton Athletic, in the Premier League’s establishment.

Whether Kahn can rescue the situation, and if the worst happens has the wherewithal to push Fulham back onto some upwards momentum, remains to be seen. The new owner has quite the challenge on his hands.

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