When Ryan Babel tapped home an equaliser for Fulham against his former employers last Sunday, Craven Cottage was brought to life in a cacophony of sound as hopes were raised for a famous result.
The charming old ground was given yet another harsh dose of top-flight reality just minutes later though as James Milner’s penalty ended their hopes of a shock against Liverpool.
Even if Ryan Babel’s goal had been enough to secure a point, it wouldn’t have been enough to save Fulham. Their relegation goose has been stuffed, roasted and plated up for a while. Their focus should now be on how they regroup in the Championship once their relegation has been confirmed.
Perhaps the most pressing order of business at Craven Cottage in the aftermath of this poor season will be the readjusting of finances once they are back in situ in the Championship.
Their promotion in 2018 saw some bold expenditure as the club tried to furnish themselves with Premier League quality. Obviously, these outgoings will prove to be unsustainable in the Championship, even with a juicy £42 million parachute payment. They will be desperate to trim down with that wage bill once their sweet, sweet TV revenue stream dries up in May.
No doubt, the plight of Fulham will not have gone unnoticed amongst the fan bases of the Championship clubs chasing promotion this term.
The top half of the second tier is currently littered with a mixed bag of clubs, from overachievers at Preston to well off chancers like Sheffield United. All of them though will have men and women at the top of their respective boards who are desperate to take that quantum leap into the big time and reap the bulbous financial rewards on offer.
Supporters at the clubs lucky enough to be in and around the promotion chase, may not share this zeal for riches though. For them, there may be some trepidation starting to grow that the Premier League may not be this fabled land of milk and honey after all. This group of fans has seen their beloved clubs ran to their very limit and beyond in order to have a stab at the big time. The questions some of them can legitimately ask is; is it worth it?
Fulham’s outlay on players last summer brought an influx of upwards of £100 million worth of playing talent. Their average annual wage going into this season was just shy of £2 million per player. To put that into some kind of context, Watford’s average, who have a not too dissimilar average gate to Fulham and are enjoying a fourth straight season in the league, is only slightly higher.
This brash spending has brought the Whites no security. With just 17 points, they are on their third manager of the campaign and are doomed to relegation in a matter of weeks.
You’d be right to point out that not all clubs end up like this. There have been success stories, where promoted clubs have spent wisely and with some prudence.
However, the alarming thing to counter that would be that a lot of Championship clubs are following Fulham’s lead in their quest for the big time. The recent revelation from Deloitte’s annual report showed that more than half of the teams in the division are running wage bills at more than 100% of their total revenue.
This reckless abandon for expenditure is all geared towards promotion and the riches of the Premier League’s current TV deal. However, with a number of clubs often running at huge losses to sustain this expenditure, you have to question what damage is being done to the fabric and soul of some of these sporting institutions. For some supporters looking up at Fulham’s plight this season, it must quite the turn off.
We are not quite at the placard-waving stages just yet, but there signs that not every fan is enamored with the prospect of having to shell out almost every penny at the club’s disposal, just to have a faint hope of surviving in the Premier League and a few exotic signings.
There have been murmurs on fan sites at Leeds United and Norwich City this season that promotion to the top flight could actually be detrimental to the good work currently being done at those clubs.
You can see why there is caution. Norwich City has patiently and prudently built up a model success story with Daniel Farke at the helm. Would they see this harmony and progress shattered if this time next season they are adrift and facing relegation?
While every fan yearns to see their team in the elite, the prospect of taking a wrecking ball to the club’s finances and chopping and changing in the dugout, all while losing 20 plus games in a season are not welcome prospects.
While the debts and annual wages bills in excess of £100 million ran up by the likes of Newcastle and Wolves were not morally palatable, as football clubs, they do at least have the makings of stable Premier League sides. Can the same be said for the likes of Bristol City and Preston North End?
Members of the board will forever be swayed by the pound signs and the glamour of being a member of the elite band of 20. However recent history is pockmarked by the self-destructive examples of Sunderland, Leeds United, Portsmouth and QPR.
All of these clubs washed up on the shores of the Championship after falling from grace. They had expensive players they couldn’t shift, fire sales to keep afloat and dwindling transfer capital to regroup. Needless to say, these football establishments did not make any sort of swift recovery.
Ultimately, as it always is, it was the supporters left picking up the wreckage in the aftermath of their disastrous game of financial chicken. And all for a tantalizing taste of life in the big time.