In his debut piece, Max Hallmark looks at the relationship between our fans and owner.
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room: ticket prices during the past few years of Shahid Khan’s “custodianship” have been astronomical. Perhaps this is the reason why his name isn’t sung around the Cottage. But there was still a lack of affection for the American owner when prices were more reasonable. So maybe it’s the three Premier League relegations during his 10-year stewardship.
Without turning this into a debate around ticketing, it’s worth discussing whether Shad deserves some credit overall. While Mohammed Al Fayed’s name still rings around the stands on matchdays, Shahid Khan receives no recognition. Al Fayed is heralded as a club legend (though he wasn’t without his controversies), however, does his successor of 10 years deserve some adulation of his own?
The start and end of an era
As much praise as Al Fayed deserves, it is also necessary to acknowledge the frailties present towards the end of his tenure. When Shahid Khan bought the club from him in 2013, he inherited an ageing squad after Al Fayed began to slow his investment. The team was destined to fail in Khan’s first term, despite a deceptively high finish in the previous season disguising the club’s true state.
Less seriously, he also inherited the infamous Michael Jackson statue. Mr Khan’s decision to remove it from the holy grounds of the Cottage deserves some credit, if nothing else does – even if Al Fayed’s superstitious claims that MJ’s presence would have kept Fulham in the Premier League are to be believed. It is unfortunate that Shahid Khan oversaw a relegation in his first season in charge, especially given that a significant chunk of the responsibility for the club’s precarious position lies with previous management. Nevertheless, the link between his arrival and the end of a 13-year Premier League stint didn’t win him many fans initially.
Retaining an identity
While Fulham’s fate in 2013/14 may have been somewhat out of Mr Khan’s control, he was responsible for some panicked managerial decisions and distasteful contract terminations. Many Fulham fans like to believe that the club’s core identity lies in being family club that acts properly. This identity was jeopardised when key players were released via email following relegation; most notably, Brede Hangeland, after his five years at the club earned him legendary status.
Perhaps this responsibility lies more with the Director of Football at the time, but this offers no consolation to the negative atmosphere in Khan’s initial season. A season in which he oversaw the sacking of two managers after a relatively stable period; a bold move in his first year. The third managerial appointment that year obviously being, the unforgettable (to say the least) Felix Magath. This set off the first season back in the Championship on the wrong foot, with the team coming a little too close to relegation to League One for comfort.
A nepotistic appointment
In 2016, Shahid Khan appointed his inexperienced son, Tony, in the prestigious role of Director of Football. However, at least this appointment coincided with an upturn in the team’s performance, whether a causal link exists or not. Regardless of fan opinions of the job he has done, the nepotism involved in the appointment was naturally greeted with scepticism from the fanbase.
This was confounded when Tony announced three years later that he was launching and managing All Elite Wrestling. The launch of AEW came on top of Tony’s involvement with his father’s other sporting venture, the Jacksonville Jaguars, leading to questions over his ability to adequately attend to his third role with Fulham. However, the club has recruited astutely recently, with many of the signings this season being greatly credited with the team’s success. Yet Tony Khan’s name is widely viewed negatively among the fanbase, which taints his father’s reputation.
Investment in the present and future
Fan opinions may differ over Tony’s role at the club, but it’s difficult to dispute the fact that his father has invested greatly in the team. Fulham have often flirted with the Financial Fair Play threshold, and at one point crossed that limit, leading to a transfer embargo in 2016. There is an argument that financial sustainability is required in the long term, but the fact that Mr Khan is investing the maximum permissible highlights his ambitions and it’s subsequently paying off on the pitch.
Over the course of 10 years, Khan has injected more than half a billion pounds into the club. For context, Al Fayed invested half of that amount in 16 years, albeit that doesn’t account for football inflation. Of course, greater financial backing is not a guarantee for success, as that lot from down the road have brilliantly demonstrated. Thankfully, Fulham are being treated to success, but it’s the ambition that Khan is showing through his investment that deserves credit.
Besides, this ambition cannot be said of all owners. Clubs like Bury, Derby, Wigan and many more have all suffered from poor ownership. Points deductions and even expulsion from the Football League, in Bury’s case, have damaged these clubs and the communities that rely on them. You need to look no further than Fulham’s recent history, to find its own case of crafty owners. In 1987, David Bulstrode announced his plans to merge Fulham and QPR, in an attempt sell the lucrative ground that Craven Cottage lies. Thankfully, his plan was foiled.
It is encouraging to see that Shahid Khan is investing in all aspects of the club; he has plans to expand the training ground, improve the women’s team and most significantly, he invested £160 million in the new Riverside stand. This investment is crucial, not just for added capacity and revenue, but also for securing the future of Craven Cottage as the club’s rightful home.
Inflated ticket prices
Unfortunately, the ticket prices in this new stand are extortionate. Shahid Khan announced that season ticket prices in the Riverside will cost up to £3,000, albeit only a few seats are priced at the highest premium. Nevertheless, many fans have been forced to find alternatives. When there are price increases of 18% across the rest of ground, options appear limited.
With many fans being priced out, the Fulham Supporters’ Trust penned an open letter to Mr Khan. Disappointingly, he has failed to respond. Instead, he did an interview only accessible behind the paywall of The Times, stating FFP as the reason for the increases. If this is to be believed, it is encouraging that he has future investment in mind, however, this should not come at the cost of loyal fans. Also, it is believed that the increased revenue from tickets sales will be marginal in comparison to that gained from broadcast rights. Regardless of his intentions, however cynically they are to be viewed, his response to the issue has been poor.
Shahid Khan is far from the perfect owner, but he has done a good job all things considered. While he has not always made correct decisions, his mistakes stem from misguided good intentions. He clearly cares about the club, as his investment shows. How Mr Khan handles the ticketing situation could be deciding. It is possible to criticise the owner, while simultaneously respecting the job he has done and continues to do.
Marco Silva is bringing the club tremendous success but, without discrediting Marco, we would not have reached these heights without Shahid Khan’s financial backing. It should also be noted that Khan personally met with Silva before hiring him, and perhaps the glamour of his yacht was a factor in Silva’s decision.
In the days where it’s common for owners to not be seen, let alone heard, Fulham can be satisfied with current ownership. With the club’s current trajectory, fans can be optimistic for the future. A future that may see Khan get the appreciation he deserves.