Mo of the same at Cottage

When Mohamed Al Fayed, standing on the Craven Cottage pitch for the last time as chairman, reached into his pocket and pulled out a giant comedy moustache for a photo shoot with new owner Shahid Khan — who has his own giant very real moustache — Fulham fans everywhere must have smiled.

In fact, just about everybody smiled; because it rather summed up the quirky, charming and slightly barmy character of a man who has saved Fulham and transformed it over a 16-year period into a Premier League stalwart. But maybe it also highlighted why during that period Fulham haven’t received the recognition and the praise they deserve for what has happened both on and off the pitch at a club that, having been established in 1879, is the oldest in London.

It’s not just that Fulham are last on Match of the Day more often than they deserve (although that is probably a bone of contention in the Hammersmith End) but that other achievements have gone unnoticed too.

As a new season begins, for instance, with debates over Financial Fair Play, overspending on wages, inflated transfer fees and clubs in the lower leagues struggling to even survive the burden of participating in modern football, Fulham kick off the post-Fayed era in remarkable health.

Under the guidance of Chairman Mo, the Egyptian-born former owner of Harrods, the club has undergone the most incredible journey from the brink of bankruptcy and, from only a few years before Fayed arrived, 91st place in the Football League to a regular slot in the top half of the Premier League and to financial prosperity.

This weekend the club begins its 13th successive season in the top flight (at Sunderland) and also has plans to rebuild its famous Riverside Stand to extend the capacity of Craven Cottage to 30,000; a remarkable achievement when you consider the average attendance in 1996-7, the season before Fayed took control, was just 4,194.

After 16 years in charge at the Cottage and at the age of 84 Fayed has now retired, selling the club for an undisclosed price to American Pakistan-born billionaire Khan; but he has left it in almost textbook health.

In 2002 Fulham announced annual losses of £24m, a figure which at the time was a record deficit for a British football club, but these days they run at a small profit and have done so for three years in-a-row (accounts for 2011-12 show an operating profit of £1.2m).

In fact Fayed’s last act as chairman was to convert a £187m loan into equity, which means the club are almost entirely debt free — one of the few in England who can make that boast.

So for all the joking around in photo shoots — and that rather uncomfortable statue of Michael Jackson that still lurks at Craven Cottage despite the obvious embarrassment of fans — there was a serious business plan in place during Fayed’s years in charge which have left a considerable legacy for his successor.

When Fayed first arrived in west London there were few journalists who attended his first press conference who could be convinced that he would still be at the club 16 years later. He tried to convince us all he had grown up a Fulham fan in Egypt, which seemed highly unlikely, and talked of making Fulham ‘the Manchester United of the south’ — a promise he probably regrets with the benefit of hindsight.

In reality it proved impossible for homely Fulham to achieve that kind of status, even when owned by a man with a £650m fortune and ranked into the top 100 in the Sunday Times Rich List — mostly because far richer men such as Roman Abramovich soon arrived to rival him and out-spend him.

But Fayed also promised to take the club into the Premier League within five years, and that part he did achieve — in fact doing it in only four seasons and winning the Championship title in spectacular style under the managership of Jean Tigana.

What has been an even greater achievement, however, has the way he has transformed the club from a struggling lower division club living mainly in the past and almost revelling in being ‘old fashioned’ to a modern Premier League outfit that reached the Europa League final under Roy Hodgson and has increased its average attendance six-fold.

This season manager Martin Jol admits the team’s fortunes may depend on how they fare in the transfer window over the next two weeks; but nobody is tipping them for relegation and Fayed still has high hopes for the future.

“It has been a pleasure and privilege to be the chairman of Fulham for 16 memorable years,” he said on his retirement.

I shall look to Shahid Khan to build on the success of the 16 seasons and to deliver the greater glory the fans desire and deserve.”

The may not be the Manchester United of the South; but Fayed has still transformed the club in spectacular style and it’s far to say a statue of the Egyptian outside the gates of the Cottage, alongside it’s most famous player Johnny Haynes, would not look out of place.

It would certainly prove more popular than Michael Jackson.

More in this section

Sport
Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox