Sunday 25 August 2019

Protecting club's identity crucial outside the 'Top Six'

Silver lining: Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic winner from the penalty spot gave fans something to cheer despite relegation. Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images
Silver lining: Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic winner from the penalty spot gave fans something to cheer despite relegation. Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Sam Dean

Let us start with a question. What do Middlesbrough, Fulham, Queens Park Rangers and Cardiff City have in common?

No prizes for getting the easy answer, which is that they have all been relegated from the Premier League in the past six seasons.

More interesting than that, and much more instructive for the Championship clubs scrapping it out for promotion, is that each of those doomed campaigns shared a common theme: lavish summer spending.

Fulham's relegation this season marks the fourth time in the past six seasons that the promoted club which spent the most money in the summer transfer window has subsequently been relegated.

They follow Middlesbrough (2016-'17), QPR (2014-'15) and Cardiff (2013-'14) in derailing a winning team by trying too hard to spruce up their squad with new faces.

Damage

Clearly, too much change can cause irreparable damage. And in Fulham's case, the tremors that followed their £100 million post-promotion outlay have been felt beyond the players and the three managers who have sat in their dugout this season.

The common consensus is that the overhaul of the squad, and then the playing style, had caused the club to lose its "identity".

It is a vague concept, "identity", but this sort of thing matters more than ever these days. Just look at Scott Parker, whose sole mission since taking over from the destructive Claudio Ranieri has been to "bring an identity back".

Simply put, Parker wants Fulham to feel like Fulham again after Ranieri had dismayed the fan base by abandoning the style and players that carried them to promotion.

Fulham are of course a dramatic example of this identity crisis, but they are by no means alone. It said plenty about the primacy of the "Southampton Way" on the south coast that Claude Puel was sacked after leading them to the League Cup final and eighth place in the Premier League.

Puel then took his identity vacuum to Leicester City, where he was again sacked despite posting a set of results that were far from disastrous.

We can go on. Who, for example, can forget Sam Allardyce's unpopularity at West Ham United?

"The fans are brainwashed into thinking that, historically, the club had a particular style of play which was akin to Barcelona, which was potty," Allardyce has said of his time there.

"I once called the supporters deluded and I stand by that. I don't know who invented the 'West Ham Way' phrase, but it's a millstone around the club's neck."

The concept of identity extends beyond playing style, though.

Loosely speaking, it has become the modern catch-all term for a sense of purpose and direction at a club, whether that is a commitment to youth, a certain approach to the transfer market or the overarching on-field philosophy.

A cynic might suggest it is in a club's interest to drum up their "identity". It is far easier to sell yourself to a global audience - and let us face it, that is what most of them are trying to do - when you can paint the institution as somehow special or unique.

But this applies to the supporters as well as the money men, and it is tempting to wonder whether the modern balance of the Premier League is the reason for the significance of these concepts of individuality and philosophy.

With the "Big Six" becoming bigger and better, the other 14 teams in the Premier League know that they are almost certainly not going to win the title, or even push for the top four.

In short, the mid-table teams have less to play for.

Avoiding relegation is the primary goal for many of them, while the height of ambition for the others is generally a seventh-placed finish. In this context, results do not mean quite so much, so the "feel" of a club and a fan's affinity with it takes on greater importance.

It is also a consequence, surely, of there being so few home-grown players at Premier League clubs.

Mercenaries from central Europe do not carry quite the same appeal as local lads, so fans have to find other ways to relate to their team.

It all means that clubs with ambition can no longer be focused entirely on results. If they were, David Moyes and Sam Allardyce would not still be out of work.

In modern football, there must instead be a wider purpose if the fans are to be kept onside.

As the Fulham fans at Bournemouth on Saturday will testify, even the pain of relegation can be softened by a sense of defined identity. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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