JToday Tony Khan thinks Fulham had a good transfer window in the summer of 2018. Which is nice. The untrained eye might be tempted to regard the £100m spent on Jean Michaël Seri, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Alfie Mawson, André Schürrle and at least half a dozen others as one of the great failures spending in the modern era of the Premier League. Especially considering what happened next: relegation with 26 points, three separate managers and a full-fledged fight between Aleksandar Mitrovic and Aboubakar Kamara that apparently started during meditation during a team yoga session .
For Khan, the investment made in 2018 – which also included Mitrovic and Joe Bryan, who scored the winning goal in the 2020 playoff final – was a key reason Fulham were back in action. Premier League two years later. “We spent on the future,” he said. “I’m very happy with the players I bought.” Which sums up the dilemma of promoted clubs when it comes to navigating the market. How far do you go to try to pursue the dream? How much is too much? And how well are you preparing not just for a tilt to the top tier, but the likely relegation that follows?
With the transfer window open for nearly a month, early evidence is that this year’s crop of promoted clubs are treating Fulham’s 2018 effort as a cautionary tale rather than a model to follow. This includes Fulham itself, where the leisurely pace of business has apparently been a source of irritation for manager Marco Silva. João Palhinha arrived from Sporting, followed by Andreas Pereira from Manchester United. Bournemouth have been even more frugal, with just two free transfers made and manager Scott Parker warning fans not to expect big signings.
Of course, Parker was a veteran of Fulham’s car crash relegation season and knows better than anyone the disastrous consequences of a misjudged spending spree. “The money at Fulham has not been spent properly,” he said in an interview with The Times in May. “You can spend it on players who aren’t used to the level. A lot of things have to line up. Dean Smith spent £150million with [Aston] Villa [in 2019] and they stayed awake on the last day of the season. In an ideal world I would spend £100m, but I can’t do that. The reality is that it’s going to be a difficult year.
Fulham are not the only team to have suffered buyer’s remorse. Last summer, Norwich were the biggest spenders of promoted clubs, splashing over £40million on Milot Rashica, Christos Tzolis, Josh Sargent and Dimitrios Giannoulis. It’s fine if you haven’t heard of any of them, by the way: none of them have done much. Watford have made 14 signings, only four of which have reached double-digit Premier League appearances. They trailed Norwich to the Championship. Meanwhile Brentford, who have made a transfer profit in six of the last seven seasons, have remained comfortably on their feet.
Then there’s the other end of the bargain: as the promoted club desperately tries to plug the holes, they remain vulnerable to getting caught themselves. Norwich’s pursuit of signings was largely a preemptive panic over the loss of Emi Buendía to Aston Villa. Fulham have already lost exciting teenage winger Fábio Carvalho to Liverpool. Nottingham Forest lost Brice Samba to Lens. And of the three clubs promoted, it is perhaps Forest who are in the trickiest position, torn between throwing everything away in their first Premier League campaign in 23 years, and the kind of shrewd caution that got them there in first place.
Forest have made four signings so far: goalkeeper Dean Henderson on loan, Giulian Biancone and Moussa Niakhate in defense and striker Taiwo Awoniyi for £17.5million from Union Berlin. What connects them all is a profile: young (between 22 and 26), paid modest salaries, largely unproven at the highest level and with plenty of residual value in a future Championship promotion campaign. It’s what club chief executive Dane Murphy calls ‘balanced and targeted investing’ – one-way bets that can pay off immediately but won’t burn the club down if they don’t work out.
The recruitment of Forest and Bournemouth this summer – and that of Fulham to some extent – suggests promoted clubs are increasingly planning for failure as well as success. Which sounds fatalistic, but with the gap between the top two divisions growing every season, it’s just good business sense. Seven of the last 12 teams to exit the Championship have dropped next year. Only the clubs with the deepest pockets – Wolves in 2018, Villa in 2019, Leeds in 2020 – can afford to buy on a Premier League budget.
As Norwich sporting director Stuart Webber said this summer: “We can’t just sign five 30-year-olds hoping to stay in the league because if things go wrong we won’t have of soccer club. “And really, that’s the reality of clubs at this level. The astronomical sum needed to even consider building a Premier League club makes the whole undertaking a gamble. Or, in other words: the method most likely to close the gap is also the method most likely to lead you to disaster.