Football: Fayed's race against time

Fulham cannot hold back on their ground work. By Norman Fox
MOHAMED AL FAYED'S long-term commitment to Fulham, which some fans view with scepticism, is about to be tested. The club's comfortable promotion to the First Division suggests that Premiership football is only a season away. But by then Kevin Keegan could be England's full-time manager, while the long-discussed redevelopment of Craven Cottage will become a necessity at the same time as the team will require expensive strengthening.

During the celebrations for the club's promotion to the First Division last week, Keegan assured the chairman that he would see out his contract, but that extends only until June of next year, a few weeks before Fulham could conceivably be looking forward to the Premier. The club's managing director, Neil Rodford, admitted that although Fulham's aim was to stand on their own two feet financially within five years, the dual challenge of reinforcing the team and, as a requirement of Premiership status, pushing ahead with an all-seater stadium would present a dilemma. It will also mean continuing to dip into the chairman's purse.

Under the rules of the Football Licensing Authority (FLA), Fulham have three years from the beginning of next season in which to turn the old- fashioned Craven Cottage ground, which has been their home since 1896, into a modern all-seater stadium. Meanwhile, their capacity of 19,250 will remain and should they be promoted again next year they are likely to become the only Premiership club with standing-room terraces. As recommended by the Taylor Report, standing room at clubs in the top two divisions should have been abolished by the start of the 1994-95 season.

In the 10th year after the Hillsborough disaster the fact that every current Premier League ground is all-seater emphasises that it took a tragedy to bring football to its senses. Even so, many clubs like Sunderland, promoted to the Premiership last week, have spent fortunes on stadiums which meet the Taylor requirements but have been comparatively restricted in their spending on players. The result is the prevailing up-one-season, down-the-next situation. There would be ill-feeling towards Fulham if they held back to the last minute on ground development while pouring more into attracting better quality players.

At present, five First Division clubs have not fulfilled the all-seater requirement, but all five are in the process of doing so. Even if Fulham fail to start redeveloping this year they will still be required to come into line with the latest regulations reg-arding barriers and exit routes.

In the past the FLA has allowed some clubs to enter the Premiership on the basis of imminent relocation to new all-seater stadiums, Bolton Wanderers being an example. Fulham, however, are awaiting official written confirmation that should they be promoted next season they will be exempt from the all-seater requirement for a further two years from the beginning of the 1999-2000 season. A spokesman for the FLA confirmed that permission would be given. However, should Fulham fail to complete the work within the deadline they would almost certainly forfeit their Premiership status.

So far, Fayed's money has been channelled more into the playing staff (pounds 12m since Keegan took over with a further pounds 11m promised) and the Chief Operating Officer's lucrative contract rather than into significant improvements to a ground fundamentally unchanged since the Riverside Stand was opened in 1972. This has revived speculation about his long-term plans for a valuable Thames-side property.

The club has not yet applied to the Football Trust for a grant for redevelopment. However, Rodford said: "Although we have three seasons, we hope to submit redevelopment plans within the next three months. The aim is to have an all-seater stadium. Craven Cottage has been a controversial site for a very long time so the length of the application will determine when we start." A long delay could seriously jeopardise the club's ambitions.

He added: "When the chairman acquired the club and Kevin and I were appointed we said there were two objectives, to get the team to the Premier League and make the club financially independent. That would guarantee the club's future without the need for a white knight putting the money in year-in, year-out. We think we can achieve that within five years. There are very few clubs in this country that make a trading profit. We aim to make Fulham secure for the next 100 years." The club is talking a good future, but the sceptics will not be convinced until the builders move in.