Status and income are fragile qualities, but ‘soft’ fans can be the salvation of Fulham even in these hard times at Craven Cottage

The Weekend Dossier: One fan whose first love was Liverpool ruefully accepts he will still go if Fulham go down

There are Fulham fans of my acquaintance who have followed the club for more than 40 years, not just during the recent glories, but through the dark times such as the 1980s, when bankruptcy loomed, and the 1990s’ flirtation with relegation to the Conference. Whatever happens this season they will be there next year, on the Hammersmith End, in the Riverside, or the Johnny Haynes Stand.

But Fulham also have other fans, akin to some of those who used to swell Wimbledon’s gates at Selhurst Park. These are people who now live far from their hometown team, or London-based fans of nationally supported clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United. They are unable, or unwilling, to make the commitment to watch their first love week in, week out, but want to watch top-flight football matches like today’s derby match with Chelsea.

Craven Cottage, with a capacity of 25,000-plus, occupied by a club whose hardcore support is significantly fewer, offers that opportunity. It even has an official “neutral” section in the Putney End. It is also – and this factor is not to be  underestimated – a club that does not  suffer/enjoy the extreme supporter behaviour present at many other grounds: what some fans regard as “a good atmosphere” others regard as intimidating, especially if with children.

Such “soft” spectators are anathema to dyed-in-the-wool fans, who deride them as “gloryseekers” and “plastic fans”. Personally, I find this a one-eyed view and have no problem with spectators who simply want to watch a decent game, something which was once common. Neither do Fulham, as long as they pay their money at the gate. The problem is that these supporters are unlikely to be as eager to fork out to watch Championship matches as they are Premier League contests. As Wimbledon found.

Buoyed by regular London derbies, and matches against teams such as Manchester United and Liverpool, Wimbledon averaged 17,000 in their last three seasons in the top flight. The first season after relegation (and before the boycott promoted by the move to Milton Keynes) they averaged less than 8,000. The casual fan had melted away and they were back to the hardcore.

Fulham are historically a much bigger club than Wimbledon, but the 20,000-plus average gates they have been pulling in since 2006 are their highest since the 1960s. Between 1985 and 1996, during which time they slid from the second tier to the fourth, Fulham’s average gate never topped 5,000. Even as a Premier League team as recently as a decade ago the average was 16,342.

Charlton Athletic – a club of arguably similar size and heritage to Fulham, and with the same London aspect – doubled their gates from 13,000 to 26,000 during their recent spell in the top flight, but last season, in the Championship, were drawing 18,500. Given admission prices have to be cut on being relegated, that is a huge drop in income, exacerbating even more the devastating cut in TV revenue.

Football clubs’ status is fragile. Witness Wolves, or Sheffield United. Those two will surely be back in the top flight one day, such is the revenue generated by their support base (though they have recently struggled to stay there). Clubs with historically smaller support can have no such optimism. It is hard to envisage Swindon Town, Barnsley or Bradford City returning to the Premier League any time soon – or even Coventry.

This is the backdrop to what Rene Meulensteen described, after his axing by Fulham, as the owner Shahid Khan “freaking out” and “hitting the panic button on emotion and fear”.

Relegation could be as damaging for Fulham as it was for Charlton, who plummeted into the third tier before climbing halfway back. In America, Khan has been the epitome of patience as owner of the NFL franchise Jacksonville Jaguars. He stuck with the head coach, Mike Mularkey, throughout an abysmal 2012 season in which the win-loss record was 2-14, and retains successor Gus Bradley despite a 4-12 record in 2013. In the NFL, however, a bad season may as well become a terrible one, as that grants the team better options in the subsequent draft, and, crucially, there is no relegation.

Khan’s predecessor at Fulham, Mohamed al-Fayed, was prepared to act ruthlessly to protect his investment. He worked through 10 managers in 16 years, most of whom departed at the Egyptian’s behest. But none of Fayed’s managerial choices seemed as random as the two Khan has made in his seven months.

Pressure, however, does strange things to owners and executives as well as players and managers. Witness events at the hitherto shrewdly run West Bromwich Albion, where Pepe Mel’s tenure threatens to be as brief as Meulensteen’s. The yo-yo years have grown Albion’s support from 16,000 to 25,000 and the club has a decent historical pedigree, but the Championship is packed with medium-sized Midlands clubs scrambling to regain elite status and chairman Jeremy Peace is desperate not to rejoin them.

There are two factors in Fulham’s favour. One is Fayed’s parting gift, converting  into equity an estimated £212m in loans prior to selling the club to Khan (for £150m-£200m). The club is thus unburdened by huge debt.

There is also the effect on that “soft” support of 13 consecutive seasons watching Fulham in the top flight – and increasingly cheering for them. Some of those fans who went along “just to watch the football” are now committed to the club. “I’ll still go if we go down, I’m too hooked to stop,” said one, originally from Glasgow, who began going to Craven Cottage as Fulham was the nearest top-flight team when he moved to London. Another, whose first love is Liverpool, was less hooked and is unimpressed with the treatment of Meulensteen. But he ruefully accepts he will still go if Fulham are relegated as his son, whom he has taken to Craven Cottage since he was four years old, is now “Fulham till he dies”, but still too young to go alone.

This has been Fulham’s unexpected weapon in the constant fight to build long-term support. Rather than watch a “bigger” club on TV, young (and old) fans have been able to watch Fulham in the flesh, and become hooked, for football in the raw is an addictive experience.

Even if Felix Magath fails to save Fulham, they will go down with more supporters than they came up with in 2001, which offers hope that they would return sooner rather than later.

Five asides

1. Spain’s ‘big names’ bigger

Roy Hodgson admits he may have to omit “a big name” from England’s World Cup squad. Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole are believed to be in the frame. Meanwhile Spain leave out Juan Mata, David Villa, Fernando Llorente, David de Gea and Fernando Torres from the squad to play Italy next week.

2. Boothroyd bounces back

The appointment of Aidy Boothroyd as an England youth coach will doubtless be mocked since his last job ended in December with Northampton Town bottom of League Two. But he is a thoughtful coach with good experience at youth level who, at 43, still has much to offer. It could prove a shrewd appointment.

3. Joy of Powell’s acrobatics

Image of the week? Chris Powell swinging on the crossbar after his Charlton team won at Hillsborough to reach the FA Cup’s last eight. Not just as the usually calm Powell is a good guy, and it showed the old pot still matters, but because such unadulterated joy is a welcome reminder of the game’s capacity to delight.

4. Get well soon, Rhys

These pages recently carried an interview with Rhys Weston, a much-travelled player coming to terms with the winding down of his career. In a reminder of how swiftly footballer’s lives can change, he suffered a serious knee injury last week on loan to Sutton United and may never play again. Our best wishes go to him.

5. Tan’s support only on loan

The delusions of Vincent Tan could be viewed as comical if he had given Cardiff City £75m, but the fact he has merely loaned the club this money makes his posturing offensive, his rebranding of their shirt colour scandalous and his threats to quit sinister.

Twitter: @GlennMoore

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