To this day Tony Khan thinks Fulham had a good transfer window in the summer of 2018. Which is sweet. The untrained eye might be tempted to regard the £100m spent on Jean Michaël Seri, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Alfie Mawson, Andre Schürrle and at least half a dozen others as one of the great spending failures of the modern Premier League era. Particularly when you consider what happened next: relegation with 26 points, three separate managers and a full-blown fistfight between Aleksandar Mitrovic and Aboubakar Kamara that apparently began during meditation in 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 the Premier League two years later. “We spent on the future,” he said. “I am very happy with the players I bought.” Which encapsulates the dilemma for promoted clubs when it comes to navigating the market. How far do you go in trying to chase the dream? How much is too much? And to what extent are you preparing not merely for a tilt at the top tier but the likely relegation that follows?
With the transfer window having been open for almost a month, the early evidence is that this year’s crop of promoted clubs are treating Fulham’s effort in 2018 as a cautionary tale rather than a model to follow. This includes Fulham themselves, where the unhurried pace of business has apparently been a source of some irritation for manager Marco Silva. João Palhinha has arrived from Sporting, with Manchester United’s Andreas Pereira likely to follow. Bournemouth have been more frugal still, with only two free transfers completed 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 the ruinous consequences of a poorly judged spending spree better than anyone. “The money at Fulham wasn’t spent right,” he said in an interview with the Times in May. “You can spend it on players not used to the level. A lot of things have to line up. Dean Smith spent £150m with [Aston] Villa [in 2019] and they stayed up on the last day of the season. In an ideal world I’d spend £100m, but I can’t do that. The reality is that it’s going to be a tough year.”
Fulham are not the only team to have suffered buyers’ remorse. Last summer Norwich were the biggest spenders of the promoted clubs, blowing over £40m 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 did very much. Watford made 14 signings, of whom only four reached double-figure appearances in the Premier League. They followed Norwich back down to the Championship. Meanwhile Brentford, who have run a transfer profit in six of the past seven seasons, comfortably stayed up.
Then there is the other end of the bargain: while the promoted club is desperately trying to plug holes, they remain vulnerable to getting picked off themselves. Norwich’s scattergun pursuit of signings was in large part a pre-emptive panic spurred by the loss of Emi Buendía to Aston Villa. Fulham have already lost their exciting teenage winger Fábio Carvalho to Liverpool. Nottingham Forest have lost Brice Samba to Lens. And of the three promoted clubs it is perhaps Forest who are in the most delicate position, torn between throwing everything at their first Premier League campaign in 23 years, and the sort of judicious prudence that got them there in the first place.
So far Forest have made four signings: goalkeeper Dean Henderson on loan, Giulian Biancone and Moussa Niakhaté in defence and striker Taiwo Awoniyi for £17.5m from Union Berlin. What links them all is a profile: young (between 22 and 26), paid modest wages, largely unproven at the top level and with plenty of residual value in a future Championship promotion campaign. This is what the club’s chief executive, Dane Murphy, calls “balanced and purposeful investment” – each-way bets that may pay out immediately but won’t burn the club if they don’t work out.
Forest and Bournemouth’s recruitment this summer – and Fulham’s to an extent – suggests that promoted clubs are increasingly planning for failure as well as for success. Which sounds fatalistic, but with the gap between the top two divisions widening every season, is just sound business sense. Seven of the past 12 teams to come up from the Championship have gone down the next year. Only clubs with the very deepest pockets – Wolves in 2018, Villa in 2019, Leeds in 2020 – can afford to buy on a Premier League budget.
As the Norwich sporting director, Stuart Webber, put it this summer: “We can’t just sign five 30-year-olds in the hope of staying in the league, because if it goes wrong we won’t have a football club.” And really, this is the reality for clubs at that level. The astronomical sum of money required to even contemplate establishing a club in the Premier League makes the whole enterprise a gamble. Or, put another way: the method most likely to bridge the gap is also the method most likely to lead you to disaster.