During the middle of this long and painful transfer window for Fulham, the club faced the prospect of losing star striker Aleksandar Mitrovic and manager Marco Silva to Saudi Arabia.
This was a nightmare that could have got worse. Willian was offered a mega salary offer from Al Shabab, despite signing a new deal at Craven Cottage just days earlier, but Fulham resisted any move.
The squad were not immune to the speculation and Tim Ream, the 36-year-old US defender and goalscorer in the 5-1 away loss to Manchester City on Saturday, provided an insight into some of their thinking at that time, speaking in his podcast, The American Dream, last week.
“If (Mitrovic) goes, is that going to be a problem for us?” he said. “In the short term: yeah, maybe. Has he been an important part of the team? There’s no denying that. But no player in any club should be bigger than the club. The conversation between a bunch of us established that it was more important that the manager stayed, if we had to pick between the two.”
Fulham’s success last year confounded expectations — and recruitment was the backbone. Players like Joao Palhinha and Bernd Leno elevated the team. But there is no escaping the value of Silva. He ended the yo-yo years on the field, and his project attracted players to the Cottage.
Heading into this window, Silva had refused to commit to a new contract and that heightened concerns he would leave. Despite the huge offers from Saudi Arabia, he stayed at Fulham. He said his preference, and ambitions, were to coach in the Premier League.
The big question for Fulham is whether they can persuade him to extend a contract that is into its last season. Matching those ambitions is not easy, as a club of Fulham’s size has limits. But in the absence of that ‘better’ offer, they can provide a platform for success, as they did last season.
With the closure of the window, thoughts turned to whether the work Fulham have done — and how they have gone about it — would be enough to extend Silva’s stay. By the close of play on Friday night, Silva was left with a squad that looked stronger in depth in positions. But not every position was covered. It was a bruising experience.
“It is what it is — we go with the players we have,” said Silva. “It will be tough for us. We added some quality, we lost some quality. I would love to not leave everything for the last day. We wanted to add another midfielder; it was not possible.”
The closure of the window brought reprieve and retention for Fulham. On deadline day, Palhinha came close to joining Bayern Munich, only for it to collapse in a brutal way. He had completed a medical and posed for photographs with his ‘new’ kit… only for Fulham to pull the plug.
Fulham agreed a fee in the region of €65million (£58m) with Bayern and for Palhinha, now 28, this felt like a late-career opportunity to move to one of the biggest clubs in the game — and he was desperate to take that opportunity. He made that clear to his coach and Fulham. The timing was not ideal. Frustration seemed to be evident from a cryptic Instagram post by Silva’s assistant Luis Boa Morte, in Portuguese: “Not everyone in your workplace is your friend. Do your job, get paid and go home,” was the original post, to which Boa Morte added: “No more!”.
The move developed late. The proposed fee would have been a club record but to lose Mitrovic and Palhinha in the same window would have been a huge blow. Palhinha has felt irreplaceable and his exit would markedly change the team’s fortunes this season. Fulham, commendably, would not sell Palhinha without a replacement and they did not find one despite their attempts to sign main target Scott McTominay from Manchester United, and Tottenham’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. Neither of those two players wished to join Fulham so Palhinha had to return.
Fundamentally, Bayern came in too late and the only outcome was a dejected player, who missed the defeat to City. “It was probably one of the toughest days of his life,” said Silva. “He’s going to need support from us, our fans and his team-mates.” Palhinha’s brother, Goncalo, took to Instagram on Sunday to thank Bayern and suggested the move may happen in January. “What’s left of Munich?,” he wrote in a now deleted post. “They didn’t kill the dream, they just postponed it.”
Fulham held onto Tosin Adarabioyo, despite interest from Monaco, as they could not find a replacement and Harrison Reed stayed after enquiries from Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The incomings improved the squad, but they were not complete. Silva said to the media that he wanted to sign five new players heading into the final week, and that he was targeting a midfielder, a winger, two full-backs and a striker. Fulham filled three of those positions while also adding a goalkeeper.
Those they did sign added quality to the squad. Timothy Castagne, an important Silva target, arrived on Tuesday from Leicester City for an initial £12.5million, rising to £15m. Goalkeeper Steven Benda joined from Swansea City for £745,000, while on deadline day, two more were signed. Alex Iwobi, a player Silva signed when at Everton in 2019, joined for a fee that could reach £22million if all add-ons are met. There was also a last-minute loan for Fode Ballo-Toure, another summer-long target, from AC Milan to cover at left-back. They joined Raul Jimenez (£5m from Wolves), Calvin Bassey (£19m from Ajax) and Adama Traore (free). Deals for Callum Hudson-Odoi and Lucas Ocampos were sought but club sources — who, like all in this piece, spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their relationships — said Silva did not want them.
In the end, Fulham only lost one regular starter from last season: Mitrovic for a club record £45m, a fee more than double what they paid five and a half years ago. On paper, that is a good business for a 28-year-old who wanted to leave.
What mattered though was how he was replaced. Raul Jimenez was signed before Mitrovic’s departure and became the replacement. He has impressed so far and may come good in front of goal. But has not scored for 18 months and for now it is not clear where Fulham’s goals will now come from. At 32, even if he proves all of his doubters wrong as Willian did last year, Jimenez is not a striker for the long term.
Club sources said Silva did not push for a striker late in the window, content with the three at his disposal: Jimenez, Rodrigo Muniz and Carlos Vinicius. The latter received late interest from Turkey, while there is also the pathway of young forward Jay Stansfield, on loan at Birmingham City, to consider too.
Silva had previously told the media that any striker signed had to be “the right one” while improving on those already at the club, and that other areas needed strengthening. “I don’t want just to put all the focus on the striker position,” he said last month. Another source close to the club suggested earlier in the window that Bournemouth’s Dominic Solanke was a player he admired, although it is unclear whether he would have been attainable.
Overall, the strength of Fulham’s overall squad is better even if holes remain. Antonee Robinson signed a new contract, and so too did Willian. But longer term, there are questions. Fulham have fielded the oldest average starting XI in the league (29 years, 65 days). Experience has been the bedrock of Premier League stability, but there will need to be a transition. The arrival of Bassey is a sign of forward-planning in defence with Ream in his twilight years.
Fulham did not break the bank, which may offer room for that surgery down the line. They spent around £65million in total, having received £45m. That said, they were not afraid to spend big on the right player. Iwobi and Bassey are among the club’s top five most expensive ever signings. There is scope to invest under financial fair play parameters — but, as always with Fulham, considering the lack of alternative revenue streams, this relies on owner Shahid Khan shouldering losses. A third delay to the Riverside Stand will no doubt compound this issue.
While the squad is good, it is the process has been questioned. Silva’s grievance was the fact Fulham do business late, stating publicly, for a second successive year, that he had told the board his plans before the summer. Late business is a consistent theme across previous seasons. On the one hand, it can allow the club to sign preferred targets, or secure better terms. On the other, it prevents any preparation time for the new signing in pre-season. It is also risky, if deals cannot be completed in time. Uncertainty about Silva’s future, amid Saudi interest, also likely played a part in delays this year. But a busy deadline day is not new in west London.
Fulham do have an unorthodox recruitment structure. Silva is heavily involved and his day-to-day contact is chief executive Alistair Mackintosh, but their recruitment team is overseen by Tony Khan, the director of football operations and vice chairman. He combines that role with the position of chief strategy officer of the Jacksonville Jaguars, as well as running All Elite Wrestling. It is unique. Ahead of the final week of the window he also ran one of the biggest-ever wrestling events at Wembley Stadium.
This transfer window felt like an attempt to capture last season’s success in a bottle and hold onto it. Judging from early performances, it may well work and that is no bad thing. Returning to being a stable Premier League team has been a long-held ambition of the club and its fanbase. Retaining that has to be seen as success and this window, on the whole, should help preserve it.
But they won’t want to be left standing still, especially when the vultures circle again. Time will tell on that, and whether it is all enough for Silva to extend his stay.
Fulham’s major transfers
Alex Iwobi — Everton, £22m
Calvin Bassey — Ajax,£19m
Timothy Castagne — Leicester City, £15m
Fode Ballo-Toure — AC Milan, loan
Raul Jimenez — Wolverhampton Wanderers, £5m
Adama Traore — Wolverhampton Wanderers, free
Steven Benda — Swansea City, £745,000
Aleksandar Mitrovic — Al Hilal, £46m
Shane Duffy — Norwich City, free transfer
Neeskens Kebano — Al Jazira, free transfer
Joe Bryan — Millwall, free transfer
Ivan Cavaleiro — Lille
Anthony Knockaert — Valenciennes, free transfer
Terence Kongolo — Rapid Vienna, loan
Kevin Mbabu — Augsburg, loan
Manor Solomon — end of loan
Jay Stansfield — Birmingham City, loan
(Top photos: Getty Images)