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Fulham FC stands on the brink of a return to the Premier League after just one season away.
With just 3 games remaining the West Londoners stand, as they have done for much of the season, well clear of the rest of the pack.
Should results go Fulham’s way on Monday promotion will be confirmed, if they do not, they’ll have the opportunity to do it for themselves against Preston North End the following evening.
Sensibly, manager Marco Silva has played down talk of the club breaking records or making plans for life in the top flight, despite both being in touching distance.
He’s also been forced to address a slightly unusual topic for a potential title winner; the idea that it’s all been a bit easy.
“This is the Championship, nothing is guaranteed,” the Portuguese coach has said, “Because of that, I have to congratulate my players every time [they win a game].
“It’s not easy to have this type of mentality every single time, to be ruthless in the right moments.
“To be able to win football matches, even when you don’t perform so well. Sometimes it doesn’t look really tough, but I know that it is really tough to create this type of situation.”
But the reality is some Fulham’s players have, at times, looked a class above the rest of the division.
Alexander Mitrovic has scored a remarkable 38 times this season, smashing the record tally achieved by Brentford’s Ivan Toney last year.
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The Serb’s goal haul has seen him shortlisted for EFL Player of the Season alongside strike partner Harry Wilson. Fulham’s other outstanding attacker, Fabio Carvalho, is the frontrunner for the Young Player of the Season prize.
Fulham’s superiority in the Championship this year has a great deal to do with the clubbing in a position to strengthen its squad following relegation from the Premier League.
Wilson arrived from Liverpool for a $16.45 million fee while Rodrigo Muniz joined for $9.4 million. The club also welcomed back $35 million record signing Jean Michel Seri after a series of loans.
The only departure of note was Andre Anguissa, who left for Napoli on a temporary basis. But his absence was more than made up for by Fulham snapping up Watford midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah on a free.
It used to be that when a club was relegated from the Premier League the most talented players were cherry-picked by those above them. Teams were forced to sell off their most desirable assets to cover the cost of going down.
But for a side like Fulham that simply isn’t the case anymore. The wealth generated by a stint in the Premier League provides an advantage so great it’s hard for others to compete.
So many yo-yos
Fulham’s canter to the title will be its third promotion in five years, making it the definition of the term ‘yo-yo club’-too good for the division below, but not at the required standard for the level up.
The Whites are far from the only side to occupy this space, historically there have been many clubs across the English pyramid caught in an in-between division existence.
What’s concerning for the English game is that, increasingly, at the top of the Championship there’s not just one yo-yo club, but several.
Norwich City and Watford are both on course for relegation. If they do go down it will be the second time they have been relegated together, having both successfully won promotion last season.
If they are relegated Norwich will clock up four years between the two divisions.
The manner in which they have returned to the top flight each time is also a cause for concern.
Norwich City’s past two promotion seasons have been absolutely dominant. But after winning the league with ease they’ve suffered an equally embarrassing relegation from the Premier League.
The Canaries are not alone in this, Fulham’s breeze to the EFL title comes off the back of finishing 11 points clear of safety in the top division.
These are not sides who have been relegated by a narrow margin and are therefore clearly far closer to the superior Premier League level. So why are they so much better than what’s below?
The answer, like many things in modern soccer, lies in money.
Playing the parachute payment
Fulham, Watford, Norwich City and indeed the other likely candidate for promotion this year, Bournemouth, have benefitted from ‘parachute payments’-a percentage of the Premier League broadcasting rights handed to relegated clubs by the top division to soften the blow of demotion.
Issued over three years, this initiative sees relegated clubs get 55% of their previous earnings in the first year, 45% in the second and, if the club was in the top flight for more than one season before going down, 20% in the third.
It’s a concept based on sensible principles, the revenue gap between the top division and the league below is so large teams need to be supported in their downsizing.
The problem is, that as the Premier League’s earnings have continued to rise exponentially, the parachute payment gives relegated clubs a significant advantage over their rivals.
Rather than using the money to make sensible long-term plans, teams can fund top-level wages for longer or invest in talent, as Fulham has done.
Research by Sheffield Hallam University released last month suggested the system continued to “distort Championship competition” and found clubs with parachute payments are three times more likely to be promoted than those without them.
A key driver in this has been the average value of parachute payments for each club per season going up substantially, from $16.7 million between 2006 and 2015 to $38.53 million over the last five years.
In an interview with the Daily Mail about the study one of the researchers, Dr. Rob Wilson said the current system was not only damaging competition it was also causing financial trouble at other clubs.
“The payments force other clubs over-stretching themselves to try to keep up, which leads to financial instability and the danger of them going bust,” he said.
“The whole system is broken. The parachute money should be ring-fenced and redistributed more equally across the whole of the EFL.”
Time for change?
Managers in the Championship have pointed out that the study provides further evidence of what they could already see clearly with their own eyes.
“Something needs to be done about it because of the advantages that it gives clubs,” said Middlesborough manager Chris Wilder.
“I think when you looked at the start of the season, anybody who knows the division would have said Fulham, West Brom and Sheffield United would be huge favorites to go back up, along with Bournemouth who came down the season before.
“Two out of the four are, one is knocking on the door and the other is just outside it. There is always a little bit more to it than just money, but it also is a huge advantage.”
Wilder’s calls for action will be well received at the EFL, the view of the body, that represents the three divisions below the top flight, is that parachute payments “are not a form of solidarity; they distort the financial eco-system and increase the gap between the Championship and Premier League.”
And according to reports in British newspapers, talks are ongoing between the Premier League and EFL to overhaul the system.
Whether that involves the scrapping of the parachute payments is another matter, however.
There would need to be agreement from the Premier League to make the decision and clubs that face the possibility of relegation are unlikely to vote to remove an important protection. The number who fear the drop is also in the majority.
Why would Fulham or Bournemouth reject a system which has enabled them to keep their best players and make a quick return to the Premier League?
But equally, why would a side like Brentford, who’s never been in the Premier League before this season, or Everton, that has never been relegated but are at risk of the drop currently? It’s in none of their interests to do so.
That’s the problem with a gap so wide you need a parachute to make it down safely. If you are standing at the bottom, all the equipment the people have to break their fall looks pretty unfair. But get to the top, peer over the edge and you quickly start to think that a plummeting to the bottom with no help is wrong.