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Last Updated: Monday, 15 September, 2003, 07:18 GMT 08:18 UK
Fulham's future hangs in balance
By Tom Fordyce

The rollercoaster ride that carried Fulham from the depths of the Third Division and near-bankruptcy into the Premiership and European competition in less than six years has another twist in store.

Fulham fans demonstrate in favour of moving to Craven Cottage
Fulham fans at Loftus Road make their feelings clear

Recently the club announced plans to return to Craven Cottage. Great news, you might think - except that, like everything else associated with Fulham over the past few years, nothing is quite as good as it seems.

This is a club whose debt currently stands at 91.9m. Annual losses increased from 14.1m in 2000 to 24m in 2001 and 33.6m in 2002.

Bring in the fact that chairman Mohamed Al Fayed has already sold the first right to build on Craven Cottage to a company called Fulham River Projects Ltd for 50m, and Fulham's future begins to look bleak.

That mountain of debt is bad enough by itself. But this is a club which doesn't even know where its physical future lies.

Home or away?

Put simply, there are three options: a permanent home at the Cottage, a new stadium elsewhere, or a groundshare.

You can pretty much rule out the last of those three. Sharing Loftus Road with QPR for the past two seasons has cost Fulham 40,000 a match and thousands of fans off the gate.

Their only other option is Stamford Bridge - and Roman Abramovitch doesn't need the money or the hassle.

Which brings us to Craven Cottage. The latest plan, which is to stick cheap bolt-on seats onto the existing terraces, is very much a temporary measure.

This website understands planning permission was being sought from the local council at the start of October.

Sources at the council indicate that the plan has a good chance of being given the green light. But even then it is only scheduled to last for three seasons. What then?

Craven Cottage
Fulham last played at Craven Cottage in May 2001
Optimists among the fans see the move as a foot in the door. The thinking is this: once Al Fayed realises that redeveloping the ground is the cheapest and easiest option, he'll shelve plans to move elsewhere.

The super-hopeful envisage attendances rising as fans flock to their old riverside base and, on the pitch, true Fulham man Chris Coleman leading the team to Premiership safety.

The cynics aren't so sure. The club have already received 15m from Fulham River Projects, who hope to begin work on converting the site into a residential development by autumn 2005.

If the deal is not completed, Fulham will have to hand back that cash and pay interest of 12% a year on it from last September.

The ground is worth between 100 and 150m, depending on which property developer you talk to. That's an interesting amount of money to a man like Al Fayed.

So we come to option number three - a new ground elsewhere.

Nowhere to run

"The chairman made a commitment that a new state-of-the-art stadium would be built in this borough," a Fulham spokesman confirmed to BBC Sport.

But there are barriers every step of the way.

The club has already failed with two bids to buy a site in White City previously owned by Dairy Crest.

Although officially there are no negotiations currently underway, this website understands that Fulham are interested in buying sections of plots of land currently owned by developers Helical Bar and Marks and Spencer.

Yet the cost could again be prohibitive. And although a proposed shopping development close by means that transport links to the area would be excellent, there would be serious planning issues to surmount.

Fans still want to trust Al Fayed. They still regard him as the saviour who bankrolled the club's extraordinary rise, even if some outsiders remain convinced that all he has ever been interested in is a fat slice of prime real estate.

To supporters, the model to follow is that of Charlton - another club who moved away from their traditional home, but who managed to return by redeveloping stand by stand rather than building a stadium that was too big and too expensive.

They hope that, even if the worst comes to the worst and Al Fayed sells the Cottage, they will get as good a new ground as Manchester City or Southampton, albeit on a smaller scale.

But no-one really knows. The only thing that is certain about Fulham right now is more uncertainty for years to come.

Fulham plan Cottage return
03 Sep 03  |  Fulham
Fulham denied Bridge share
29 Apr 03  |  Fulham
Questions hanging over Fulham
16 Jan 03  |  Fulham

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