The squad that’s been built over the last 3 seasons or so by Roy and Hughes poses a number of difficult questions for our new manager. Who plays with Bobby (although that may be solved if we get El Hamdaoui)? Etuhu or Sidwell? Who plays on the flanks? Among others. But probably the most interesting and difficult selection headache is who we choose in goal. On the one hand we have Mark Schwarzer, seasoned pro and still going strong at 38, and on the other David Stockdale who’s barely had a run in the first team but still shows plenty of promise. So who does Jol go with?
The first thing Jol will have to determine is who’s the better goalie. If he decides it’s Stockdale then, barring a big dip in form, he will get the shirt, Schwarzer won’t be too happy and he will be sold in August/January. However, the most likely judgement and most interesting case isit’s Schwarzer, despite showing a bit of regression since he first joined us 3 seasons ago. That’s not unexpected, as all players will inevitably decline as they get older, even those as proffessional as Schwarzer is. It’s an unfortunate inevitability that not before long he will not be at a level good enough for us, but despite that he still remains one of the top 10 keepers in the league at worst and still displays his qualities, even down to the last day in which he made one incredible save from a Kieren Gibbs header. Stockdale undoutably shows promise and will be a good goalie in the future, in fact he has shown that he is capable of performing well in the league already and if Schwarzer is injured for a long stretch or leaves I would have no qualms with Stockdale getting in the team, but in the short term I think we will still go with Schwarzer. This is a pretty short term gain since in all likelihood he’ll be gone in a season or two, whereas Stockdale could probably play for another decade, but considering the risks and minimal margin for error in the league the most logical option would be to stick with Schwarzer for the time being. That being said, Jol could decide to go with Stockdale regardless with the view that a regular first team place will accelerate his development to the extent that before long he will be at the level of Schwarzer, and any drop in quality is not significant enough to impact our level of play to any great extent, but as I said I think he will go with the ‘safer’ option.
If Jol does decide to go with Schwarzer then another issue arises of how we will keep Stockdale at the club. We could just sell him but it makes much more sense in both financial and footballing terms to keep him here to take over when Schwarzer’s Fulham days are over. In his time here he’s been patient in waiting for his chance, but he knows that the balance of power between him and the club is shifting more and more in his favour as his reputation grows and while Stockdale will carry affection and loyalty to the club there’s only so many times you can tell a player deemed worthy of an England squad number ‘your time will come soon enough’ before they get frustrated enough to look for another club. The simplest and best solution would be to play Stockdale exclusively in the cup competitions. With the demands of the Europa League (14 games before christmas assuming we qualify for the group stages!) and hopefully a decent run in either of the cups plus the odd Premier League game when Schwarzer isn’t fit or unavaible he could be pushing 20+ appearances for the season which should be just enough to convince Stockdale that his future is definately here rather than at another club. Another solution would be to loan him out to one of the lower clubs, like Swansea perhaps who were keen on loaning him last season and have yet to secure their current number one Dorus De Vries to a new contract or Wigan if they fail to get Al Habsi. This way we get the best of both worlds, with Stockdale getting experience but still tied down the club. However it’d also mean we would need to buy another keeper to cover Schwarzer.
So, from the few glimpses we’ve seen Stockdale clearly has the talent to be a Fulham goalkeeper, opinion backed up by Capello who has given him three call ups despite a lack of first team action. As long as he remains patient and the club give him just enough to be happy then I think we can look forward to having a quality keeper at the club for a good few years yet. Otherwise, finding a replacement for Schwarzer will be a more difficult task then it already is.