It says a lot about how highly Martin Jol rates Alex Kacaniklic that the Fulham manager was prepared to introduce him as well as the 36th minute as a replacement for the injured Pavel Pogrebnyak. The young Swedish younger, who has been talked off in hushed – and yet excitable tones since he first caught the eye as a talented teenager at Liverpool, is oozing confidence at the moment. Discussed as a real prospect once Huw Jennings and Malcolm Elias had prized him away from Melwood, Kacaniklic came out of his shell and recognised that this was his opportunity.
The loan move to Watford in late January was the making of Kacaniklic. The 20 year-old, who has a habit of sending full-backs scurrying towards their own goal, came almost immediately as a substitute at a game when he came off the bench in a 2-0 win at Millwall. That was the ex-Helsingborg junior’s first taste of senior football and soon Sean Dyche, who is building a side that should be ready to challenge for promotion next year that by the end of Kacanklic’s loan spell at Vicarage Road, found it very difficult to leave him out of the starting line-up.
Opting to assign him a spot on the substitutes became unthinkable when Kacanklic’s intervention from the sidelines turned the game against Burnley in Watford’s favour. The Swede scored his first senior goal and made another one as the hosts transformed a two-goal deficit into a 3-2 win. Kacanklic now found himself as a regular in the Watford side until Jol opted to exercise his 24-hour recall clause last week. A few of the journalists were surprised by the Fulham manager’s heavy hints that Kacaniklic would be involved against Norwich City, but Jol was as good as his word.
It was difficult not to get excited by Kacaniklic’s confident little cameo, either. Jol caused a few sensational headlines last week when he suggested that a few senior faces might make way for youngsters come the end of the season but, with this sort of quality rolling off the Motspur Park conveyer belt, you can see why the Dutchman is happy to give the next generation a go. Kacaniklic, genuinely two-footed, offers the attacking ability of Kerim Frei and he already looks a little more polished than the Swiss youngster, with a hunger to attack his full-back and a willingness to work back that suggests he’s learnt from Damien Duff’s work ethic.
There could be few finer wingers to learn from than Duff, who showed all his poise and professionalism in an all-action performance yesterday. Kacaniklic, on the other flank, went inside and outside his full-back, and was happy to head towards the byline to send over a dangerous cross. He had the confidence to have a crack from range, too, twice shooting wide from outside box but that audacious chip came crashing back off the crossbar via John Ruddy’s fingertips at the start of the second half. It was a performance of real maturity that had you wondering about how Fulham’s midfield might look in a couple of years time were Jol able to hold onto Moussa Dembele and if young Frei could kick on.
Jol’s already been happy enough to let the likes of Matthew Briggs, Frei, Marcello Trotta and now Kacaniklic off the leash. All four have plenty to learn – but the early signs are promising. After the caution of Coleman and Hodgson about giving young players their head, Jol’s attitude seems to be: if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. The Fulham manager saluted Kacaniklic’s sense of adventure in his remarks afterwards and it certainly gave the Craven Cottage faithful plenty to purr about the way home.