Hugo Rodallega’s expertly taken finish might have grabbed all the headlines this morning, but Fulham owe a debt of gratitude to the brilliance of their goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli for keeping them in the contest at Birmingham yesterday. Whilst their second half recovery, which featured two goals in eight second half minutes knocked the stuffing out of the home side, the fact that the Blues had merely a slender advantage was down a string of fine saves from the youngster who must now have firmly established himself as Fulham’s number one.
Bettinelli’s meteoric rise to first-team football in the Championship might well have been a surprise to many, but Fulham have always had high hopes for their vocal goalkeeper who has been with the club since he was fourteen. He was a star of the 2010 Under-18 side that reached the FA Youth Cup quarter finals – which was the first time this correspondent considered his credentials as a potential number one – but injuries prevented him from kicking on after winning the battle for a professional contract with Wes Fotheringham. A year-long absence from regular football might have adversely affected weaker characters, but it only served to spur on Bettinelli, who was outstanding during loan spells at both Dartford and Accrington Stanley, where he was named Young Player of the Year last season after having a defining impact on their successful fight against the drop.
The 22 year-old’s excellent agility and existing league record made Felix Magath’s choice of Jesse Joronen as the first-team goalkeeper after the departure of David Stockdale something of eyebrow raiser. But far from be deflated, Bettinelli continued his diligent work down at Motspur Park, determined to make the most of his chance should it materialise. And how he did. An excellent display in the Capital One Cup win at Brentford highlighted both his potential and his maturity, delivering a first clean sheet of the season. One save in particular, narrowing the angle before turning aside a drive from Jota in the first half, proved crucial.
Magath harshly consigned Bettinelli to the substitutes bench despite a creditable display in the draw against Cardiff, accommodating new arrival Gabor Kiraly, but the German’s coach departure left Kit Symons – a long-term admirer of Bettinelli’s – in charge of first-team affairs. His return to the number one spot came against Blackburn, where he was only beaten by a clinical Jordan Rhodes strike, and his penalty save against Doncaster Rovers on Tuesday was pivotal, as Fulham were just beginning to show signs of collapsing short of the winning line.
For a team not used to grinding out results, having confidence in the goalkeeper is absolutely essential. When the visitors were well and truly under the cosh at St. Andrew’s yesterday, Bettinelli stood tall. Lee Clark’s side should certainly have been well clear by half-time – and the fact that they weren’t owed much to a super save from the rampaging Jonathan Grounds before the half-time whistle. There was even better to come after the break as Brek Shea burst through on goal. The American’s fierce drive seemed destined for the top corner before the diving Bettinelli intervened to turn it over the bar. On such moments do matches then.
Encouragingly, there’s far more to Bettinelli’s game than reaction stops. His leadership qualities are impressive in one so young as is his ability to organise a defence that still looks alarmingly shaky at times. Bettinelli’s distribution can also aid a swift counter-attack as we first witnessed that night at Griffin Park and, an almost nonchalant throw-out, found an unmarked team-mate towards the half way line in the second half yesterday. It’s been a long wait – but Bettinelli’s patience and persistence has certainly paid off.