With a notice scarcely two lines long on the club website late one night earlier this week, Fulham said farewell to Bryan Ruiz. The Costa Rican has joined Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon on a three year deal, bringing his mercurial four year stint at Craven Cottage to an end.
The story of Bryan at Fulham is really one of a player at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Captain of his national team, Bryan arrived at Fulham on transfer deadline day in 2011 amidst eleventh hour rumours that Newcastle were going to gazump Fulham for his transfer with a helicopter on standby to take him to the North East. However, to much excitement the lure of Martin Jol’s Fulham brought the then FC Twente player to south west London.
His arrival was symbolic of how far we’d come as a club. Here was a player who was rated second only to Luis Suarez as the best in Holland’s Eredivisie. His eight figure transfer fee was meteoric for a club of our size and Bryan’s arrival was a significant statement of intent at a time when we appeared to have realistic ambitions of hanging with the Premier League’s big boys.
However, soon after his arrival it became clear the transition from Dutch to English football wasn’t going to be a straightforward one for Bryan. Here was a technically gifted footballer, but whose success at Twente was predicated on him playing a position that fundamentally didn’t exist for him at Fulham. At Twente, Bryan played on the right of a front three. It is the archetypal Dutch attacking system, born out of Ajax’s Total Football of the 1970s. Fulham, who had only 3 months earlier appointed former Ajax boss Martin Jol as manager, were an obvious fit.
It wasn’t quite that straightforward though. As Jol’s tenure progressed and his tactics meandered, Bryan suffered something of positional nomadism. With Fulham not operating a front three, Bryan was tried at right midfield, right wing, central midfield and as a Number 10 in his time at Fulham, yet was never fully able to make any position his own. Bryan often seemed the sort of player who needed a system built around him. That simply wasn’t possible in the various Fulham sides he played in.
Bryan’s Fulham career started quietly, but as part of the side that included Mousa Dembele and Clint Dempsey, his flair and technical skill were not out of place. His debut season goals against Bolton and Everton were two of the most magical scored at Craven Cottage in the Premier League, and were his greatest moments in a Fulham shirt.
When the following summer Dembele and Demspey were sold and not replaced, Bryan found himself as a lone creative talent left at the club. It was a burden that carried an enormous weight of expectation.
Alongside Dimitar Berbatov, there was a brief spell in which it looked as though Bryan had found a kindred spirit. The 3-3 draw at Reading in 2012 showcased the best of both players, including the now traditional once a season screamer from Ruiz.
Success was fleeting. Over the following two seasons Fulham’s team performances got worse, and Bryan often found himself scapegoated. His style of play is not visibly all action, and often looked out of place amongst a team struggling for cohesion.
With Ruiz as one of the team’s genuine stars, 2013 saw the club the player’s homeland during preseason and included a 3 – 1 win over Bryan’s former club Alajualense at the National Stadium. There was also a reception with Britain’s ambassador to the Central American country, such is Bryan’s status back home.
The next 6 months saw Fulham’s performances getting slowly worse with Bryan flitting in and out of the team. Following Jol’s dismissal, Bryan found himself surplus to requirements and was shipped out to spend the latter half of our relegation season on loan at PSV Eindhoven back in the Netherlands.
After a standout World Cup in Brazil last summer, Ruiz’s hopes were high for a move away from newly his relegated Fulham. Despite his strong performances for Costa Rica, Bryan was never granted his wish and remained at Fulham as we began life in the Championship. Isolated within Felix Magath’s regime, his demeanour worsened and it became increasingly obvious that his relationship with the club was a marriage heading for divorce.
When he was recalled to the first team, there was an obvious gulf in quality between Bryan and the majority of the other players, such is his technical prowess. Unfortunately the Championship suited Bryan’s style of play even less than the Premier League.
Too often than not there was a clash of styles. The Championship’s brute force not allowing Ruiz’s guile to take hold. Combine the World Cup performances, the price tag and the fact he was surrounded by youngsters and expectations were sky high for a player who was simply not the right fit for a team struggling to forge an identity in an unfamiliar league.
Statistically, Bryan was actually one of Fulham’s better performers last season, despite inconsistent game time. The highlight of his season being the stoppage time winner against Reading in January.
Yet the over-riding feeling is that he never really showed what he was truly capable of in a Fulham shirt.
A true marmite player who divided opinions from almost the day he arrived, Ruiz now has the opportunity to rescue a career that took a four year diversion. The Portuguese league should be a perfect vehicle for Ruiz’s talents. There, he will get more time on the ball in a league where technical ability gets the opportunity to shine and referees spend most games with their whistles permanently attached to their lips. That a club the size of Sporting came in for Bryan shows the respect his talent commands.
In Enschede Bryan was a hero. At Fulham, he was a hero to some and a villain to others. Now, like many Fulham fans, I’ll be watching Lisbon closely to see what happens next.
Good luck and thanks for the memories.