You sensed last night might be crucial for Ryan Tunnicliffe. Too often the only robust midfielder operating amongst colleagues of rather samey class on the ball last season, he found himself some way down Slavisa Jokanovic’s pecking order once new signings started filing into Motspur Park over the summer. Restricted to substitute appearances at Leyton Orient and Leeds, Tunnicliffe might have been forgiven for wondering whether his Fulham career – which had him serenaded as a folk hero before he’d really broken into the side – could soon be up given that Scott Parker and Kevin McDonald have formed a mightily impressive partnership at a base of a new look midfield.
But Parker’s age and fitness mean that understudies are necessary, especially given the brutal composition of a Championship fixture list. As odd it is it my sound, Tunnicliffe – still only 23 – lined up as the senior statesman in a Fulham midfield that short on serious experience of English senior football last night and, after an iffy start as Middlesbrough stroked the ball around with all the confidence of a side that hadn’t been beaten since March, he offered Jokanovic a timely reminder of his tigerish qualities by imposing himself on the contest and gradually turning it Fulham’s way.
The impish nature of Tunnicliffe’s running makes you think he might be the archetypal northern destroyer – something that’s necessary in a league where time and space are often at a premium. But, while his endeavour and will to win can’t be faulted, such a description would sell him short. There’s a bit more finesse to his football as you might expect from someone who spent his formative years at Carrington and won youth trophies with Manchester United. Tunnicliffe has an underappreciated range of passing and no little subtlety, as shown in his clever one-twos with Jozabed and Cauley Woodrow, which won free-kicks in the first half. He dovetailed effectively with the teenager Dennis Adeniran in central midfield but when Jokanovic called for more intensity with the Whites still trailing to a simple header from David Nugent, Tunnicliffe stepped up.
Perhaps the manner in which he grabbed hold of the contest was most accurately encapsulated by his role in the Fulham equaliser. Frustrated by the way in which Middlesbrough had weathered an early barrage of home pressure, Tunnicliffe bounded over the half way line, surged past a couple of would-be tacklers, worked a clever interchange with Lasse Vigen Christensen and, with the penalty area approaching, fed Scott Malone with a clever pass. It was all done at a speed that would have been bewildering, but the pace perfectly captured what Tunnicliffe’s game is all about.
There’s an argument to suggest that Fulham’s alarming mid-season dip in form that dragged them into a relegation battle when a play-off push was on the agenda after the sacking of Kit Symons had much to do with Tunnicliffe’s untimely injury at Milton Keynes. Without his ballast in midfield, a side already shorn of leadership in the form of a permanent manager were far too easy to play through – and the player himself struggled to reach the same level of intensity when he returned from the treatment table.
Tunnicliffe’s Fulham career has been full of fits and starts. A promising beginning when he put in disciplined displays on the right of a defensively-minded midfield dreamed up by Rene Meulensteen petered out when he was deemed surplus to requirements by Felix Magath and, despite becoming a regular under Symons, he must have feared the worst when Jokanovic moved to shore up the centre of the park in the summer. But Tunnicliffe’s willingness to put a shift in will always catch the eye of a manager – and he certainly made the most of an opportunity to give his head coach a nudge last night.