It wasn’t so long ago that various Fulham websites and message boards were full of complaints about Chris Martin. He was fat, unfit, immobile, uninspiring and ponderous in front of goal. His mere presence would hinder the promotion push we hankered after and his late arrival, on loan minutes before the closing of the summer transfer window, was symptomatic of Shahid Khan’s cut-price approach to running the football club. The Scotland international certainly did have a slow start to life at Craven Cottage – but he is now beginning to look ever inch the potent Championship goal getter his record suggests he is.
Much of the opprobrium might actually be down to the fact that Martin isn’t a fashionable looking forward these days. He’s not slight and nimble, nor blessed with great pace or acceleration. He’s not the type of striker who will leave hapless defenders trailing in his wake as he embarks on a mazy dribble – but all this ignores that Slavisa Jokanovic has a very distinct idea about what he wants in a front man. He was happy to sacrifice Ross McCormack – and this incarnation of a Fulham team looks far more threatening than the one now Aston Villa forward starred in – and brought in Martin to lead the line, with the fluidity and movement designed to come from elsewhere.
Martin’s outstanding display in Saturday’s demolition of Reading was probably his best in a Fulham shirt to date. It is simply unfair to question his work ethic when you can clearly see that the success of Jokanovic’s desired high pressing technique starts with the lone forward, who hassling the opposing centre backs constantly. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Martin’s introduction has been that the ball now sticks to a centre forward – in the manner it once did to Bobby Zamora so effectively all those years ago – and, although the levels at which they operate might be vastly different, it is not an exaggeration to compare Martin’s excellent hold-up work and link up play to our surly former forward.
His mere presence, offering an imposing physical battle whilst being both more nimble and fitter than Matt Smith, asks questions of the league’s centre backs. By occupying a defender or two, Martin can create space for the likes of Tom Cairney, Floyd Ayite, Sone Aluko or Stefan Johansen to operate in. We saw the success of that in the second half on Saturday – an overworked and depleted defence simply didn’t have the energy to shut down the Norwegian on the edge of the box before he curled in that splendid finish for goal number four. His influence can’t be overstated – having won three headers, played two key passes and successfully completed 81% of his passes.
Strikers, of course, will ultimately be judged on the goals they score. This most rudimentary of metrics can be a harsh barometer of a forward’s effectiveness – and during Martin’s slow start to life at his new club it certainly looked it. But, as the old sages say, form is temporary but class is permanent. He has always been a streaky goalscorer whose goals can come in bunches – and the brace he notched against the Royals takes his tally to six in his last eight appearances. A reliable source of goals can make such a difference to a team pushing for promotion.
It isn’t just the mere numbers but the manner in which the goals were taken. Consider, for instance, the sheer audacity of his first goal, which arrived shortly after half-time – just when the Craven Cottage crowd were wondering if Fulham could sustain the rhythm and inventiveness of their first half play. The ball fell to him invitingly enough, inconceivably enough from a Floyd Ayite flick on, but there was a rampaging run and a powerful finish off his right foot from fully twenty yards at pace.
The confidence running through Martin’s veins had its clearest manifestation in the absolute certainty with which he placed the ball for the free-kick he won in a central position in injury time. There was never any doubt about who was taking it or where it was going. Ali Al-Habsi, who endured a trying afternoon in the Reading goal, could certainly have done better in keeping out, but the shot was struck with enough pace and conviction to defeat his lacklustre efforts at a save. Both of those goals – in their different ways – hint at a player hitting top form.
It was interesting to listen to Martin tell BBC London about the reasons for his rather sluggish start. He appears an analytical and thoughtful footballer – which makes it no surprise that Jokanovic wants him around – and ascribes that poor patch at the beginning as his loan spell as being part of an acclimatisation process as he got to know what was expected of him and who he was playing with. Now Martin has settled in, he appears pivotal to Fulham’s promotion prospects – and it will be no surprise if Jokanovic seeks to activate the permanent transfer clause believed to be tucked into the loan agreement with Derby.