When David Button completed his summer switch from local rivals Brentford, the rationale for bringing him in was clear. Slavisa Jokanovic wanted an experienced goalkeeper who had a track record of success in the Championship, someone who was comfortable with the ball at his feet and who could instill confidence in his defence. Button, one of the key fixtures in the Bees’ eye-catching rise under Mark Warburton, fitted the bill and also appeared to be good value for money as a pre-season acquisition.
After he had established as Fulham’s new number one, it seemed a little harsh on Marcus Bettinelli, an academy graduate, who had signed a new deal instead of joining Chelsea the season before, and whose potential had earned him an England under-21 call-up. Now, with Button almost out of reserves of confidence after a shaky few weeks and arguably responsible for at least five of the last six goals the Whites have conceded, it looks as though Bettinelli would be the safer option in goal to shore up the defence as we enter a crucial run of fixtures. Whether Jokanovic, who will certainly be eyeing up potential replacements – the Czech Republic international Tomas Koubek watched the game from the Cottage balcony yesterday – during the summer transfer window, will have lost enough faith in Button’s current frame of mind to make the switch for Boxing Day’s trip to Portman Road, is an intriguing question.
Button, who made a series of excellent saves as Fulham began the campaign in such fine fettle, is now jittery and those nerves are being passed onto his back four. The signs of a little bit of overconfidence in his ability to play out from the back were there when Fulham played themselves into trouble against Birmingham twice – and the second time saw Michael Madl forced into a reckless challenge in the box that proved fatal. Then, there was the disastrous clearance at Villa Park that cost the Whites so heavily, and you could make the cause for Button being responsible for at least three of goals conceded on that crazy afternoon at Molinuex.
He should have kept out Kortney Hause’s downward header at the far post, failing to get his body behind it having got himself in position, and then failed to assert himself as Matt Doherty bundled the Wolves second that triggered their second half comeback. Button was far from convincing in allowing Ivan Caveleiro’s equaliser through his hands, but his most glaring mistake saw him spill Tim Ream’s back header, into the path of Nouha Dicko and only be reprieved by the Frenchman’s pathetic finish that could have put the home side two goals to the good. There was even an argument that Grant Ward’s long-range effort that put Rotherham ahead in the week had seen the goalkeeper catch a case of Andy Lonergan-itis, i.e. a fallibility to potshots from beyond 20 yards.
But the true measure of how dangerously low Button’s confidence has dipped came in yesterday’s draw with high-flying Derby. The visitors’ opening goal was caused by Ragnar Sigurdsson’s disastrous decision to go ground in trying to clear Johnny Russell’s attempted through ball, but once Tom Ince was baring down on goal, Button was far too static in trying to narrow the angle. His second half performance spread anxiety right throughout the stadium. First, there was the decision to try and drag the ball away from the onrushing Ince, that almost saw him put through his own net, as the ball bounced off his trailing like. And, then, after failing to set up his defence correctly as Ince prepared to swing in a corner, he stayed rooted to his line before Alex Pearce powered in a free header from six yards to bring Derby back into the contest.
The sight of Tom Cairney bellowing at his keeper after the concession of goal showed that his team-mates felt it was a soft one to concede and suggests that there might be widespread weariness setting in about the custodian. Bettinelli might not be the long-term solution as a much younger man he has time on his side to develop into a better goalkeeper and, having been jettisoned after a tough season behind a woeful defence, he probably deserves the chance to perform in front of this revamped back four. In an unforgiving league like the Championship, where the margins between success and failure are so small and every mistake could be punished, Fulham can’t afford to allow the opposition to score from their only two shots on target – as Derby did yesterday and the defence may benefit from having a more vocal organiser behind them.