Jacob Steinberg’s piece in tomorrow’s Guardian talks up the recent success of Fulham’s academy. Nothing new there to people who keep a close eye on the Motspur Park conveyor belt expertly tended to by Malcolm Elias, Steve Wigley and Huw Jennings but the hook he uses to link the hard graft of the next generation to Sunday’s FA Cup fifth round tie against Tottenham Hotspur is intriguing. Marcus Bettinelli has a number of things going for him: he’s got a backstory that makes him, even still at a relatively young age, one of the club’s youngest serving players, he has several family ties to the football club and he’s clearly a very talented goalkeeper. More than that, though, he’s articulated, dedicated and very engaging.
I remember when Bettinelli was first making waves around the junior football circuit as a goalkeeper of some repute. Many who came to watch him thought his place in the Fulham youth set-up was entirely down to the presence of his father, Vic, on the club’s coaching staff. They were soon disabused of that notion when they saw the young man, a perfectionist who talked his back four through games, keep goal. The competition with Wes Fotheringham, now doing very well himself at Glasgow Rangers, for the professional contract was fierce. Bettinelli won out – not just due to his splendid form for the Under-18s – but also for his unflappable attitude and his determination in the face of adversity.
The former England under-21 goalkeeper hasn’t had it easy. Released by Crystal Palace when he was on the cusp of a junior career at 12, he suffered several serious injuries in the early years of his time at Fulham – especially once when he won that coveted professional contract and was hoping to make an impression on Roy Hodgson. I can recall the then Fulham boss, who by rights should have been concentrating on the first team’s blossoming Europa League, remarking on Bettinelli’s response to another devastating injury setback: he quickly devised a recovery programme with the academy’s fitness team and was back to the far-from-glamorous grind in the gym. His reaction to a shattering leg break at Hull in 2015 was similarly phlegmatic and must have made his stupendous double penalty-save against the same opposition in the last round feel all the sweeter.
Bettinelli, who had to wait for his chance even after his good friend David Stockdale was bombed out by Felix Magath with the eccentric German preferring Jesse Joronen, has had to be patient this season as David Button has been installed as the club’s number one. Unlike may modern footballers, he hasn’t moaned and has instead worked dutifully to ensure his team-mate was successfully integrated into the squad and fully prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. Just as he did when on loan at Darford and Accrington Stanley, Bettinelli – whose work ethic has never been in question – knuckled down and waited for his opportunity.
He has kept goal well in the FA Cup run to date and, today’s announcement by Slavisa Jokanovic that he will be preferred to Button for the showpiece occasion against Spurs, affords Bettinelli the opportunity to display his talent once again. Those of us with a sneaking suspicion that he would have looked far better behind this defence than the one that was in front of him last term will hope he turns in another good display. If he doesn’t, it certainly won’t be for the want for trying.