It is hardly my generation’s JFK moment, but I remember how I learnt that Fulham had signed Ryan Tunnicliffe. Most of the media were wondering whether Kostas Mitroglou was going to score the goals the Whites badly craved to get themselves out of a desperate hole at the wrong end of the Championship, whilst some were contemplating how Johnny Heitinga could shore up one of the division’s most leaky defences. The arrival of a pair of Manchester United’s youth stars of old (the lesser-spotted Larnell Cole was part of a double deal that saw Tunnicliffe team up with his former Carrington coach Rene Meulensteen) didn’t exactly set pulses rating, but it did get my phone buzzing.
My mate, Phil, a mad Red from Heywood, had been ringing me all afternoon. I assumed it was to discuss Dimitar Berbatov’s departure from Craven Cottage. I’d been on a train and in a series of meetings. By the time, I emerged from a mid-afternoon conference call, I had six missed calls. Even Phil, who worshipped the ground Dimi walked on whilst he was wearing United’s colours, couldn’t have been that enraged by the Bulgarian’s exit from English football. I was just about to call him back when his name flashed up on my phone. I can’t repeat the expletives that questioned my parentage and why it had taken several hours for me to get in touch, but Phil’s message was succinct enough:
You’ve done it, mate. You’ve only gone and done it. You’ve signed him. The boy from round the corner. Tunners. He’s a real player. Been with United since he was nine. His dad won thousands after betting he would play for us. He’s a star – brilliant when we won the FA Youth Cup and great in the reserves. He’ll do great in the Premier League.
Phil didn’t close until much later than they were from the same part of Heywood and that his son had been a contemporary of Ryan’s at Siddal Moore Sports College. He insists to this day it didn’t colour his judgement of the player. As luck would have it, Tunnicliffe’s Fulham debut came at Old Trafford against his boyhood team when Meulensteen, the man who had overseen his development at United, rejigged his side to take on David Moyes’ men. His selection sparked some debate amongst a Sky panel that included Mike Phelan, who had no doubt as to Tunnicliffe’s quality, and the tigerish midfielder delivered an energetic display on the right of a narrow midfield quartet that might have been rewarded with a debut goal had Muamer Tankovic located his run towards the end of the first half when Fulham, who eventually snatched a point in stoppage time after absorbing an aerial bombardment, had a three-on-two.
As it was, Tunnicliffe performed a similar role in the heartbreaking added time defeat at the hands of Liverpool, shackling the threat of Luis Suarez, before Sascha Riether’s injury-time aberration handed the visitors a late penalty. That defeat proved to be Meulensteen’s last game as Fulham boss – with firefighter Felix Magath drafted in to try and keep the Whites up. The eccentric German’s appointment wasn’t good news for either Tunnicliffe or Cole, who were summoned to his office after a hastily arranged training game at Motspur Park, and told they weren’t part of his plans.
As Tunnicliffe told News At Den yesterday:
It was a bit of a bit of a head-scratcher. From being at United to signing for another Premier League club with a manager I’d worked with previously to being told three weeks later by a manager you’d worked with for a day that you’re not wanted. You fight your corner and question the decision, but I think he played at being not very good at English and just mumbled his way through. You leave the meeting scratching your head.
He wasn’t the only one who ‘had a little smile’ when he heard Magath had been sacked. Kit Symons recalled Tunnicliffe from a promising loan spell at Blackburn and the midfielder’s tenacity married with his eye for a pass made him a key part of a team formed from the remnants of Magath’s summer recruitment and some of the talent he sought to purge. Tunnicliffe made 24 appearances for the Whites, most memorably running half the whole length of the pitch at Huddersfield support Seko Fofana in stoppage time after ten-man Fulham had hung on to the slenderest of leads. No matter than the Frenchman ignored him twice – missing an almost open goal before converting the rebound – Tunnicliffe was straight into the delirious away fans to celebrate.
The following season was probably Tunnicliffe’s best down by the Thames. After summer signings to strengthen the midfield, he had to work hard to persuade Symons of his merits as a first-team player but, by September – when the Whites put four past QPR – he was a regular in the side. October brought his first Fulham goals, one an instinctive tap-in after a free-kick rebounded favourably, and the second, a sublime moment of quality at Ashton Gate that still seems stupendous. Fulham were running riot, three up with nine minutes to go before half-time, Tunnicliffe started and finished a swift break, producing the most impudent of chips to increase the lead:
Symons’ subsequent sacking, after a home mauling at the hands of Birmingham City, prompted a shambolic search for a replacement with Fulham eventually settling on Slavisa Jokanovic just after Christmas. The new coach had to deal with a transfer embargo in January – but Tunnicliffe’s battling qualities were perfectly started to the demands of what turned into a relegation battle. He describes that period of his career as one of his favourites:
The first year with him [Jokanovic] – it was great. I played fifteen games to try to help keep us in the league, which we managed. It was probably the best part of my Fulham career.
Often unfairly pigeon-holed as a midfield enforcer, Tunnicliffe had a classier side to his game, an artful eye for a pass – befitting his Carrington footballing education and his promising schoolboy football days that saw him captain his country at Under 16 and 17 level, but he found his opportunities limited once Jokanovic reshaped his squad ahead of what became the memorable, if agonising, 2016/17 campaign. A move to Millwall, where Shaun Hutchinson has also revived his career after his own experience of the Magath madness, has given Tunnicliffe another crack at the Championship, and affords him a Craven Cottage return this afternoon.
Tunnicliffe has had to wait for his chance in the Millwall midfield – with Neil Harris staying true to the stalwarts who helped the Lions out of League One last year – but has gradually established himself after an untimely injury to Shaun Williams. He scored his first Millwall goal – a peach of a strike against Birmingham – last month and might even pass on a few tips to his team-mates about Jokanovic’s brand of football. Tunnicliffe will certainly be an asset to Millwall and will desperate to prove a point to his former employers later today. His Fulham days shouldn’t solely be about an ill-advised tweet and I, for one, hope one of the wittier Fulham songs of old gets another airing in his honour.