These days the Fulham website always runs a poll shortly after the final whistle has sounded on a matchday asking the fans to pick their man of the match. It was a surprise to see the regular feature there last night after the Whites snuck away from the Riverside Stadium with all three points – given that the results could only lead to a landslide in favour of the peerless Tim Ream. His peerless performance was the primary reason why Slavisa Jokanovic’s side recorded the precious clean sheet that meant they could profit from Ollie Norwood’s late, late penalty.
Ream’s resolute contribution was all the more fitting because it marked a century of appearances in the Fulham back line in the many we have become accustomed to seeing. The St. Louis native was fearless in the air against a much taller opponent in Rudy Gustede, read the game superbly and passed the ball so well that you were left wondering whether he was really a midfielder in disguise. It is that comfort in distributing the ball that gave him an opportunity in the first team when Slavisa Jokanovic was searching for a ball-playing centre half this time last year – and the dependable American defender has never looked back.
It hasn’t always been this way, of course. Ream endured a pretty dispiriting start to life at Craven Cottage having been brought in by Kit Symons and the then head of football operations Mike Rigg to try and plug the leaks in a ragtag Fulham defence. Paired with Richard Stearman at the heart of a reshaped back four, Ream struggled to recapture the form that had seen him win the player of the year award as a popular Bolton defender for many years and, by the time Jokanovic was plotting a course away from the Championship relegation zone, was being used as an occasional left back.
When Tomas Kalas arrived on loan from Chelsea at the start of last season and struck up an encouraging partnership with Michael Madl, it looked as though the sun might be setting on Ream’s brief Fulham career. Ream, having played alongside a number of partners in his early months at the Cottage, suddenly found himself watching from the sidelines as the Whites began to threaten at the right end of the table but, rather than sulking, he redoubled his efforts to contribute to the squad. Jokanovic was impressed by his work ethic during pre-season and the defender’s desire to seek out just what the coach was looking for from his centre backs – that proved just as crucial as the St. Louis native’s patience as it turned out.
Jokanovic initially turned to another of the club’s big money signings – the long since forgotten Ragnar Sigurdsson – when injuries separated his first choice central defensive partnership but England’s scourge in Euro 2016 didn’t possess either the composure or the passing ability he sought. The Serbian considered going back into the transfer market to find the player he was after but afforded the American an opportunity to stake his claim alongside Kalas last January and it was a chance Ream grabbed with both feet.
Where his early Fulham career was characterised by shakiness and the odd mistake that always seemed to turn into an opposition goal, Ream is now reliable and a crowd favourite. His reading of the game is second to none and those artful turns away from a pressing centre forward are far less heart rendering. The 30 year-old’s comfort in possession suits a Fulham side that are instructed to play the ball out from the back – and the way that Ream slotted seamlessly into the defence alongside Kalas was one of the key factors in Fulham’s terrific late run into the Championship’s top six.
It looks as if the Whites are coming into form at just the right time for history to repeat itself – ideally without the semi-final pain this time. Ream has arguably usurped even Kalas as the club’s most consistent defender and, in so doing, has become the latest American to forge a special bond with the Fulham faithful. Where the Hammersmith End once sung the names of Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey, there’s an unmistakable cry now whenever the popular defender is in possession. To the uninitiated, it could sound like booing – but it’s actually the home fans saluting ‘Reeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaam’ as he brings the ball under control.
Ream’s been a fans’ favourite wherever he’s gone throughout his career. That is undoubtedly down to his unquestionable footballing ability but it also about his character. Nobody could fault his ceaseless effort or desire, but the affable American also freely acknowledges how fortunate he is to make a living from the beautiful game and that the fans pay his wages. Fulham and Tim Ream didn’t seem like a great fit at the start, but, after his first century, it is now very difficult to imagine life without the Whites’ number thirteen.