It might be Wednesday, but I can’t be the only one still walking around with a stupid grin on my face following Fulham’s promotion to the Premier League last weekend. As Sarah wrote recently, the iconic moment of the magical afternoon came with Marcus Bettinelli lifting a black flare above his head and running towards the massed ranks of Fulham fans behind the goal – and it was fitting that he should be so strikingly involved in the glorious celebrations.
Bettinelli, as he emphasised in an emotional message to supporters posted on Twitter alongside a picture of him lifting the play-off final trophy, is Fulham through and through. In an era where promising talent moves on when their side isn’t successful in order to further their career, Bettinelli has been a notable exception. Ryan Sessegnon was able to point to regular first-team football as a reason for turning down the overtures of the big clubs last summer, but even when he was the club’s number two goalkeeper, Bettinelli rebuffed the chance of moving to Chelsea or a host of other clubs.
Instead, he redoubled his efforts to regain his place in the team. Having made such a striking impact after being promoted to the senior side under Kit Symons, Bettinelli was the victim of a serious untimely injury to his knee after a horrible clash with Matt Smith at Hull City and was then usurped to the number one position by David Button. He’s not exactly the ideal goalkeeper for Slavisa Jokanovic’s play it out from the back system and has had to work exceptionally hard on his distribution and reading of the game.
What Bettinelli does give his defence is vocal instructions throughout the game. He’s not afraid to make himself heard and, since coming back into the side, he’s had the canny knack of making vital saves. He produced a stupendous reaction save to prevent that miserable defeat up at Sunderland from being even worse and then made a crucial block to deny Caleb Ekuban when the Leeds forward was clean through on goal with the Whites only a goal ahead at Craven Cottage. Fulham went straight up the other end and scored. On Saturday, his denying of Jack Grealish at close quarters after the Aston Villa midfielder had sauntered through the Fulham defence was both critical and magnificent – the latter because of the deflection Grealish’s effort had taken off a desperate Kevin McDonald.
As the enormity of Fulham’s achievement at Wembley slowly begins to sink in, attention turns to the sort of additions that Jokanovic will need to make to ensure his side are competitive in the top flight. Several pundits and supporters have already suggested that goalkeeper is a position where the Whites are in need of an upgrade. But the numbers from this season are striking. Even when taking risks with such an adventurous style of play, Fulham only conceded 49 goals in 52 matches – letting in just 21 in the final 30 games after that wretched defeat at Brentford back in December. The most critical of the eighteen clean sheets came in the most important game of all, of course.
At just 26, Bettinelli is young enough to improve still further and will relish the opportunity to test himself at the highest level of English football. He’s been through the heartbreak of relegation, rejection and an injury nightmare. After his role in returning Fulham to the Premier League, he deserves a chance to prove himself worthy of being a top flight goalkeeper.