If you are still walking around in a daze following Fulham’s play-off final triumph, I don’t blame you. More than a week on from that incredible day at Wembley, it still feels surreal. In attempt to bring us back down to earth, Fulham’s official website has today invited fans to select their player of the season and the decision has generated some sharp debate online.
The quality of Fulham’s football in the second half of the season means that a number of attacking players should be recognised for their outstanding displays. Ryan Sessegnon has already won a number of plaudits for his superb performances – and the teenager should be rightly lauded for both his maturity and impact at crucial times during the run-in. That sumptuous pass that parted the Aston Villa defence for Tom Cairney last weekend is surely worth a trophy all of its own.
In another season, Kevin McDonald would be the winner by a country mile. The Scottish midfielder was the side’s dominant performer even in the early part of the season when things weren’t going so well and his positioning and reading of the game are so crucial in a side that is so adventurous with the ball and takes risks in dangerous areas of the pitch. McDonald might not wear the captain’s armband but his leadership credentials aren’t in question – and he’s popped up with some crucial goals of his own, including the scrappy but oh-so-vital effort from barely a yard out that put Fulham ahead at Barnsley and the spectacular strike that offered the Whites some breathing space at Millwall.
Cairney’s role in what became a triumphant campaign should be noted too. His interview after the final whistle at Wembley made clear what many of his suspected – namely that Fulham’s classy playmaker had been playing through the pain of a troublesome knee injury for much of the season. His presence in the side was transformational and that cool finish against Aston Villa made all that discomfort worthwhile. The contrast in Cairney’s emotions after the heartbreaking defeat at Reading in last year’s play-offs and parading exuberantly around the national stadium with the trophy couldn’t have been more stark. Like his team-mates, Cairney now has the opportunity to showcase his talent in the top flight in a team that is built around him.
It is the hallmark of a good side that there are several supremely deserving candidates for the award. But, for me, there can only be one winner. We’ve written before about how Tim Ream’s Fulham career has been transformed over the past eighteen months – from someone who was likely to be released to a mainstay of one of the division’s most miserly defences. His ball-playing capability always endeared him to Slavisa Jokanovic but, once the mistakes had been minimised, he became an automatic selection – especially after that sensational end to last season.
Few thought the American could push on to even greater things, but he did. His is a composed and reassuring presence at the heart of a back four that is asked to do more than simply keep the opposition at bay – and that’s where Ream’s reading of the game, speed of thought and exceptional distribution come into their own. The former Bolton defender was magnificent at Wembley, especially after the Whites were reduced to ten men, as he was on countless occasions in critical games during that unbelievable 23-match unbeaten run. It may be incredibly harsh on many of Fulham’s exceptional performers, but the Whites’ cult hero thoroughly deserves this accolade.