Fulham liked the look of Marek Rodak almost as soon as he walked through the Motspur Park gates. The briefest of trials at the age of sixteen saw him handed a opportunity in the under-18 side, which he took with both hands. The Slovakian was a confident communicator from the outset – impressive as a youngster speaking a foreign language – and quickly became the first-choice goalkeeper playing above his age group and went on to be Fulham’s number one in the under-19 team that lifted the Dallas Cup.
Now 23, Rodak is the sole survivor not just from that successful side but also the one that reached the FA Youth Cup final a year later. He didn’t always strike the neutral observer as a natural goalkeeper – skinny and scrawny for his age and sometimes a little hesitant to claim the high ball. But Rodak’s phenonomal work ethic always impressed his coaches and his development continued apace as he helped the under-18s win the Premier Academy League.
Having been named on the bench for the senior side at Elland Road in December 2014, Rodak got a taste of senior football on loan at Farnborough before joining Welling United in the second half of the 2015/2016 season. It was with Accrington Stanley, where he helped his new club survive relegation with something to spare as they knitted together a thirteen-match unbeaten run, where Rodak really began to make waves in English football. The goalkeeper’s growth continued with Rotherham United, where he became a firm favourite with the Millers’ faithful over the course of two seasons on loan.
In his first season with Rotherham, Rodak helped the south Yorkshire side win promotion to the Championship via the play-offs, as they beat Shrewsbury after extra-time at Wembley. The Slovakian missed just a single league game the following season and turned in a number of exceptional displays, but Rotherham’s relegation – coupled with Fulham’s Premier League demise – always made a return to Craven Cottage look likely after 84 appearances for the Millers, although Marcus Bettinelli seemed set to be Scott Parker’s first choice.
Rodak knucked down and impressed again during pre-season and, when Bettinelli was benched following an abject home defeat by Hull City, Parker opted to put his faith in the young Slovakian. He had to show considerable character to bounce back from being sent off just seventeen minutes into his first league start at Middlesbrough, but proved his mettle with a clean sheet at St. Andrew’s before producing a number of vital saves in the derby win over QPR.
He has since firmly established himself as the Fulham number one behind what has been an inconsistent defence. Having shone in a narrow win at Swansea, Rodak made a series of crucial stops to preserve a vital advantage against Leeds before Christmas, produced a stoppage-time save to prevent Stoke from pinching a point at the Cottage to close out 2019 and helped the Whites knock out Premier League Aston Villa in the FA Cup.
Rodak had little to do at Hull as Parker’s men ground out a scrappy away victory but came up with an excellent stop to deny Jared Bowen late on and he truly excelled himself in coming between Huddersfield and one of the season’s most unlikely comebacks last weekend. At times in a second half where Danny Cowley’s men piled on the pressure, it seemed as though it was simply Rodak against the Terriers’ forwards. He made three remarkable saves from Karlan Grant alone and richly deserved the man of match award voted for by the Fulham fans. Such has been the solidity he has given a previously shaky defence, you may wonder whether Fulham might already be in the automatic promotion places had he been picked from the start of the season.
Rodak has had to wait a fair while in Bettinelli’s shadow for a chance in the Fulham first team. It is clear he has all the attributes to succeed in the Championship – and you wouldn’t disagree with Paul Warne, his manager at Rotherham, who confidently asserted that Rodak was a top flight keeper in the making. He has all the qualities of a modern goalkeeper. Rodak’s distribution was well known for beginning successful counter-attacks at Rotherham and his composure – a quality that was on display when he was handed his first-team debut by Slavisa Jokanovic back in 2017 – is most reassuring. Six clean sheets in seventeen starts represents a remarkable turnaround in front of a defence that was frankly calamaitous earlier in the campaign.
Ever the professional, Rodak will know he has achieved little yet. He’ll want to help Fulham chase down the Championship top two and sustain their own push for automatic promotion. But the whispers among the Cottage regulars might now match the knowing looks from those Motspur Park coaches who were so impressed with the Slovakian teenager seven years ago. He might just be Fulham’s classiest custodian since Mark Schwarzer and, given the Australian’s enduring excellence, that’s some accolade.