Looking in from outside, the choice of Fulham’s player of the season would appear obvious. The talismanic Aleksandar Mitrovic has been a goal machine throughout a torturous Championship season, keeping the Whites’ flagging promotion push alive seemingly single-handed at times with his potency in front of goal. The Serbian’s 26 goal haul earned him the division’s golden boot and he returned, half-fit, to provide a clever assist for Joe Bryan’s second at Wembley as Fulham saw off Brentford in the dying embers of extra-time on Tuesday night.
The case for Mitrovic is compelling, but there should be other names in the frame. Michael Hector’s introduction to the heart of the defence undoubtedly made Fulham much more miserly and his outstanding interventions to deny Robert Glatzel an opening goal as Cardiff started the play-off semi-final first leg brightly look crucial in retrospect. But arguably the pivotal piece of Fulham’s promotion jigsaw was not Mitrovic up front or Hector in the back four, but Scott Parker’s decision to switch his goalkeeper.
Marek Rodak has always been highly rated at Motspur Park, but for a while it seemed like a susbtantial Fulham career could pass him by. The Slovakian’s misfortune appeared to be starring for Rotherham on loan whilst his parent club’s attention was elsewhere. He helped the Millers’ to promotion from League One via the play-offs, an experience that would undoubtedly have eased any nerves heading into this week’s Wembley showdown, and produced a string of outstanding displays the following year as Paul Warne’s side battled bravely – although ultimately unsuccessfully – against the drop.
If Rodak was disssatisfied at remaining understudy to Marcus Bettinelli in the Fulham goal, he didn’t show it. A determined pre-season impressed the Fulham coaching staff and his patience paid off when Parker became concerned at the number of eminently preventable goals his side were considering. It wasn’t plain sailing from the off, however, as Rodak had to bounce back from the early disappointment of being sent off at Middlesbrough seventeen minutes into his first league start having made a rash dash from his line. He overcome that setback to keep a clean sheet as Fulham clung on for victory at Birmingham and then kept the Whites in the local derby against QPR, who had taken the lead at Craven Cottage, with a string of fine saves before Aboubakar Kamara’s brace turned the tie around.
Rodak was sensational in front of the Sky cameras at Swansea as Fulham clinched a vital victory against their promotion rivals and firmly established himself as the club’s number one. He produced several stellar stops to keep out league leaders Leeds in another important win before Christmas, made another fine save in injury time to deny Stoke a point, and helped a much-changed Fulham eleven knock Aston Villa out of the FA Cup.
He is a confident young goalkeeper and has evidently improved his distribtuon with the ball at his feet, as indicated by the monstrous kick that found Ivan Cavaleiro and led to the precious second goal against the Bees at Wembley. The assurance he has added to a previously jitery backline is probably unquatifiable – and he keeps coming up with critical saves, such as the ones that ensured Fulham didn’t blow a three-goal lead against Huddersfield.
There were more outstanding individual displays during the run-in as Fulham battled to narrow victories, after Rodak showed impressive fortitude to put a below-bar performance in the damaging defeat by Barnsley behind him. Still only 23, there remains real time for the goalkeeper to develop his craft, even if he has served serious notice of his credentials during an excellent breakthrough season. Rodak is Fulham’s most consistent goalkeeper since Mark Schwarzer and will now have his eyes firmly set on the Premier League. At his rate of development, international honours can’t be far away.
That Fulham can even be contemplating a top-flight campaign considering that regular defensive mishaps were undermining hopes of even a top six finish during an inconsistent autumn run is probably down to a few factors. Parker’s undoubted improvement as a manager, which has come to national attention during the play-offs, helped his side retain belief and, while Hector and Mitrovic were vital components of their continued excellence, Rodak deserves recognition for his consistency in goal that made the Whites such a difficult side to defeat.