It is only right that, after clinching promotion in the past week, attention turns to how Fulham might avoid a third consecutive relegation from the Premier League. Marco Silva has confidently asserted that the club are in a far better position to compete at the highest level now than on the last two occasions they went up via the play-offs – and it is crucial that the Whites use these precious through weeks to get a head start in terms of recruiting the key figures who can help them stay up. Fulham have always opted to bring in at least one goalkeeper ahead of a Premier League campaign, something which must be worrying the current incumbent.
Marek Rodak began the Silva era on the bench, having been displaced by summer signing Paolo Gazzaniga, but he has proven his quality at Championship level. Having won the number one jersey back from Marcus Bettinelli and becoming a crucial part of Fulham’s previous promotion, the Slovakian international soon ousted Gazzaniga and has firmly established himself as Silva’s first choice in goal. The whispers have never gone away about whether the academy graduate could do it at the very highest level – he was dropped after the opening day defeat against Arsenal last term and not seen again under the end of the season against Newcastle – and a couple of errors against Coventry City proved costly recently, especially after the red tops had been speculating about Fulham’s interest in acquiring a new custodian.
Rodak has undoubtedly improved as a goalkeeper over the course of this campaign and he was magnificent on the night that Silva’s side finally secured their place in the Premier League with a 3-0 win over Preston North End. The scoreline certainly wouldn’t have been as comfortable without his pair of outstanding saves in the early stages and he tipped a long-range effort onto the crossbar just after the break as North End looked to get back into the contest. There can be no quibbling with the fact that Rodak solidified a Fulham backline that seemed shaky after returning to the team following October’s shocking second half in the Ricoh Stadium rain.
But Rodak’s reluctance to come off his line and claim a high ball will be tested in the top flight. The Premier League is an unforgiving environment and few will need reminding that Scott Parker’s side went down even with an excellent goalkeeper in Alphonse Areola. The Slovakian may have improved with the ball at his feet, but he isn’t the sweeper-keeper that Silva clearly covets. Areola has been criminally underused at West Ham this season – excelling in the Hammers’ run to the Europa League semi-finals – and he might be available again should the Irons’ hierarchy not exercise the option in his current loan from PSG to trigger a permanent deal.
Recent reports have also indicated Fulham may hold an interest in the Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope, who has been one of the Premier League’s most consistent shot stoppers over the past few years. He first showcased his ability at Charlton and may fancy a return to the capital, with top flight football probably essential to retain his place in Gareth Southgate’s squad for the forthcoming World Cup. But Burnley’s relegation is no foregone conclusion – despite the crazy sacking of Sean Dyche – and Pope will have plenty of suitors if he is allowed to leave Turf Moore. That’s why the Whites are casting a wide net in search of an upgrade in goal.
Dean Henderson might well be regretting his decision to remain at Manchester United, having barely got a look in at Old Trafford as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Ragnick have largely stuck with David de Gea, our old scourge from Hamburg. Another England international, Henderson showed his credentials by starring in goal for Sheffield United in an outstanding campaign after their promotion to the Premier League and, like Pope, will be craving first-team football in the top flight to boost his own international hopes. The rumoured £40m price tag seems insane, but the tabloids claim that United are open to a loan deal and that Fulham are at the front of the queue.
Sam Johnstone, like West Brom, has had a hugely disappointing campaign, which has culminated in Steve Bruce leaving him out of the Baggies side. Intelligence from the Midlands suggests that he will be on the move this summer with interest in his services coming from his old club Manchester United, Tottenham and West Ham. When he was on form at West Brom, Johnstone was also a regular fixture in Southgate’s England squad but I fail to see how he would be significantly better than either Rodak or Gazzaniga, who enjoyed an outstanding run in the Tottenham side when deputising for Hugo Lloris.
The fantastical stories linking Fulham with a move for Lazio’s Sergio Milinkovic-Savic earlier this week – with Aleksandar Mitrovic apparently used as the go-between his compatriot – made much more sense when subsequent reports suggests the Whites were eyeing a move for the midfielder’s brother, the 6ft8in Torino goalkeeper Vanja. Once on the books of Manchester United, the 25 year-old has enjoyed an excellent season for I Granata, making 26 appearances and keeping four clean sheets. He still has three years to run on his current contract with the Serie A side – so enticing him to Craven Cottage might take a little more than Mitrovic’s best line in sweet talking.
I’d throw a couple of further options into the mix – although I’m sure Fulham’s scouting network is currently scouring the globe for alternatives. Bernd Leno, a German international with plenty of Premier League experience, appears out of favour at Arsenal and will be seeking regular football. The Inter veteran Samir Handanovic is out of contract this summer and would be an intriguing option. His age may count against him at 37, but we saw Mark Schwarzer perform heroics in goal for Fulham’s most successful side, and the Slovenian international has a wealth of experience of continental football. He could mentor both Rodak and Fulham’s plethora of promising young keepers whilst adding reassurance in goal for a couple of seasons.
Demoting Rodak might seem harsh after his contribution to a pair of Fulham promotions but there is no room for sentiment as Fulham seek to crack the elusive Premier League code. It seems pretty clear that Silva is hunting a new goalkeeper and a swift signing will be key to making sure the Whites are ready for the big kick off come early August.