Unlike the uncertainty surrounding tomorrow’s General Election, Fulham’s Player of the Season can barely be any more clear cut.
Amidst a season of near universal mediocrity, where his supporting cast that has faltered at virtually every step, with one manager who lambasted his fitness and another who played him out of position and his ideal strike partner bought specially to play with him only to be loaned to a lower division, Ross McCormack has amassed a statistically outstanding season and is the overwhelming choice for Player of the Season.
To put Ross’ season into context, take the following example:
Player A is Middlesbrough’s Patrick Bamford, the Chelsea loanee who won the Official Championship Player of the Season award. Striker B, McCormack, has better headline numbers, and yet was nowhere to be seen at the Football League Awards Gala.
Of course, statistics, especially headline ones like goals and assists don’t always tell the full story, but delve a little deeper, and McCormack’s season remains wholly impressive. In total, he scored 19 goals with 11 assists. Seven of his goals were from outside the box, whilst he went a lethal five from five from the penalty spot. His shot accuracy of 56% was 7% better than the next most accurate player, Hugo Rodallega, and 15% higher than third placed Cauley Woodrow.
Ross also proved the most durable Fulham player, completing 407 more minutes on the pitch than any other Fulham player. The 79 chances he created were also a team high.
Disregarding numbers, McCormack has been a consistent bright light for the Whites this season as a technically superior player who’s presence always seemed to give us a chance. His attacking style, though more bustle than languid, occasionally resembled a certain Bulgarian striker in quality. OK he’s not quite the Glaswegian Berbatov, but Ross’ first touch, vision and technical skill has at times seemed out of place in the rough ‘em tough ‘em style of the Championship, yet he has had a remarkable impact and is the one player who has genuinely made a regular positive difference to this Fulham side.
I don’t want to sound too gushing with my praise. The phrase a rose between two thorns comes to mind. It is easy to praise McCormack in contrast to his supporting cast, who have not exactly set the world on fire. However given a full season where he’s played up front with a strike partner, I have no doubt we’ll see his Leeds numbers replicated in Fulham white.
McCormack’s form this season earned him a recall to the Scotland national team, which was unfortunately curtailed by injury. He also provided arguably the best moment of the season with his 94th minute winner against Middlesbrough a fortnight ago. He also scored the winner at Brentford.
If you were looking for any criticisms of McCormack’s game that you would like to see ironed out next season you could point to his streakiness in front of goal. Of his 19 goals, seven came in a six game spell at the end of the season and another five came in a five game period over the winter. However, the barren spells in between were often due to him being played out of position or with an endless parade of strike partners plus he’s not exactly been blessed for chances laid on by teammates either.
That’s the thing with Ross, he is both tremendously unselfish in wanting to set up others, but at the same time ruthless and confident enough to make his own chances. This does manifest itself in the occasional act of ridiculousness, but virtuosos don’t get it right every time. If he did, Ross would play at a higher level than he does.
Simply put, without Ross there is a very good chance we would have been relegated. It might not be the justification we were originally after when we signed him, but McCormack has been worth every penny of the rumoured £100 billion we paid Leeds for him.
Lasse Vigen Christensen
The Dane was the one younger player to make an impact where you didn’t have to qualify it by saying “for a youngster” afterwards. Though his season came to an abrupt end in February, the midfielder made 25 appearances, scoring 5 goals. He looks a genuine box to box talent and will likely play a central role next season. That is if he remains at the club, with any luck the injury will actually work in our favour and keep the vultures at bay for another year.
Persistently inconsistent form means I can’t consider Bettinelli a genuine rival for McCormack’s title. However the young keeper has shown real potential this season to go alongside some outstanding individual performances and looks to have a long term future between the sticks for Fulham. In only his first full professional season, Bettinelli has had to endure a defence as porous as a Brita water filter and has still walked away with 8 clean sheets in 39 games. Yes, he has made some fairly catastrophic mistakes, but tell me a young keeper who hasn’t? As a goalkeeper, mistakes are part of the game, and are as much a learning experience as anything else. Having seen a young Joe Hart in his maiden season at Man City and Kasper Schmeichal on loan at Bury, I can say with some certainty Bettinelli not behind the curve and will only get better.
Whilst most of his good performances were for another side, Matt Smith has been one of the few Fulham players to actually play consistently well this season. His goals whilst on loan at Ashton Gate helped Bristol City romp to the League 1 title and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Once he returned to Fulham, several crucial goals, including the winner at Blackpool, helped us cross the finish line and stay up. No, his inclusion in the side doesn’t foster champagne football, but he’s effective and is as good a ball winner up front as we’ve had in some time. In a division where route one is an inescapable necessity at times, that is a quality that should not be overlooked.
Following interviews with manager Martin Jol on the official website, and owner Shahid Khan on CottageTalk on Friday, I am now increasingly confident that the final month of the transfer window will be prosperous for Fulham Football Club.
With the first team in need of several star additions to the starting line up, the near two months of transfer inactivity has given an opportunity for several of Fulham’s young players and academy graduates to shine in pre-season and possibly earn a place in the first team squad for the coming season.
So with no new signings to profile, here are a few of the Fulham youngsters that everyone should know going into the 2013 – 2014 Barclays Premier League season.
Buomesca Tue Na Bangna (“Mesca”)
20-year-old Guinea-Bissau born Portuguese youth international winger Mesca is the most exciting of a crop of young players about to break into the first team squad. Having been released from Chelsea’s academy as an 18 year old, Mesca joined Fulham in August 2011 and has been on a fast climb ever since. A starring member of the victorious 2012 Premier Academy league Champions Under-18 side, he was promptly promoted to first team camp last pre-season where a goal in a 4-0 win over Nice proved a memorable highlight. Unfortunately a knee injury prevented him from making his much anticipated competitive first team debut last season, but with the incumbent Alex Kacaniklic currently injured, Mesca is slated to potentially open the season starting on the left. A fast, creative left winger, Mesca could soon be a shining crown jewel to have come from within our system.
19 year old Scotland youth international Grimmer is another currently enjoying first team training as our second choice right back. He joined the Whites back in January 2012 having already made his professional debut with Aberdeen aged just 16. A versatile defender who can play centre half, right back or in midfield, Grimmer is a vocal leader on the pitch. His Scottish twang was noticeably audible from the stands as Fulham’s outstanding player in the 2012 Premier Academy League Final. Having led the Under-19s to Dallas Cup glory and made the bench for the FA Cup game at Blackpool last term, Grimmer will hopefully make the first team squad on a more regular basis as back up to Sascha Reither this season. Full international honours should also be in the offing in the not so distant future.
Much talked about Dutch midfielder Chris David joined the Whites last January following a somewhat protracted move from Bryan Ruiz’s old club FC Twente in the Netherlands. The 20 year old was supposedly the brightest spark in Twente’s youth set up and hopes are sky high for him to develop into a top class attacking midfielder. Trips to both Costa Rica and Austria with the first team show how highly he is rated by Martin Jol, though he will likely start the season playing for Kit Symonds’ Under-21 side. With a few impressive cameos in pre-season and a few more once the season starts, don’t be surprised to see Chris David in the first team fringes come the second half of the season.
Mesca, Tankovic and David on preseason tour
One of the better known players to have come out of the Academy in recent seasons, Italian striker Trotta deserves to be given his chance at senior level this season. Successful loan spells at Wycombe in 2012 and Brentford in 2013 have proven 20-year-old Trotta is capable of scoring goals in senior football. Questions about his attitude prevailed after his taken-against-orders missed penalty cost Brentford promotion to the Championship, but the confidence shown, and humility learnt, will hopefully blend together to help Marcello develop into the top class striker many, including myself, believe he can become. Martin Jol has spoken of his desire to strengthen up front, so chances might be limited, but he is currently the most natural born poacher in the entire squad.
Trotta scoring against Chelsea last season
Whether we see 18-year-old Swede Tankovic in the first team this season is unknown, with a full year of development squad football and a possible loan spell more likely. A versatile forward player, Muamer arrived at Fulham as a 16 year old from IFK Norrkoping in 2011, and has shone for the Under-18s in a Number 10 role and up front. A starring member of last May’s second successive Barclays Premier League Under-18 championship winning side, Tankovic’s physical development is such that he could be ready for senior football sooner rather than later. A loan to the Championship like Alex Kacaniklic’s to Watford in 2012 would probably be the best move all round.
Lasse Vigen Chrisensen
Similarly to Tankovic, 18-year-old Danish central midfielder Christensen is unlikely to force his way into the first team just yet. He did however, feature in the opening fixture in Costa Rica, showing hopes are high for the former FC Midtylland player who arrived at Fulham in January 2012. The club website cites him as “bold and creative in possession” and he shone as a cultured deep lying central playmaker when I saw him last. A year learning his craft from the likes of Giorgos Karagounis in first team training could have Christensen first team ready next summer, if not sooner.
Christensen and Tankovic training with the first team in Costa Rica
The Under 18s / Under 21s
Besides those profiled above, there are numerous other players lighting up the Under 21s and Under 18s who could well see first team action in the future, its just unlikely to be this coming season. There are other, good players I wont have mentioned below, but the entire Fulham youth set up is prospering and will hopefully supply players to the first team for years to come.
Neil Etheridge is the star pupil in the goalkeeping ranks. The Philippines international has been capped a staggering 40 times for his country aged just 23. Having recently signed a new contract, Martin Jol has stated Etheridge has the potential to be a future Fulham Number 1 and spent the majority of last season as back up to now departed Mark Schwarzer. Hopefully Neil is given a loan spell in the Championship or an overseas top flight this season to get some regular match practice under his belt. Highly rated Marcus Bettinelli travelled with the first team to Austria, while Jesse Joronen, Max Oberschmidtn Magnus Norman and Marek Rodak are all highly rated within the system. Slovakian Rodak in particular starring for the Under 18s towards the latter part of last term.
Centrally, two players stand out for me. 17-year-old Northern Irishman Liam Donnelly showed the maturity, calmness and positional sense of countryman and fellow centre half Aaron Hughes in the winning Under 18 team back in May. His central defensive partner that day was that statuesque Stephen Arthurworry whose size alone should guarantee a decent professional future, an adept passing range akin to that of first team skipper Brede Hangeland will likely ensure it. Mention must go as well to on loan Dan Burn. Having scored the goal that got Yeovil promoted from League 1 in May, 21 year old Burn will spend the entirety of this campaign playing under Lee Clarke at Birmingham City in the Championship. With both Hughes and Philippe Senderos having contracts that expire in 2014, don’t be surprised to see Burn playing games alongside Amorebieta or Hangeland in a year’s time. Sierra Leone born Irish youth international Noe Baba and Scotland’s Cameron Burgess are also highly rated.
18-year-old Frenchman Ange-Freddy Plumain signed from RC Lens last month amid somewhat of a cloud of confusion after the French club released a statement saying they thought he was still under contract to them. Regardless, Plumain is an exciting prospect who can play on the wing or up front and stated he chose Fulham as the club best suited to further his development, and will expect to play a full season in the Under 21s despite having featured 22 times for Lens’ first team last term. German midfielder Ronny Minkwitz saw his development slow down in the last 12 months after previously captaining the Under 18s and will have a make or brake 2013/14. The same can be said of Australian winger Ryan Williams who starts the season on loan at Oxford United and home grown prospect Charles Banya who made a Premier League substitutes bench at Stoke last November. The two gems at Under 18 level are 17 year olds Emerson Hyndman and Patrick Roberts. American playmaker Hyndman still has some physical development to go but his reading of the game and distribution skill show sizable natural talent. Winger Roberts is fast making a name for himself on both the domestic and international stages, and is included in the latest England Under 17 squad. Finally, a word on Josh Pritchard who is currently halfway through the season at Tromso in Norway’s top flight where he is playing regularly in an under publicised loan spell.
Anyone who saw the Under 18s tear Reading apart in May will be well aware of the following two players. Englishman Cauley Woodrow and Frenchman Moussa Dembele will both have successful senior careers unless they waylay their development with a false career move. Woodrow is, and I hate to use this phrase, a typical English centre forward; think a young Teddy Sheringham with long blonde hair. Equally adept at playing the hard yards with his back to goal as he is poaching in front of it, with the right development and appropriate loan spells, Woodrow could, and should, one day successfully wear the white of the Fulham first team. Frenchman Dembele on the other hand is a natural headline maker. His quite brilliant hat-trick in the Academy final was as good as any forward his age (then 16) could have scored. Having turned 17 and signed professional papers, there is a real chance that in Dembele, we have a player who could one day be worth the £15m his namesake was sold to Tottenham for. Thankfully, with a professional contract bearing his name, that development will be at Fulham. Former MK Dons youngster George Williams will get his chance to lead the Under 18s this term, while Dino Islamovic is another Swede looking to impress in the Under 21s.
Hat-trick hero Dembele back in May
This coming season is a big one for several recent academy and development squad products. The case of the missing Kerim Frei must be answered after injury halted the development of our “next Messi” (as some were calling him after some stellar early performances) and time is ripe for him to show his face again. Midfielder Pajtim Kasami impressed on loan at Luzern last spring and has been one of the stars of pre-season. Defender Matthew Briggs must be hoping he gets his chance at left back and will fight John Arne Riise all season for the spot, though many, myself included, feel he has the ability and skill set to one day progress further up the pitch.