Fulham have begun this summer transfer window by concluding three deals for players from within the Championship. In Tom Cairney, Ben Pringle and Andy Lonergan we have moved to strengthen the squad with players who are already proven in our division. It is a surprisingly sensible transfer strategy and looks to be going someway to rectifying the balance of the misshapen squad we ended last season with.
However, with the arrivals in the form of a goalkeeper and two midfielders (with a possible third to follow in Jamie O’Hara), one area we are yet to sign any players for is the defence. With up to an entirely new back four not out of the realms of possibility, it is safe to say Mike Rigg and co will be scouring the Championship for defensive options. So what follows is a list of potential defensive targets, should Fulham decided to continue the strategy of staying within the Championship.
Lewis Dunk – CB, Brighton & Hove Albion
Centre back Dunk is a player who’s already been linked to Fulham this summer, with some reports stating we’ve already had offers for the 23 year old turned down. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, but it is certainly believable, and Dunk would be an intriguing signing. At 6”4’ his size makes him stand out, but there is a danger with a player like Dunk that his goal scoring, 5 last season, makes him overly memorable relative to how good he actually is. However, he’s a solid player with his prime years ahead of him so it would be a surprise if Brighton let him go.
James Tarkowski – CB, Brentford
22 year old centre back Tarkowski has had something of a meteoric rise in the 18 months since he joined Brentford from Oldham on transfer deadline day in January 2014. Arriving in west London as a 20 year old amidst Premier League interest, Tarkowski was the archetypal sign them cheap, sell them high transfer that suits the transfer system Brentford are in the midst of implementing. At 22, he still has some development to come and it would be a surprise if Brentford sold him to a rival before his value peaks. We’ve been linked with him already this summer with rumours suggesting we’ve unsurprisingly baulked at a reported £8m valuation placed on the player by Brentford.
Tom Lees – CB, Sheffield Wednesday
24 year old Lees is another whose name has briefly been mentioned as a potential target already this summer, with press reports suggesting a £1.2m bid was supposedly rejected earlier in June. The Sheffield Wednesday defender is popular at Hillsborough, even captaining the side at times last season and you’d be surprised if they let him go after only one full season at the club. At 6”2’ he’s another physically imposing centre back and, despite his age, would add both experience and leadership to a back line lacking an identity. Sheffield Wednesday kept an impressive 17 clean sheets last season and Lees was a big reason why. Fulham have also been linked to Wolves CB Richard Stearman, whilst it perhaps wouldn’t be a surprise to see Michael Turner leave newly promoted Norwich for a return to South West London.
Simon Francis – RB, Bournemouth
Ok, so Bournemouth aren’t technically in the Championship anymore, but Francis was the best visiting full back to play at Craven Cottage last season. At 30 he is not in the age bracket we ideally want to be signing, but it is important that we garner some experience in the squad outside of those already at the club. If Jack Grimmer isn’t to start the season as our principal right back, I’d want his replacement to be someone he can look up to and learn from. Francis led all Championship defenders in assists last season with 6 but I’d be surprised if Bournemouth wanted to let him go, or if he’d want to leave.
Charlie Daniels – LB, Bournemouth
Similarly to Francis above, Daniels is no spring chicken aged 29. However, with Bournemouth spending £8m on Tyrone Mings last week, Daniels has seen his potential role at the club nose dive. Daniels is a good all round full back and was part of a spectacularly solid Bournemouth back four last season, alongside the aforementioned Francis, Steve Cook and Tommy Elphick. He also chipped in with 4 assists and 43 key passes. With Sean Kavanagh the only left back in the first team squad (assuming Fernando Amorebieta has no future at the club) we could urgently do with a bit of experience.
Sam Byram – RB, Leeds
I should start the write up of Byram by saying there is very, very little chance we could sign Byram. The 21 year old right back has been catching scouts eyes from the Premier League for several seasons now, with latest reports linking him to Everton in the event Seamus Coleman leaves. However, taking Leeds’ best player for the second summer in a row would be a real coup for Fulham. In reality though, it is likely that a more experienced right back arrives to challenge Grimmer for the place. The most probable scenario is the arrival of former loanee Ashley Richards on a permanent transfer from Swansea, but we can dream.
James Husband – LB, Middlesbrough
Another 21-year old, Husband spent the last month of last season on loan at Fulham as part of the Amorebieta loan swap. In 2 league appearances, Husband managed to do what Kostas Stafylidis failed to do in 38 and resemble a competent defender. With George Friend cemented as the starter at Boro, Husband will need to leave the Riverside for regular minutes this season and I’m sure I’d not be alone in welcoming him back to Craven Cottage. Whether Boro would sell him is a different question.
Scott Malone – LB, Cardiff
Malone started last season at Millwall and caught the eye as the Lions beat us at the Cottage in August. However, with his contract running down, Millwall sold him to Cardiff in January where he proceeded to make 13 appearances. It’s unlikely he’d move again, but the 24 year old is one of the Championships best under the radar full backs.
It’s unlikely any of these players will arrive in SW6 this summer, but it is good to see Fulham looking at the talent available within the Championship as a means to strengthen the squad.
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.
Monday’s announcement that Fulham were to be charged by the FA for failing to control their players in the recent Leeds United fixture is the straw that has broken my proverbial camel’s back when it comes to officiating.
There has been a fairly unilateral feeling that refereeing standards have been going down over the past few seasons, an opinion that has only been enhanced in Fulham fandom by the regular lower calibre of decision we’ve seen during our inaugural foray into the Championship.
However, I don’t take criticising officials in print lightly. Yes between 3pm and 5pm on a Saturday afternoon we are all automatically pre-disposed to blame them but let’s face it, they have a difficult job, and a vital one at that. They are the last line of protection for players’ safety and often hold the key to keeping a game entertaining, but in the career of a referee or assistant you mostly either face criticism or anonymity.
Yet there is a time and a place to speak up and the quality of officiating in this country needs to be addressed. This is not simply a biased spectator looking for an excuse to pardon his own team’s inefficiencies. Referee’s don’t have Fulham fighting a second successive relegation, but they do play a part in every game and the evening out of decisions for and against you over the course of a season is no reason to gloss over the underlying issue.
However, to start with, let’s be a little biased and look at the aforementioned Leeds game. Kostas Stafylidis gets booked for dissent after launching a verbal tirade against the assistant referee after he gave a throw in against the Fulham defender. The decision to give Leeds a throw in was a wrong one, and having just gone two goals down, Kostas took out his frustrations on the hapless official. A yellow card was probably fair, officials don’t need berating, even if they have made a boo boo. Twenty seconds later, Stafylidis rather idiotically decides to foul a Leeds player directly in front of the same assistant referee (and the Leeds fans). The referee gives him the old “calm down” motion and sets off towards the box ready to oversee the resultant free kick. However, his assistant has other ideas. The Leeds fans (of which there are some 6,000) reign down from the Putney End with a cascade of “off off off” chants and the assistant tells his referee to send off Stafylidis. Seeing this change of scenario unfold, several Fulham players (Captain Scott Parker and Vice Captain Ross McCormack included) charge towards the referee, incensed that their match has just been effectively ended with Stafylidis’ sending off. These are the facts [Imagine that said in the voice of Rafa Benitez and you’ll get where I’m going].
Why did the Fulham players (and the entire stadium) react with such anger? Well, the appearance was that the assistant referee either sent off Stafylidis because he was still upset about the earlier dissent, or because the Leeds fans encouraged him to do so. Or both. Yes, Stafylidis was a first rate hothead and shouldn’t have put himself in that scenario, but the entire situation came about from what was frankly poor officiating by the linesman in the first place. This was a linesman that was consistently yards behind the play (but we’ll get to fitness later).
Fast forward to later in the game and Ross McCormack gets taken out from behind, leading directly to a knee injury that has seen him have to withdraw from the Scotland squad after a hard earned recall. Was the relevant Leeds player sent off? Or even booked? No. Of course not. What was that about player protection?
The frequency of refereeing howlers is on the face of it alarmingly high. This last weekend we even had not one, but two wrong man sending off incidents across the Football League where Cauley Woodrow was dismissed wrongly against Huddersfield and West Brom’s Craig Dawson managed to hide from the referee for long enough after bringing down Manchester City’s Wilfried Bony that Gareth McAuley was sent off instead. However, there has been a magna carta-full of refereeing blunders this season and these were just the latest.
So why is this?
Well, a few weeks ago top flight referee Lee Propert delivered a lecture at the University of Bath entitled “The Demands of a Modern Referee and Why Angles are so Important”. What Mr Probert said was both revealing and highly unsatisfactory and points to an increase in difficulty and a resultant drop in standards and a high level of deniability.
Firstly a caveat, it was Probert who sent off Brede Hangeland v Sunderland in 2012 thus commencing the downward spiral that Fulham are still in, so my opinion of him is reasonably low, however what I write here is a direct report of what he himself said in that lecture at the University of Bath.
There were two main strands of the debate on standards that came out of his discussion; fitness and the media.
Firstly, Mr Probert described how up to about 2012, Premierleague referees had made an enormous effort to get themselves on the same level of fitness as the players. Indeed some of the fitness tests referees have to pass would make Olympic hopefuls blush. However, he said there was an overriding feeling amongst officials that players had since got fitter at a rate referees simply could not match. This means that for a referee to be in the right place and the right time to make the right decision is harder than it ever has been before as the game, and the players, are always getting faster. This is a legitimate explanation for an apparent drop in standards. The game is becoming simply too fast for the referees to catch up.
The second, and far more unsatisfactory point, is that referees are mindful of the media. Probert said referees don’t want to be the story, therefore there is a tendency to shy away from big decisions if they think they might be scrutinised. The more worrying aspect of this is that he said referees know decisions involving (and against) the big teams will inevitably generate more controversy and therefore coverage and therefore they are less likely to take them. The sum of that statement being that referees really do favour the big teams.
Probert gave an example of when another referee, Mike Dean, sent off Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany in a game against Arsenal back in 2013. The incident in question involved the Manchester City defender being shown a straight red card for a 50/50 tackle against Jack Wilshere. Probert’s explanation was that the Arsenal man should also have been sent off as both tackles were red card offenses. Why did only one man get sent off? To avoid the controversy as a double sending off would have made the referee the story. Interestingly, Kompany’s red card was actually overturned, something that went undiscussed.
However, Probert’s comments serve merely to reinforce the opinion that refereeing is suffering a bit of a crisis at the moment. With video technology not being utilised referees simply cannot achieve the ultimate levels of performance that their colleagues in other sports can. Without the quality of performance, they will not command the respect they crave and for the most part deserve. It is hard to talk about referees without using rugby union as an example, but watching Nigel Owens, the welsh referee, summarily end a conversation with the England Captain Chris Robshaw during last weekend’s Six Nations encounter between England and France with a simple, “Christopher, that’s enough” and the player responding with an even simpler “Yes sir”, it is hard to think that there is a long way for football to go.
What is the answer? Video technology is certainly the most obvious way to start, but football also needs to not be afraid of adapting and clarifying the rules themselves. Lawmakers need to ask themselves some questions. What are the purpose of the rules and what are the purpose of referees? Are referees set to be at the middle of football’s existential crisis? Of course not, this is football, we don’t worry about such things.