“Edwin van der Sar? To Fulham? Are you f****** sure?’ The immortal words of the sports editor at a major British tabloid as they considered changing their back page splash having taken a call from Italy claiming that the Dutch international goalkeeper was about to leave Juventus for Craven Cottage have always stuck with me. It was a huge surprise, but it showed that Fulham meant business, as Jean Tigana’s newly-promoted side moved swiftly to beat Ajax, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund to sign one of the world’s best keepers for just £7m.
Mohamed Al-Fayed took advantage of van der Sar’s disenchantment in Italy after the Turin giants assured him of his future as their number one in private discussions only a week before making Gianluigi Buffon the world’s most expensive goalkeeper. The deal – nearly scuppered by a classic Al-Fayed prank at the end of negotiations with the Juventus board – came with the blessing of then Dutch national coach Louis van Gaal and van der Sar, who had been demoted to training with the youth team at Juventus, was desperate to both play football and make his mark in the Premier League.
He certainly did. van der Sar – astonishingly good with the ball at his feet, something which is seen as a pre-requisite nowadays, quickly settled in as a reassuring presence in the Fulham goal, conceding just 41 times in 37 matches as he kept fifteen clean sheets in the club’s first Premier League season. More than that, he was part of the side that reached the FA Cup semi-finals. Perhaps his biggest contribution was his professionalism at Motspur Park. Sean Davis recalled that the big Dutchman arrived an hour before training, going through his own individual set of routines, and worked with the club’s young keepers afterwards. ‘He was clearly a superstar, but very motivated and focused. He raised the level – and immediately made us tougher to beat,’ Davis told Danny Fullbrook and Harry Harris in their diary of Fulham’s first Premiership campaign.
Al-Fayed had sold van der Sar on European football if he made the move to England and, although the Intertoto Cup might not have been what the former Ajax goalkeeper had in mind, Fulham qualified for the UEFA Cup through the summer competition after a fine win over Bologna. van der Sar kept five clean sheets in ten games as the Whites reached the third round and conceded just nineteen times in 24 league games before his season was abruptly ended by a knee injury at St. James’ Park.
Tigana’s abrupt departure in April 2003 was a blow after the French coach’s prominent role in persuading van der Sar of his ambition but the big Dutchman’s displays under Chris Coleman in 2003/04 were arguably the best of his Fulham career. The one that always comes to mind is his extraordinary series of saves as the Whites hung on for an unlikely point at Highbury against Arsenal’s invincibles, but the goalkeeper also played his part in famous wins at Tottenham and Manchester United as Fulham shook off the mid-season loss of Louis Saha to finish ninth.
van der Sar’s commitment to the club that gave him his first chance in English football was such that he signed a contract extension to ensure Fulham received a transfer fee when Sir Alex Ferguson’s long courtship culminated in a transfer to Old Trafford. Before that became a reality in the summer, van der Sar memorably saved two penalties in the same game from Juan Pablo Angel as Fulham fought back to claim a point against Aston Villa at Old Trafford. He kept a remarkable 49 clean sheets in 150 appearances for the Whites – and was probably the biggest reason why Fulham established themselves again in England’s top flight.
Al-Fayed did eventually take Fulham to a major European final, of course, and the eccentric Egyptian’s ambitions for the oldest club in London wouldn’t have been realised without the immense contribution of the best goalkeeper I’ve seen in a Fulham shirt. He began the club’s proud unbeaten home record in continental competition – which still stands – and will always have a place in Craven Cottage folklore.
Interesting little snippet from the Manchester United website this morning. Mason Greenwood, the talented teenage forward, has picked out Joe Bryan as the toughest opponent he has faced in his career.
Responding to a fans’ question and answer session, Greenwood said: “I’ve probably got to say, it might be a surprising one, but do you know [Joe] Bryan, the one for Fulham? He allowed me no space, no time on the ball, when we played them home and away. It was one of my most difficult games for us. He’s one you probably wouldn’t think I’d say his name, but he was getting tight to me and not giving me much space. He was a good defender and he was probably my toughest challenge.”
Bryan, whose goals took Fulham back to the Premier League last summer, also scored the equaliser at Old Trafford when the Whites claimed a creditable draw in May.
Wolves are planning a summer swoop for Fulham full back Antonee Robinson, according to a Football Insider report this afternoon.
Manchester City’s rumoured interest in the American international resurfaced over the weekend but Wolves are preparing to test Fulham’s resolve to retain their best players by tabling a £10m bid. The 23 year-old quickly usurped Joe Bryan as Scott Parker’s first choice left back in an encouraging first season at Craven Cottage, making 28 appearances as the Whites ultimately failed to stay up.
Fulham would like to keep Robinson as they seek to make an immediate return to the top flight under new boss Marco Silva but Wolves believe they can land the former Wigan defender by matching the Londoners’ £10m valuation. That would represent a significant profit on the £2m that Fulham spent to bring the ex-Everton trainee to west London last summer.
There wasn’t much final day cheer at Craven Cottage. Only a few weeks ago, Fulham fans would have been contemplating the prospect of a fraught last day showdown against relegation rivals Newcastle United – but Scott Parker’s side crumbled well before a nervy climax became a possibility. The home faithful had to console themselves with a return to Fulham’s historic old home for the first time since before Christmas, but an insipid display only emphasised just how far Fulham have fallen short of staying afloat in the top flight this term.
Parker and the Fulham hierarchy have plenty of questions to ponder in the close season as the club prepares to try and return to English football’s top table at the first time of asking yet again. Chief among them well be whether Parker, whose tactical naivety proved costly in the final weeks of a chastening campaign, will be in charge of another Championship tilt come August. There will be question marks about the composition of Fulham’s squad, especially after the head coach admitted that all of the current loanees will return to their parent clubs in the coming week, whilst the need for significant summer recruitment will focus attention on director of football Tony Khan.
On the field, Fulham have been far too easy to play through in the key moments. This was encapsulated by Newcastle’s opening goal, scored predictably by the in-form Joe Willock, who grabbed his seventh goal in seven Premier League games to match a record held by legendary striker Alan Shearer. The on-loan Arsenal midfielder, whose scoring exploits lifted the Magpies to safety with surprising comfort, carried the ball the best part of seventy yards unchallenged. Only Tim Ream offered the slightest hint of a challenge – from which the ball sat up kindly for Willock to rifle home – but the tracking back of Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa was shambolic.
If that generous defending summed up Fulham’s failings, there was yet more manifestation of their chronic failure to finish in front of goal. The lack of a regular goalscorer has made Parker’s decision to ignore Aleksandar Mitrovic baffling and suggests that the Serbian striker will be looking for pastures new in a matter of weeks. For much of the campaign, Ivan Cavaleiro has operated as a makeshift number nine but if the Portuguese winger had added pace and pressing up front, his finishing fell short of the mark far too often. He spurned Fulham’s best chances here – bending a couple of efforts over the crossbar from presentable positions – and then unforgivably failing to find the target from close range after a brilliant lay-off from Fabio Carvalho.
The talented teenager continued his impressive cameos of recent weeks and looked the most likely source of a Fulham equaliser. Carvalho looked most at home when operating just behind the striker – and provided an injection of both pace and sharpness in the final third. Predictably, the home side dominated the second period but struggled to carve out clear cut chances. There was a league debut for tidy Australian midfielder Tyrese Francois as a late substitute, but the Whites were largely restricted to hopeful potshots from range. Kenny Tete’s speculative effort bounced around in the penalty area but Carvalho couldn’t profit when it dropped towards him – and, in keeping with Fulham’s frustrating season, Newcastle profited from a smash and grab in the dying embers of the contest to double their lead.
It came from the penalty spot, after Tete was penalised for felling Matt Ritchie in the box. The award felt soft but Fabian Schar by effortlessly beating Marek Rodak from twelve yards. That goal lifted Newcastle above Wolves and into twelve on goal difference and a smattering of boos from the home crowd on the final whistle offered a stark reminder of Fulham’s own underwhelming finish. On this evidence, an immediate return to the Premier League next May appears a tall order.
After scoring the goals that took Fulham back to the promised land, Joe Bryan’s Premier League season hasn’t turned out the way he would have wanted. Not only has he largely been sidelined in favour of summer signing Antonee Robinson, but the Whites’ Wembley hero hadn’t started a league game since the 2-1 defeat by Manchester United in February. The likeable left back made up for lost time tonight – heading in an equaliser at Old Trafford that earned the relegated side an unlikely and creditable point.
Bryan’s firm header after a flowing move down the Fulham right – which survived a VAR check for offside against Bobby Decordova-Reid – was fitting reward for the fight Scott Parker’s side had showed after largely being outplayed in the first half of what was almost a glorified exhibition fixture. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, tuning up for their Europa League final against Villareal later this month, were into their stride early with Aaron Wan-Bissaka rampaging down the right and crossing for Paul Pogba, whose tame header went over the bar.
The returning home fans were treated to a moment of absolute magic from Edinson Cavani, who gave Manchester United the lead with a wonderfully inventive finish from 40 yards out. David de Gea’s kick travelled all the way through to the Uruguayan forward, with Bruno Fernandes trying and failing to flick it on, and Cavani spotted that Alphonse Areola had strayed way out of goal and beat him with an audacious lob. Given that Cavani was clearly offside from de Gea’s clearing kick – stationed well inside the Fulham half beyond Tosin Adarabioyo – it should have been chalked off, but nobody could quibble with the mesmerising quality of the finish.
Fulham, sitting deep and not committing too many bodies forward, were clinging on for dear life in the aftermath of the goal and might have gone further behind before half time. Bruno Fernandes was denied a trademark goal from the edge of the box by an athletic Areola save and Cavani looked like troubling Parker’s rejigged defence, which featured the recalled Tim Ream, every time the home side came forward.
The visitors’ chances were few and far between. Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa almost surprised de Gea with a powerful header from a corner, but no Fulham team-mate was following up to profit from the rebound. The away side’s brightest moments came from teenager Fabio Carvalho, who showed some silky touches in and around the United area, but was also guilty of spurning their best chance as half time neared when he sped away from Victor Lindelof to reach Ademola Lookman’s perfect through ball but shot straight at de Gea.
Fulham pressed more aggressively at the start of the second period and Maria Lemina showed signs of their more adventurous approach with a venomous drive from distance just after the restart. The Gabonese midfielder then went into Lee Mason’s book for a cynical foul on Scott McTominay as the Manchester United midfielder galloped into shooting range. Fernandes flashed the ensuing free-kick fractionally wide of the far post with Areola well beaten. The hosts looked in complete control, playing at an easy pace, but the longer the margin remained a single goal, the greater Fulham began to believe.
Evidence of their growing confidence emerged courtesy of Lookman, who had scored their opening goal against United in the reverse fixture. The on-loan Leipzig winger drifted into the penalty area and almost caught out de Gea at his near post. The Spaniard clawed away Lookman’s effort and recovered quickly enough to gather Carvalho’s headed follow up. Lemina then lashed one over from long range and United wasted a great opportunity to put the game to bed but Cavani caressed a pass through to Mason Greenwood, who shot straight at the advancing Areola, before Fernandes skied the rebound high and wide.
United were soon to rue their lack of ruthlessness. Anguissa snapped into a tackle with Luke Shaw, winning possession and sending the ball out to Decordova-Reid wide on the right. The former Bristol City forward sent over an inviting cross and there was Bryan in an advanced position to plant a header past de Gea after Wan-Bissaka had misjudged the flight of the ball in. Suddenly, the visitors looked the more likely to get a winner with Ivan Cavaleiro having a drive from the edge of the box blocked at source.
United went in search of one of their storied late winners but found Areola equal to an excellent shimmy and shot from Fernandes and, on the balance of play in the second period, Parker’s experimental side fully deserved a share of the spoils.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Shaw, Tuanzebe, Lindelof; McTominay (Rashford 62), Fred; Greenwood (Diallo 83), Pogba, Fernandes; Cavani (van de Beek 87). Subs (not used): Henderson, Bailly, Williams, Telles, Matic, Mata.