It is hardly my generation’s JFK moment, but I remember how I learnt that Fulham had signed Ryan Tunnicliffe. Most of the media were wondering whether Kostas Mitroglou was going to score the goals the Whites badly craved to get themselves out of a desperate hole at the wrong end of the Championship, whilst some were contemplating how Johnny Heitinga could shore up one of the division’s most leaky defences. The arrival of a pair of Manchester United’s youth stars of old (the lesser-spotted Larnell Cole was part of a double deal that saw Tunnicliffe team up with his former Carrington coach Rene Meulensteen) didn’t exactly set pulses rating, but it did get my phone buzzing.
My mate, Phil, a mad Red from Heywood, had been ringing me all afternoon. I assumed it was to discuss Dimitar Berbatov’s departure from Craven Cottage. I’d been on a train and in a series of meetings. By the time, I emerged from a mid-afternoon conference call, I had six missed calls. Even Phil, who worshipped the ground Dimi walked on whilst he was wearing United’s colours, couldn’t have been that enraged by the Bulgarian’s exit from English football. I was just about to call him back when his name flashed up on my phone. I can’t repeat the expletives that questioned my parentage and why it had taken several hours for me to get in touch, but Phil’s message was succinct enough:
You’ve done it, mate. You’ve only gone and done it. You’ve signed him. The boy from round the corner. Tunners. He’s a real player. Been with United since he was nine. His dad won thousands after betting he would play for us. He’s a star – brilliant when we won the FA Youth Cup and great in the reserves. He’ll do great in the Premier League.
Phil didn’t close until much later than they were from the same part of Heywood and that his son had been a contemporary of Ryan’s at Siddal Moore Sports College. He insists to this day it didn’t colour his judgement of the player. As luck would have it, Tunnicliffe’s Fulham debut came at Old Trafford against his boyhood team when Meulensteen, the man who had overseen his development at United, rejigged his side to take on David Moyes’ men. His selection sparked some debate amongst a Sky panel that included Mike Phelan, who had no doubt as to Tunnicliffe’s quality, and the tigerish midfielder delivered an energetic display on the right of a narrow midfield quartet that might have been rewarded with a debut goal had Muamer Tankovic located his run towards the end of the first half when Fulham, who eventually snatched a point in stoppage time after absorbing an aerial bombardment, had a three-on-two.
As it was, Tunnicliffe performed a similar role in the heartbreaking added time defeat at the hands of Liverpool, shackling the threat of Luis Suarez, before Sascha Riether’s injury-time aberration handed the visitors a late penalty. That defeat proved to be Meulensteen’s last game as Fulham boss – with firefighter Felix Magath drafted in to try and keep the Whites up. The eccentric German’s appointment wasn’t good news for either Tunnicliffe or Cole, who were summoned to his office after a hastily arranged training game at Motspur Park, and told they weren’t part of his plans.
It was a bit of a bit of a head-scratcher. From being at United to signing for another Premier League club with a manager I’d worked with previously to being told three weeks later by a manager you’d worked with for a day that you’re not wanted. You fight your corner and question the decision, but I think he played at being not very good at English and just mumbled his way through. You leave the meeting scratching your head.
He wasn’t the only one who ‘had a little smile’ when he heard Magath had been sacked. Kit Symons recalled Tunnicliffe from a promising loan spell at Blackburn and the midfielder’s tenacity married with his eye for a pass made him a key part of a team formed from the remnants of Magath’s summer recruitment and some of the talent he sought to purge. Tunnicliffe made 24 appearances for the Whites, most memorably running half the whole length of the pitch at Huddersfield support Seko Fofana in stoppage time after ten-man Fulham had hung on to the slenderest of leads. No matter than the Frenchman ignored him twice – missing an almost open goal before converting the rebound – Tunnicliffe was straight into the delirious away fans to celebrate.
The following season was probably Tunnicliffe’s best down by the Thames. After summer signings to strengthen the midfield, he had to work hard to persuade Symons of his merits as a first-team player but, by September – when the Whites put four past QPR – he was a regular in the side. October brought his first Fulham goals, one an instinctive tap-in after a free-kick rebounded favourably, and the second, a sublime moment of quality at Ashton Gate that still seems stupendous. Fulham were running riot, three up with nine minutes to go before half-time, Tunnicliffe started and finished a swift break, producing the most impudent of chips to increase the lead:
Symons’ subsequent sacking, after a home mauling at the hands of Birmingham City, prompted a shambolic search for a replacement with Fulham eventually settling on Slavisa Jokanovic just after Christmas. The new coach had to deal with a transfer embargo in January – but Tunnicliffe’s battling qualities were perfectly started to the demands of what turned into a relegation battle. He describes that period of his career as one of his favourites:
The first year with him [Jokanovic] – it was great. I played fifteen games to try to help keep us in the league, which we managed. It was probably the best part of my Fulham career.
Often unfairly pigeon-holed as a midfield enforcer, Tunnicliffe had a classier side to his game, an artful eye for a pass – befitting his Carrington footballing education and his promising schoolboy football days that saw him captain his country at Under 16 and 17 level, but he found his opportunities limited once Jokanovic reshaped his squad ahead of what became the memorable, if agonising, 2016/17 campaign. A move to Millwall, where Shaun Hutchinson has also revived his career after his own experience of the Magath madness, has given Tunnicliffe another crack at the Championship, and affords him a Craven Cottage return this afternoon.
Tunnicliffe has had to wait for his chance in the Millwall midfield – with Neil Harris staying true to the stalwarts who helped the Lions out of League One last year – but has gradually established himself after an untimely injury to Shaun Williams. He scored his first Millwall goal – a peach of a strike against Birmingham – last month and might even pass on a few tips to his team-mates about Jokanovic’s brand of football. Tunnicliffe will certainly be an asset to Millwall and will desperate to prove a point to his former employers later today. His Fulham days shouldn’t solely be about an ill-advised tweet and I, for one, hope one of the wittier Fulham songs of old gets another airing in his honour.
The former Manchester United youth team captain has headed back to his native north west after failing to feature in Slavisa Jokanovic’s first-team plans since October. Tunnicliffe, who was previously shipped out to the Latics on loan at the tail end of the 2013/2014 by Felix Magath, has seen his chances of regular game time at Craven Cottage hampered by the signings of Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen. The midfielder has made just ten senior appearances this term Fulham felt it was best to offer the 22 year-old a chance to play elsewhere.
Tunnicliffe initially struggled to establish a place in the Fulham set-up following the sudden sacking of Rene Meulensteen, who brought him to the club at the end of the transfer window in 2014. He had made an impressive Fulham debut in a memorable 2-2 draw at Old Trafford on the right of a rejigged midfield and delivered another solid performance in an agonising home defeat by Liverpool two days later but after Meulensteen’s departure, Magath decided he was surplus to requirements.
After making just four league appearances on loan at the DW Stadium, Tunnicliffe enjoyed more successive loan stint with Blackburn Rovers before being recalled by Kit Symons, who had replaced Magath in charge at Craven Cottage. He became a key part of the side that eventually secured their Championship status with a number of characteristically combative displays in central midfield. The Heywood-born midfielder has made 66 appearances for Fulham with his two goals being a close-range finish against Charlton Athletic and a sublime lob at Bristol City that won the club’s goal of the month award.
Tunicliffe, whose Fulham contract expires at the end of the season, will go straight into Warren Joyce’s squad for Wigan’s home fixture with Brentford tomorrow afternoon.
QPR are one of a number of sides considering a January move for Fulham midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe, according to a report in the Daily Mail this afternoon.
The 23 year-old combative midfielder has not featured for the first team since October and is eager to get more game time. Rangers’ boss Ian Holloway is eager to strengthen his midfield options in the new year but could face competition from a number of Championship sides. Fulham’s opponents on Boxing Day, Ipswich Town, and Preston North End are also reportedly interested in securing the former Manchester United man’s services and Fulham could be keen to strike a permanent deal with Tunnicliffe’s current contract expiring in the summer.
The industrious Tunnicliffe, who captained United’s youth team during his time at Old Trafford, has also attracted interest from north of the border with Glasgow Rangers boss Mark Warburton eyeing potential replacements for Joey Barton. Tunnicliffe has made 61 first-team appearances since signing for former Manchester United coach Rene Meulensteen alongside his ex-United team-mate Larnell Cole on transfer deadline day in January 2014, scoring two goals. He has also had loan spells with Wigan and Blackburn before reestablishing himself in the first team picture.
Tunnicliffe has found first-team football harder to come by this season, despite being impressive in Fulham’s opening night win over Newcastle. He has suffered from the emergence of new signings Stefan Johansen and Kevin McDonald and managed just ten appearances, the last of which was as a late substitute as the Whites came back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with Norwich City in October.
You sensed last night might be crucial for Ryan Tunnicliffe. Too often the only robust midfielder operating amongst colleagues of rather samey class on the ball last season, he found himself some way down Slavisa Jokanovic’s pecking order once new signings started filing into Motspur Park over the summer. Restricted to substitute appearances at Leyton Orient and Leeds, Tunnicliffe might have been forgiven for wondering whether his Fulham career – which had him serenaded as a folk hero before he’d really broken into the side – could soon be up given that Scott Parker and Kevin McDonald have formed a mightily impressive partnership at a base of a new look midfield.
But Parker’s age and fitness mean that understudies are necessary, especially given the brutal composition of a Championship fixture list. As odd it is it my sound, Tunnicliffe – still only 23 – lined up as the senior statesman in a Fulham midfield that short on serious experience of English senior football last night and, after an iffy start as Middlesbrough stroked the ball around with all the confidence of a side that hadn’t been beaten since March, he offered Jokanovic a timely reminder of his tigerish qualities by imposing himself on the contest and gradually turning it Fulham’s way.
The impish nature of Tunnicliffe’s running makes you think he might be the archetypal northern destroyer – something that’s necessary in a league where time and space are often at a premium. But, while his endeavour and will to win can’t be faulted, such a description would sell him short. There’s a bit more finesse to his football as you might expect from someone who spent his formative years at Carrington and won youth trophies with Manchester United. Tunnicliffe has an underappreciated range of passing and no little subtlety, as shown in his clever one-twos with Jozabed and Cauley Woodrow, which won free-kicks in the first half. He dovetailed effectively with the teenager Dennis Adeniran in central midfield but when Jokanovic called for more intensity with the Whites still trailing to a simple header from David Nugent, Tunnicliffe stepped up.
Perhaps the manner in which he grabbed hold of the contest was most accurately encapsulated by his role in the Fulham equaliser. Frustrated by the way in which Middlesbrough had weathered an early barrage of home pressure, Tunnicliffe bounded over the half way line, surged past a couple of would-be tacklers, worked a clever interchange with Lasse Vigen Christensen and, with the penalty area approaching, fed Scott Malone with a clever pass. It was all done at a speed that would have been bewildering, but the pace perfectly captured what Tunnicliffe’s game is all about.
There’s an argument to suggest that Fulham’s alarming mid-season dip in form that dragged them into a relegation battle when a play-off push was on the agenda after the sacking of Kit Symons had much to do with Tunnicliffe’s untimely injury at Milton Keynes. Without his ballast in midfield, a side already shorn of leadership in the form of a permanent manager were far too easy to play through – and the player himself struggled to reach the same level of intensity when he returned from the treatment table.
Tunnicliffe’s Fulham career has been full of fits and starts. A promising beginning when he put in disciplined displays on the right of a defensively-minded midfield dreamed up by Rene Meulensteen petered out when he was deemed surplus to requirements by Felix Magath and, despite becoming a regular under Symons, he must have feared the worst when Jokanovic moved to shore up the centre of the park in the summer. But Tunnicliffe’s willingness to put a shift in will always catch the eye of a manager – and he certainly made the most of an opportunity to give his head coach a nudge last night.
When it was announced that Fulham were taking their pre-season training to Ireland this year I couldn’t wait to see whereabouts they would be based. I couldn’t miss out on the chance to see the boys play so close to home, despite the fact that they were based on the opposite side of the Island from where I am from!
Nevertheless, I was up for the 270 odd mile drive down to Cork and back again to get an idea of how the squad was shaping up for the season ahead. For the past two summers Fulham fans have generally had high hopes for the Championship campaign but that hope was soon met with bitter disappointment when watching Fulham struggle for survival in England’s second league. It has been hard to take considering the money that has went in to setting up a promotion push for a club that not long ago was playing in Europe.
But here we are again, a month before we kick off the season at home to relegated Newcastle, hoping and praying for a season to remember for the right reasons this time. The off-field fiasco that has seen us have a wide range of managers at the helm since our final year in the top flight has only unsettled the squad time and time again and has seen us have no real shape or consistency about how we are supposed to set up. I can imagine that it has been incredibly frustrating for the players, especially those who came to Fulham looking for shot back in the PL.
However, since Slavisa Jokanovic has been at the helm, I have felt quite confident about the future of the club. He is a good manager who has a solid idea about how he wants us to play and having a proper pre-season with the squad is his chance to bring that to the players. It is difficult to change things half way through a season so it is no surprise that things weren’t particularly smooth following his arrival at the turn of the year. More players are required, there’s no denying that, but yesterday gave the Fulham fans an idea of what we might see come the start of the season in terms of how Slav wants to set up the team. Here I will outline a few highs and lows about what I witnessed yesterday.
I’ll start with the lows. Mainly because I hate ending a post on a negative note so I’ll just get the gloomy stuff out of the way now.
In the first half particularly, Fulham seemed to only have one idea about how to attack which was down the right using the pace of Ryan Fredericks. Fredericks is super quick, but it I’m not sure he ever made an accurate cross or pass despite being in a good position next to the box. This wasn’t all his fault as often when he had made his run and beat a payer he didn’t have enough options in the box so had to hold the ball up or ended up giving it away. My problem with this was that the boys seemed adamant that they were going to use this option every single time we had the ball! However, on the few occasions that we chose to go down the left hand side, with the impressive Ryan Sessegnon, a chance was created. The first goal came from an attack down the left by Floyd Ayite so it is a shame that we didn’t utilise this more often.
Every corner we got in the first half we chose to take the ball short. It’s something that has bothered fans for ages yet it is something that is still happening. Unfortunately, it just isn’t working for us as the players seem to want to over pass the ball before getting it into the box and it just takes away an opportunity for a chance.
Maybe it was a pre-season thing, but I thought that some of the overall play was quite scrappy. Tunnicliffe was guilty of given the ball away on a number of occasions and in attack we often got crowded out because of not playing an early enough pass. I don’t think it is anything to worry about considering we have plenty of pre-season and friendlies to get this out of our system, but the team will need to be much sharper in a few weeks’ time.
Cairney out of position
Again Tom Cairney was playing out on the left and was ineffective. He is quality player but isn’t being used in the right areas and he just looked uncomfortable out there. It was a massive contrast to Ayite on the right who was a constant threat, but I’ll get to that later. When Cairney plays behind the striker he looks a much better player.
Woaaaah, thankfully the lows are over! Now we can get to the stuff that we can get excited about.
This guy is going to be one of our biggest attacking threats this year. He likes to run at players and uses his fantastic footwork to beat them. He is a quick, strong and intelligent player who, if given the opportunity, will give us plenty of goal attempts. He likes to get the ball on the move and hit the baseline before either pulling the ball back for someone running on, or causing havoc in the box by continuing himself. Defenders will be cautious about tackling him in the box due to his quick footwork. He will be one to watch this year.
I have always been a fan of the high press. As long as everyone plays their part, it can make it nearly impossible for the opposition to keep the ball without just thumping it forward. The last couple of seasons have seen us continually back off which has result in a crazy number of long range goals against us. Players have had the opportunity to just pick a spot with pretty much no pressure on them. It has also seen us rarely win the ball back when we have lost it. It was clear yesterday that this is something that Slav has sought to improve about the squad. The mentality is, ‘if you lose it, you win it straight back!’ It is also clear that Slav wants these instructions to come from the keeper as it was regularly Bettinelli who was yelling, “High press, high press,” throughout the game. The players up front were responding well and a number of chances came from not giving the opposition any time on the ball, causing a mistake and using it to go through on goal. This sort of intense, high pressure football is the way Slav had Watford play the year they were promoted and it is something that I have longed to see at Fulham for years. If it is done right, we will reap the rewards from it.
I was really impressed by the 18-year-old yesterday. He played the first half and caused the Cork City defence a lot of problems with his willingness to make diagonal runs. This stretched the defence and gave opportunities to get other players in the box. He took his first goal very well after making a run into the right place in the box and the second, despite being the result of a defensive mix up, wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t have put pressure on the defence. The only thing that I can criticise him on was his decision making. There was one occasion were he used good skill to beat two players at once and instead of putting through a yelling Ross McCormack, he turned straight back into the players he had just beaten and had a shot that was blocked. I suppose it is a strikers thing to always want to have a go, but if he was slightly smarter there he would have handed Ross a chance on a silver platter! Overall though a was really impressed and the next season could be a big one for the young man if he takes his chances when given.
No matter what happens in the next few weeks, Madl has to start in the centre of defence this season. His reading of the game is exceptional and he rarely had to make a tackle purely because he had cut out the ball before a tackle was required. This sort of intelligence has been lacking from the defence for about 3 seasons and the constant confusion back there is one reason for our abysmal defensive record. Madl was calm and collected. He also didn’t just hoof the ball out when he made an interception, rather he controlled the ball and found a pass. Composure at the back is exactly what we need.
Although he didn’t get a goal, Cauley Woodrow played well yesterday. Despite spurning a few chances, it is clear that he is a hungry striker who will run his legs off for every chance that he gets. This will be a big season for him with Dembele now away. I’m hoping that he gets his chances as he needs game time to improve his game.
Overall, I was reasonably impressed yesterday. Yes, we were playing a lower team, but I saw enough change in the side from the lacklustre and poorly set up team from last year to make me optimistic for the season ahead. With more additions to the squad, I believe that we have many of the ingredients needed to have a good go at promotion. I am keen to see what role Sone Aluko plays this year but it seems clear to me that with him and Ayite joining, that Slav is going for a pacey squad who will make chances and press high to limit the opposition. There is more work to be done, but so far, so good.