During Fulham’s Premier League tenure, goalkeepers have saved the club a countless amount of points, and Sunday’s performance by the big Australian Mark Schwarzer joins the list. It was anything but a dominant Wigan display, but on another afternoon, with another keeper between the sticks, it could have been 3 or 4-1 to the home side.
There is no questioning the importance of a top-class goalkeeper and for a club like Fulham, the shot-stopper can be the difference between relegation and mid-table mediocrity. (Just ask Middlesbrough) And Fulham have had more than their fair share ever since first competing in the top flight. In fact, when the issue is looked at deeper, there is a direct link between the quality of goalkeeper and the league position of the club.
First, there was Edwin van der Sar. Quite how Mohamed Al-Fayed and Jean Tigana convinced him to sign is another story, but in the Dutchman’s years at the club, the Whites were never anyone’s favourite for the drop. He alone won the London club 8-10 points per season – points that, if lost, would have meant a far less comfortable life for the Cottage faithful. Schwarzer is, arguably, the only goalkeeper since van der Sar who has the same presence and command of his defence, and he undoubtedly won Fulham a handful of points last year – points which led to the club’s highest-ever position. His form deservedly won him the player of the season accolade last term, and that form was evident again at the DW Stadium on Sunday.
Between the Dutchman and the Aussie, there have been a string of – some impressive, some less so – first-choice goalkeepers at the club, but it is not a coincidence that the lack of commanding presence from the No 1 has coincided with the team’s struggling Premier League years. One save on Sunday in particular – a strong, left-handed wrist stop that parried the ball on to the crossbar – was a sight that Fulham fans could not have imagined seeing from any of Schwarzer’s predecessors other than van der Sar. Antti Niemi was excellent one-on-one, Maik Taylor knew the dimensions of his box with his eyes closed, and Tony Warner, well, the less said about him the better, but none of these examples could have come close to Charles N’Zogbia’s drive. He might be 37, but Schwarzer has the conditioning of a player half that age and, as such, can throw his big frame around like not many others in the league.
The importance of that save goes beyond the ability shown. It was not long after Fulham had fallen – perhaps undeservedly – a goal behind, and Wigan smelled blood. A month which included two games against Roma, a battling win over Liverpool, and a superb comeback against Manchester City to draw 2-2, the Whites looked shell-shocked after Emmerson Boyce’s opener, and 2-0 would most likely have been too much after Thursday night’s drama in Rome. So Schwarzer, by keeping out what everyone but he thought was a certain goal, gave his teammates the confidence to believe that they could just snatch another draw up north.
And that is exactly what happened. It was not one way Wigan traffic and Schwarzer didn’t make a save every five minutes, but what he did do was allow his tired teammates to only need to take one chance in order to take something from the game. That chance was Clint Dempsey’s penalty. He won it himself and, admittedly it was far less clear-cut than Diomansy Kamara’s on Thursday night, stepped up in the absence of regular penalty taker Danny Murphy to equalise.
After that, Wigan perhaps created more, but Fulham certainly had the best chance to win the game as Chris Kirkland pulled off a double-save to deny first Dempsey then Jonathan Greening from the rebound. At times, however, the Whites looked in dire need of a break and the fixture list has listened – as we head into another international break at the best possible time. Another week with two games could well have seen Fulham lose both, but now – still unbeaten in the league since September – the players have time to recuperate ahead of a much simpler (on paper) looking final week of November.
Birmingham will have to try even harder to beat Fulham’s No 1 than Wigan. That is if they are even given a chance by a revitalised Cottagers side.