As rumours still fly around regarding Fulham ins and outs, Mark Hughes weighed up one of his options on Saturday, just in case he does indeed lose his No 1, Mark Schwarzer, to Arsenal.
With uncertainty surrounding several players in the squad, it was perhaps a big ask to expect an away win to open Fulham’s account for the season, but early impressions of Hughes’ strategy on the road are good. Although 24-year-old reserve goalkeeper David Stockdale had to be in top form, Fulham created more chances than was normal under Roy Hodgson and, again unlike the previous regime, finished much the stronger side. The defence remained as solid as ever, with only some opening-day defending allowing Bolton Wanderers to create chances. With the early evidence of keeping a tight defensive unit, yet allowing more freedom in attack, the London Whites could well develop a strong away-day strategy.
As mentioned, Stockdale was imperious. Showing every inch of size his name suggests, the Englishman was equally big in his performance. His handling and agility became evident as Bolton tested him a few times in the first half, but his performance was capped by a stunning diving tip-over in the second, before blocking bravely low-down from Johan Elmander in a very Schwarzer-esque stop. There are few better stoppers to learn your trade from than the big Australian, and on the evidence shown at the weekend, Stockdale has taken note of the 37-year-old’s style.
The trip to Bolton was Stockdale’s fourth appearance for the club and, while he has always looked an able goalkeeper, there were of course issues with his game that needed to be ironed out. These were, mainly, his concentration and confidence in the air. And although it is too early to tell whether his successful loan spells, and being Schwarzer’s understudy for two seasons, has affected his game positively, his flaws were far less obvious on Saturday than they were last season. He commanded crosses against an aerially strong Reebok outfit with several big claims and strong punches, and he was alert to through-balls and shots from distance which might otherwise have caught him out. On that display, perhaps Fulham have not got as many problems between the sticks as many think.
If Schwarzer stays, or whether the unlikely move for Shay Given happens, whomever is Fulham’s first-choice goalkeeper this season has a very competent young man ready – and capable – to take his chance. It is still very early days for the rookie, but he appears to have the mental strength to continue his rapid improvement. For now, the Australia No 1 remains at the club and the biggest news on the transfer front is the publicised capture of Algerian centre-back Rafik Halliche is continuing to progress.
The defender reportedly trained with the club yesterday, ahead of his expected medical. Since Chris Smalling left for Manchester United this summer, the club has looked very thin in the central-defensive area, with only Chris Baird as recognised cover for ever-present pairing Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland. Halliche would shore up the holes in the squad and would also improve on another area where the team is lacking – age. The 23-year-old had a solid World Cup, helping Algeria to a clean-sheet against England, and marked Wayne Rooney out of that particular game – however little that may mean considering the Three Lions’ overall performance in South Africa. Newcastle United have made a late attempt to snatch the deal, but the signs are positive that he could become Hughes’ first Fulham signing.
Although the defence excelled, there was plenty of early-season malaise in the Whites attack. Zoltan Gera had an off-day, and so his vital role of linking England man Bobby Zamora to Danny Murphy and the Fulham midfield was not performed as it so often is. Clint Dempsey installed energy when he came on for the final 15 minutes, but not enough was created to warrant anyone in red troubling the scorers. This will undoubtedly be an area that Hughes will be identifying as a weakness with his wingers, Damien Duff and Simon Davies, also not quite living up to their usual high standards.
A pacy forward, along the lines of Craig Bellamy and Moussa Dembele, then, will certainly be on the manager’s wish-list, but a draw at a side which could turn up playing either scintillating stuff or school-boy football, for a side so unused to winning away, has to go down as a bonus point.