If you are aware of the film about Benjamin Button, then hopefully you will appreciate my comparison when speaking about our David. After experiencing the pyjamas of Gabor Kiraly, Fulham were on the hunt for a new keeper. Someone established with both form and age on their side. Having narrowly missed out on promotion in the playoffs, Button signed off his Brentford career as a good keeper at this level and someone highly regarded by the Bees faithful. His shot stopping one of the best in the league with a very strong ‘long’ kick.
Then came the news that Fulham had signed him for what’s believed to be around 2 million pounds. Not a bad deal our end when describing the above paragraph. The fact he was ex Brentford counted for very little at the time, we were filled with the hope that even if our back four were unzipped open, our keeper would still have the goal Buttoned up. So what better way to win the fans over than to keep a clean sheet and a home 1v0 win over the league favourites Newcastle in the opening fixture of the 2016/17 season. He looked decisive, confident and capable. But something happened gradually as the season developed. What was a senior pro and a man at the very beginning of his Fulham life very similarly to Benjamin Button slowly deteriorated and went backwards to the point we are now, where he looks like a lost little boy.
This article is in no way an attempt to make fun of Button. I actually feel sorry for him and believe that his decline is indeed down to the way he has been managed and the way he is being asked to play. It has been clear since day dot that Jokanovic likes to play out from the back. Even when we had big Chris Martin up top it was quite clear that lumping it long was a last resort. But we’ve seen with Manchester City and Pep Guardiola that this philosophy is all well and good providing your players are suited to playing that way and David Button isn’t. He looks very uncomfortable with the ball at his feet and isn’t helped by the lack of movement from the deeper players making it very difficult for him to pick someone out. Mistake after mistake giving the ball away clearly damaged his confidence because mistakes in possession led to poor keeping errors, letting in shots he should be saving and would have saved at Brentford.
It was approaching the second half of the year when Johansen had established a triumphant trio in midfield with TC and KMac that it became much more noticeable. The football became crisper, the possession more dominant and the wins more consistently. Meaning that the weaknesses in the team now stood out like a sore thumb and when you believe as a supporter that your team has the potential and is on the verge of breaking into the playoffs, naturally you are going to exaggerate and be even more frustrated if the weak links are making costly errors. Well, I bet Sone Aluko who missed chance after chance despite being breath-taking to watch actually made more mistakes than Button, but mistakes are far costlier when you are a keeper. What about all the penalties we missed which surely must have cost us more than Button did? But you don’t think that way in the heat of the moment and a shocking mistake away at Villa Park in November giving away possession for Kodjia to steal a 1v0 win followed by several little errors meant that Button’s claim to the number one jersey was now hanging by a thread. And boy did he cut that thread in the dismal display away to Derby County as we approached the final run in. The whole team were awful, but it really did highlight very convincingly how unsuited Button is to Joka’s way of playing. Almost as if he knew the thread was on its last legs so he took to the pitch with a pair of scissors rather than a pair of gloves.
That was the last straw and in comes Bettinelli to face an Ipswich side at home managed by Mick McCarthy. A side and type of manager you’d expect the side to avoid playing long ball against with all of their 6’4″ defenders. But no, Bettinelli who also has a very strong long kick did exactly that finding Chris Martin every time allowing the midfield runners to play off of the big #&#&#……sorry I mean the big number 10. We were mixing it up and creating a far less predictable pattern to our play. It actually worked going direct, so why wasn’t Button allowed to? Bettinelli did very well when he stepped in and we probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs if he hadn’t, but the reality is Button has kept 13 clean sheets in 61 games over the past two seasons, Betts just the 3 in 20. So, for me they are very like for like, Bettinelli probably does edge it because his reflexes are better. You often remember the crucial save Betts makes to save the points, up at Hull in December a very good example. 2v1 down he pulls off a worldy and we nick an equaliser. There doesn’t seem to be many of those saves from Button and that for me is the only difference. Naturally, fans are always going to have more affection and be more lenient towards a player who has been at Fulham his whole career, who’s Dad has worked for Fulham a very long time instead of the signing from Brentford.
To me, it’s almost like Button is the stepson and Bettinelli the golden child. No matter how hard Button tried, no matter how much he followed Joka’s instructions it is always going to be Bettinelli who can do no wrong despite ignoring the same instructions allowing himself more of a license to kick it long when under pressure. The first thing a teammate does if receiving the ball under pressure is to take the easy option of passing it back to Button to keep possession. So why is it that Button with players charging towards him putting him under pressure wasn’t allowed to take the easy option himself and clear his lines? Something tells me Button is never going to win here.
The club should have been honest with themselves and Button in the summer. We all assumed when dropped ahead of the Ipswich game that we wouldn’t see him in a Fulham shirt again. But like the top pro that he is, Button came back into the side after working hard in pre-season and began the campaign exactly the same as the previous one. He looked sharp and to me looked a new man. Yet all it took was one or two niggly mistakes for the same outcome to develop. Almost identical were the sequence of events. Two shocking goals let in away at Sheffield United in a 4v5 victory, pass after pass going astray and causing the crowd to panic. Fulham being slow starters and picking up form in December identical to last season. The only difference is Button has been dropped much earlier. The cup appearance vs Southampton is probably the last we will see of David unless Bettinelli gets injured and although I think promotion or not that he has to be replaced anyway. I do hope that for the sake of his career that he finds the right club and manager to suit his game and can resurrect it. He’s never stepped out of line or been unprofessional whilst at the club so good luck to him if indeed he does move on. Just like in the film one day that clock will stop ticking backwards and it’s a shame that it’s unlikely to be in a Fulham shirt.