After a season where Fulham have so far managed to disappoint on so many levels both collectively and individually, only a rare few have managed to perform on a consistent enough basis to be largely absolved of criticism.
After an array of signings in the summer, bringing in a man with top quality domestic and European experience in Sergio Rico from Sevilla, appeared to be one of the shrewder acquisitions made by the recruitment team under the supervision of Tony Khan. But what has to happen for someone to go from playing for their home town club that they grew up supporting, achieving a Europa League winners medal, the experience of Champions League football and time with the national team set-up in Euro 2016, to end up at a newly promoted Premier League side? More to the point, how easy it to assess the performance levels of any goalkeeper when they play in front of the worst defensive unit in Europe’s top five leagues and the 89th worst of 92 in the top four leagues in England?
Rico has undeniably had an impressive career to date during his spell with Sevilla, joining the youth ranks in 2006 and managing to secure a first-team place at the beginning of the 2014/15 season under now Arsenal manager Unai Emery. For someone who supports the team they play for, Rico went on a dream run in his first season, culminating in a 3-2 win over Dnipro in Warsaw in the Europa League final. Having established himself as the number one keeper that season Rico started 45 games the following season including all six of Sevilla’s Champions League games as they finished third in their group behind Juventus and Manchester City. But while Fulham enjoyed a dream end to the 17/18 season Rico was beginning to have issues with both the Sevilla manager and supporters. Under the guidance of ex-Fulham striker Vincenzo Montella, Rico was dropped for crucial games in the league due to a number of high profile errors and despite playing against Man United in the last 16 of the Champions League he was dropped for both legs of the subsequent Quarter Final against Bayern Munich and missed out on travelling as third choice keeper to the World Cup with Spain. With the signing of Tomas VaclÍk in the summer, Rico faced the choice of staying as number two or leaving home for a new experience.
When a player of Rico’s ability comes into a newly promoted side the expectation on their part must surely be that they will be trusted and given a key role in the team. However, with the limited experiment of Fabri in goal and the recall of our own academy product Marcus Bettinelli, Rico had to wait longer than he might have anticipated for his chance to be called into the team. The shambolic defensive displays in the last days of Slav meant that any available combination was tried to solve the problems and after multiple changes in defensive positions, the next step was to try another keeper. His league debut against Bournemouth at the Cottage didn’t get off to the start any player making their first appearance would hope, as Calum Wilson converted a penalty after 13 minutes to put the away side 1-0 up and two more goals followed in a 3-0 defeat. The overall impressions of Rico were however positive, a fine save from a long-range effort from Simon Francis and sharp distribution skills meant that Rico emerged from the game exempt from criticism. Crucially, for someone sidelined to the extent that they have to leave a club that holds such significance in their personal and professional lives, Rico did not look devoid of confidence and since then has adapted to the challenge of a new league, country and language in a dedicated and positive fashion.
Two more league defeats – with one particularly impressive performance from Rico in the away defeat to Liverpool – lead to the departure of Slav and the arrival of Ranieri. A managerial change provided the opportunity for all the players in the squad to stake a claim for a position in a dysfunctional team that didn’t look capable of getting the required results to stay in the league. Ranieri opted for Rico above Bettinelli and Fabri and the Spaniard produced impressive displays in numerous other games in what ultimately proved to be a disappointing December as we squandered numerous opportunities to win games crucial to our chances of survival. Not that any blame could be attached to Rico as the defending in front of him hasn’t led to much chance of keeping the clean sheets that goalkeepers crave.
Rico’s ability to make eye-catching saves, whether that be from long range or short range chances that rely more on positioning and reaction time, is the most notable thing we have seen so far and his general reliability in goal has been admirable. The save from Glenn Murray’s first-half effort with his legs, followed up by the save from Murray’s downward header in the recent comeback against Brighton were fundamental in turning the game around. To have anyone performing so consistently for us places them firmly out of step with other members of the squad and that Rico has managed to maintain his composure and belief playing behind our defence is commendable. Nothing exemplified this in more stark detail than the second goal against Palace last weekend, when a great one-handed save from Batshuayi’s effort still ended up as a goal following a rebound as the defence switched off and didn’t track Schlupp following in.
While there have been isolated examples of Rico making mistakes – failing to come and claim N’Koudou’s cross for Winks’ late winner at the Cottage springs immediately to mind – pouring criticism on one of our best players this season seems unduly harsh given the context in which he has to play. Pick any of the best goalkeepers in the world whether it’s De Gea, Oblak or Ter Stegen and they would first have also conceded a similar volume of goals this campaign and secondly by the nature of having so much work to do, have made a couple of mistakes. Rico’s impact on the team is demonstrated by the high regard in which our supporters hold him. Replacing a fan favourite from our promotion campaign could have led to reservations amongst those attending our games this season but it is to Rico’s credit that a potentially awkward situation hasn’t arisen. While it may be a small thing, making the effort to acknowledge the fans after the game whether it’s home or away and whatever the outcome of the match, is an endearing quality that isn’t replicated by many other players. If we are to perform an even bigger and more surprising great escape than the one achieved back in 2008 then Rico will have a massive influence on any chance that we have.
What happens after the end of the season is a massively open-ended question in so many respects, not only for the playing staff but also the executive structure of the club and the impact it could have on our fan base as some people will inevitably fall away due to our loss of Premier League status. If we do achieve the impossible then a deal to keep Rico surely has to be one of the main priorities of a recruitment process that has been poorly directed under the Khan’s leadership. Ultimately, whether we retain our place in the league or not, there will always be a soft spot for one of the better people and players to have represented our club this season.