Friday, 19 December 2008

Mark-ed man

Schwarz: The Bananaman years

The journey to Craven Cottage may be one of the longest trips of the entire season but Boro can be sure of a familiar face guarding the Fulham goal. Mark Schwarzer spent over 11 years on Teesside, joining from Bradford City in the midst of the mayhem of the 1996/97 season before eventually moving south during the summer.

During that time, there were some memorable moments. A sprawling save to deny Luis Cavaco was crucial in denying Stockport on Boro's run to a first major Wembley final. A stunning performance to resist Port Vale in the closing weeks of the 97/98 promotion push. A string of fine saves to redeem his horrific error in Cardiff. That penalty save at Man City to win a second crack at Europe.

Yet, despite those highlights and sticking with the club for such time, Boro's fanbase never really seemed to fully embrace the big Aussie. Despite occasional murmurs over his abilities, only the nostalgic romantics ever argued on this basis. Schwarzer is head and shoulders Boro's best post-liquidation keeper.

Some sceptics were never won over after the Schwarzer/Crossley schism of the 2001/02 season. With the Australian injured, Mark Crossley enjoyed an extended run in the team. The ex-Forest stopper put in a series of superb displays, keeping ten clean sheets in a 17 game spell. This would be an impressive record in any team, never mind one labouring in the lower half of the table.

Celebrating his finest hour - Eastlands, 15 May 2005

Convinced on the identity of his number 1, Steve McClaren immediately replaced Crossley on Schwarzer's return to fitness. Many fans were irritated by the decision, which smacked of a pig-headed refusal to acknowledge Crossley's fine form. It would be churlish to hold Schwarzer responisble for that decision but many chose to do so anyway.

More were turned off when Schwarzer handed in a transfer request in January 2007. On this occasion, McClaren did decide to omit his keeper after a series of ropey displays. Schwarzer's response did not befit such an experienced professional. Suggestions from his agent that his client fancied a move to Milan (the day before sitting on the bench at Nuneaton Borough) implied a distant relationship with reality. The spat was patched up fairly swiftly. Schwarzer made a valuable to domestic recovery and continental success in the following months. Yet the impression left was not of a man loyal to the club, but one who showed a startling lack of grace towards the fans and the club who'd paid him well for such a time.

That, however, would be an unfair appraisal who contributed much to the successes of the past decade. There may have been low points but these are surely outweighed by the positives. Both Gareth Southgate and new no. 1 Ross Turnbull have been quick to praise Schwarzer. As the manager points out, the transition has gone better than could have been expected. If Turnbull goes on to enjoy a career as fruiftul as his predecessor's, we we should all be grateful.

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