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Six impressive full debut performances

Written by Farrell Monk on 8th August 2022

After João Palhinha won the hearts of the Fulham Faithful against Liverpool, Farrell looks at other players who hit the ground running.

Although there were many impressive displays at the weekend, João Palhinha really flourished on his first competitive outing for the Whites. The Portuguese anchorman dominated the area in front of our (apparently understrength) back line, instantly gaining a whole host of admirers. It’s a performance that will live long in the memory and has got me thinking of similar stand out introductory appearances.

I’ve picked out other times players have impressed on their full debut for Fulham. To be clear, these will be full debuts only. I’ve decided to be kind to a couple of players who may have had a fleeting appearance from the bench beforehand, but no more than one before their first start. If this list is anything to go by, excellent debuts are few and far between, which makes Palhinha’s performance more special.

Louis Saha v Crewe Alexandra, August 2000

Imagine a situation where a player dominates the second tier and then people question “but can they do it in the Prem?” They certainly didn’t with Louis Saha in 2000/01. Similarly to Mitro, he had come from Newcastle and his full debut against Crewe has gone down in folklore as the first time fans got to see, as some would describe, the best striker Fulham has ever had.

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Of course, Saha scored on his debut. His goal was a classic King Louis. Peeling off the defender, making his marker look like he was running through treacle. Slotting home with ease. The Hammersmith End had a new hero. Saha was central to a lot of what was good that day, it was only the heroics of Alex ‘keeper Kearton that kept the Frenchman from opening his account much earlier than the 75th minute. Their manager Dario Gradi said that Fulham must have thought his side had turned up to do shadow play. Much like he did in many games after this one, Saha played as if there was no one to stop him.

Brede Hangeland v Bolton, January 2008

The context for this one is key. Fulham came into this game five points from safety and without a clean sheet in 14 league games. Roy Hodgson was keen to link back up with the big Norwegian from his days at Viking, managing to get his man at the earliest opportunity in the January transfer window.

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Slotting in alongside Aaron Hughes on a Tuesday night at the Reebok, a legendary partnership was formed. The ‘Thames Barrier’ stopped the rot that night with a 0-0 draw, with Hangeland earning deserved plaudits for his solid display on a difficult evening, earning Hodgson his first point as Fulham boss. Any side that featured Kevin Davis and Kevin Nolan was always going to be a massive challenge. However, Hangeland, as we have seen so many times since, handled it superbly. Every point was integral to survival that season, especially since Fulham was able to achieve the great escape on goal difference. It was vital that Brede got off to a solid start. And thankfully for all of us, it was that and more.

Chris Smalling v CSKA Sofia, September 2010

Famously, Smalling was about to embark on student life before he got the call from Fulham to pluck him from footballing obscurity. Little did he know than less than 18 months later, he be walking out at the Bulgarian National Stadium to 28,000 vociferous CSKA Sofia supporters – oh, and it was his full debut.

It was scary atmosphere; the home fans had turned up hours before kick-off to intimidate the Fulham contingent. The 19-year-old centre-back was remarkably unfazed in a much-changed line up, as was the norm for Roy Hodgson in the away Europa League group games. Under tough circumstances Smalling handled It superbly. It was only a stellar strike from Michel Platini, (no, not that one), that breached the Fulham backline that evening. There were some moments that the pressure of the hosts would tell however, Smalling alongside his vastly experienced colleagues were able to take the sting out of it. Fulham eventually capitalised on an opposition loose backline to equalise via Diomansy Kamara’s rapid counterattack soon after the opener.

Smalling displayed a wonderful football intelligence beyond his years that evening, meaning Hodgson had no hesitation in utilising him in the league later that season when the Europa League became the priority.

Toni Kallio v Arsenal, August 2008

Finnish international Toni Kallio challenges Dan Burn for the title of tallest left-backs to ever play in the Premier League. However, I doubt the happy-go-lucky Newcastle lad is at risk of ever being nicknamed ‘the bonecrusher’. Sometimes an encouraging first start isn’t an indication that it’s going to be a successful Fulham career and that’s why Kallio makes the list.

Kallio signed on the same day as compatriot Jari Litmanen, in January 2008. And like the Finland legend, he avoided any involvement in the great escape season, but did eventually make his full debut against Arsenal in the first home game of the following campaign. It was a baptism of fire keeping the like of Van Persie, Adebayor, Walcott and Nasri at bay but he embodied everything there was about a quintessential Hodgson signing.

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He did what was asked of him and didn’t make a fuss. The BBC even gave him man of the match. Unfortunately, it was a false dawn for the 6ft 4 defender. He struggled to make an impression afterwards. A tough day at Old Trafford followed by a woeful cameo at home to Blackburn where he was brought on to shore things up, only to be outmuscled by Jason Roberts for a late winner.

Pavel Pogrebnyak v Stoke, February 2012

This was one hell of a five-month spell, let alone a debut. The deadline day signing was brought in a replacement for the QPR-bound Bobby Zamora. Martin Jol had publicly fallen out with Zamora, and it was almost as if the manager had a point to prove.

Pogrebnyak started his remarkable Fulham career with an excellent goal inside 20 minutes. Finishing a low Riise cross with aplomb, it was one hell of a statement-maker as his enthusiasm to impress on his first outing caused plenty of problems for the Stoke back line.

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The Russian’s eagerness did spill over at one point with an untidy challenge on Wilson Palacios, sparking Tony Pulis to launch a scathing attack on players being overly aggressive and not receiving bans. Pot and kettle Pog completed his short stint at Fulham with six goals. Including a perfect hattrick versus Wolves and a satisfying winner at Zamora’s ambitious new home of Loftus Road. Delightful.

Denis Odoi v Newcastle, August 2016

How can a full-back make a huge impression on your debut? Just produce one of the most outrageous pieces of skill ever seen. Into the last 10 minutes against the favourites for the title, expectation would dictate that a defender would be keen to play as safe as can be. But Denis Odoi does things differently.

The Belgian decides it would better to spin, hit it off his own back, flicking it over the dumb-founded Paul Dummett. You’ve probably already watched it hundreds of times. But spoil yourself, go again. You can just about make me out in the crowd, contorting my face in never-before-seen ways trying to understand what I had just witnessed. It shouldn’t overshadow that it was a superb debut, subduing the expensive new Toon winger Matt Ritchie. Odoi’s skill was a headline of a hugely confident start to his unforgettable Fulham career, inspiring a certain Brazilian called Neymar to do the same.

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