Marek Rodak was one of the heroes of Fulham’s promotion to the Premier League but his goalkeeper skills were honed at a level far below that. In conversation with Rodak’s former coaches and team-mates, Adam Bate traces his journey from Welling to the top flight.
Marek Rodak did not have too much to do in the Championship play-off final. The decisive error came from David Raya at the other end. But ask any Fulham fan to name the key factors in their promotion to the Premier League and the name of their Slovakia goalkeeper will soon come up.
It was his efforts in the semi-final against Cardiff – what manager Scott Parker called “a big performance” by his goalkeeper – that earned Fulham their spot at Wembley. It was his efforts over the course of the campaign that saved his side at the back time and time again.
Rodak, 23, did not even start the season as Fulham’s first choice in goal. But Parker’s decision to turn to him in favour of Marcus Bettinelli helped to transform their fortunes.
The statistics highlight his impact. It was not that Bettinelli was performing poorly. The number of goals he had conceded in those opening months of the season were in line with what the models expected given the shots that he faced. But as soon as Rodak took over, that changed. He kept out shots he should not have been able to stop.
His success was vindication for Parker and the culmination of a remarkable rise for the young man who came over to England to join Fulham’s academy soon after turning 16.
The experiences have been wide and varied since then. A brief stint in the sixth tier with Farnborough. Relegation from the National League with Welling United. A strong spell at Accrington Stanley before ups and downs with Rotherham. Character building, they call it.
If Farnborough was the introduction, Welling was where Rodak had to grow up fast. At the age of 19, he found himself at the foot of England’s fifth division. The club had lost their last four games when he arrived conceding four at home to Grimsby and five against Carlisle.
Their only win in the previous three months had come in the FA Cup against Barwell – a team playing in the first round for the first time. This was Welling not Wembley.
Mike McEntegart was the goalkeeper whom Rodak was brought in to replace. He had more reason than most to be aggrieved by the Slovakian’s arrival and though he admits he “did not particularly like being displaced by him” his recollections are positive. The pair got on well and remained in touch even though it was a season to forget for Welling.
“In the context of what he would have been doing at Fulham, coming into a Welling training session must have looked like an absolute shambles,” McEntegart tells Sky Sports.
“It was a different world but he was not big time. He was a very humble, easy-going guy. Whatever he was asked to do, he was very happy to do it. That sort of work ethic is rare.”
At 26, McEntegart was one of the more senior players in an inexperienced squad that was self-evidently ill-equipped for the rough and tumble of the National League.
“We had three managers so it was a bit turbulent,” he adds.
Dean Frost was the second of those managers – in charge for all but two of Rodak’s 17 games for Welling. A straight-talking London cabbie by trade, he remembers the young goalkeeper as a laid-back sort of character who was funny without realising it.
Mainly he remembers the predicament in which he found himself as a manager. The stresses and strains that would occupy his thoughts as he drove around the capital.
“It was a very young team and some of the players probably weren’t ready for Conference football,” Frost tells Sky Sports. “I had no money and I had to cut the wage bill. The only lads I could get in were lads who were on a free from their pro clubs. Not really the ideal players to get you out of a relegation fight. It can be pretty brutal in that league.”
For Rodak, this was some introduction to senior football. He did not win any of the first 13 games. When his loan was over he had conceded 33 goals and not kept a single clean sheet.
“At Welling, he had quite a lot to do,” says Frost with deliberate understatement.
“There were games where we were under a lot of pressure. He was called upon quite regularly and had lots of saves to make. He made mistakes but if people are open-minded and willing to look at themselves, they learn from them. You are better off making mistakes when you are starting your career and looking at them as an opportunity to improve.
“I have seen goalkeepers who were fazed. After a mistake, the ball is going in the box again and you are thinking he is going to need a couple of catches to get back in the game. With Marek, it did not faze him. He was relaxed and that is a great attribute to have because you do not want your goalkeeper to be a bag of nerves. Marek refocused and moved on.”
As well as the mental challenge, there was the physical one. This was not the cossetted world of Premier League goalkeeping where protection comes not just from the referees but the cameras covering every possible infringement. Frost remembers “centre-forwards charging him down” and “lots of high balls” flying into the box. A test for the teenager.
“It is probably the best experience you can get as a young goalkeeper,” adds McEntegart. “It still has that raw physicality. You have got old-school forwards in and around you at corners where all they are looking to do is put you off. They have to be clever in the Premier League with the cameras but at the lower level those fouls still happen. It is a good learning curve.”
Despite the difficult circumstances, Rodak was able to impress. Frost recalls a goalkeeper who was “tall, agile, good at shot-stopping and could kick well” – but the most telling praise comes from McEntegart, now a goalkeeper coach himself working with young players.
“When you first meet him, it is the size and frame of him,” he says of the 6’5″ Rodak. “But it was the way that he moved that told you he was going to be a top goalkeeper.”
Accrington recognised that potential the following season and his reputation was enhanced by a loan to League Two. Rodak was instrumental in the team’s 13-game unbeaten run that saw John Coleman’s side move from near the foot of the table to the brink of the play-offs.
The goalkeeper’s performances caught the eye of Rotherham boss Paul Warne and his staff, who were impressed by Rodak’s approach to the challenge – and one trait of his, in particular.
“Fulham to Accrington is a world away so we knew his character would be good,” Warne tells Sky Sports. “But the main reason that we were attracted to signing him is that he was brave. I like my goalkeeper to come for crosses not just to stay on the line all the time. He is a really confident kid. Quite vocal, which is good for a goalkeeper. That is why we took him.”
Rodak ended up playing a pivotal role in Rotherham’s promotion to the Championship as they beat Shrewsbury in the 2018 League One play-off final at Wembley. He likes that place.
The loan move went so well he remained with the club for their season in the second tier, experiencing another relegation but learning lots more in the process.
“He had plenty to do and he did it admirably,” says Warne. “He would often be able to pull out that one-on-one save to earn us three points when we needed him to.”
It was just the next phase in his development.
“Marek came as a seven and left as an eight or a nine. He improved in everything.”
Warne highlights the working relationship between Rodak and goalkeeping coach Mike Pollitt as a positive one, while also pointing to the big games in the play-offs and the intense atmosphere experienced at a packed Millmoor. “I am sure that helped him.”
He believes Rodak’s spells away with Slovakia were a benefit too. “The international call-ups built him as a man and a player,” says Warne. Accepting that this was a young man far from home, attempts were made to accommodate him where possible too. “Whenever we could we let him go home because he liked to go fishing with his dad. That was his relaxation.”
Ultimately, relegation meant Rotherham were unable to persuade Rodak to stay on for a third season back in League One. Warne tried his best but is honest about the situation.
“We attempted it but he respectfully said he wanted to play in the Championship and rightfully so. If I were his adviser I would not have told him to come back either.”
Warne expected Rodak to be loaned out again but instead the chance came at Fulham in October and it was seized upon. In fact, Rodak showcased another quality to his game – displaying the concentration skills that are essential in a top goalkeeper.
His former coaches have taken note.
“At the highest level, goalkeepers tend to be out of the game for 15 minutes, it is what they do when they are called upon,” says Frost.
“There is that much time when the ball is up the other end – even more so at Fulham because they keep the ball so long – that there might not be a shot until the 70th minute.”
Perhaps that is a scenario Rodak will not have to concern himself with now that are Fulham find themselves up against some of the best sides in Europe in the Premier League. But in adding another element to his game, he has justified Parker’s faith in him.
“I thought he would eventually be Fulham’s No 1 but you can never be sure because bigger clubs can end up signing someone else from Benfica for £12m instead, “says Warne. “You need someone to back you. The manager backed him and he hasn’t looked back since.”
For Frost, now taking a break from football so that he can enjoy more time with his young daughter, there is a quiet satisfaction at seeing a former player reach the Premier League.
“He needed to be in the right place at the right time,” he says. “There are these sliding door moments, there’s a dip in form or the manager decided just to give you a go.
“Of course, you never would have known that he was going to be winning at Wembley and helping to take a team to the Premier League. But you like to think you played a little part.”As for McEntegart, who for what it is worth did keep a clean sheet for Welling that season, losing his place to a teenager does not feel quite so bad now as it did at the time.
“Looking back on it,” he says, “I was probably a bit unlucky it was Marek.”