As Fulham cut the ribbon on a return to the Premier League last August, their Player of the Season from a playoff-winning promotion was nowhere to be found.
Off the back of five grueling seasons in the English Championship – following a short-lived initial spell in the Premier League with Bolton – Tim Ream was supposed to reap the reward for his persistence. The St. Louis, Mo., native and former New York Red Bulls center back was meant to begin a first full season in the English top flight. Fate had other ideas.
As the Premier League carnival returned to little, old Craven Cottage on Aug. 11, 2018, Ream could not take part. A nerve injury had flared up in his lower back only a few days prior. It was an unsettling injury, one without a clear timetable, spoiling a long-awaited return to the big stage.
Despite an influx of summer signings totaling over $100 million, romantic expectations for Fulham never materialized in 2018/19. New players failed to mesh and the team lacked the mettle essential for a newly-promoted club.
One year on, I caught up with the now 32-year-old, in a conversation that sheds light on his unconventional path and rollercoaster recent seasons.
OaM: You got a quick taste of the Premier League and then had to dig deep for six years in the Championship. Talk about what it was like to get promoted after that long run.
Ream: I mean, the ultimate goal is always to play at the highest level and, unfortunately, I never really had the chance to get back with Bolton. For it to happen with Fulham after a few years was, I mean, exciting. It was a great year, a great second half of the season for us. You know, it was somewhere we all want to be.
I don’t think there’s a better script written than, you know, getting to the playoff final and winning it at Wembley. I think most of the players in the Championship would agree, if you can guarantee a win in the playoff final at Wembley on a Saturday, it doesn’t get much better than that. And that was the case for us.
OaM: I watched the highlights of the playoff semifinal at Craven Cottage, and you were right alongside Denis Odoi when he headed that goal in. That must have been a surreal moment for you.
Ream: Yeah, [the cross] was actually coming straight for me. And then, I saw him jump in front of me and, I just, I tracked [the ball] the entire way. So, I had probably one of the best views that there was. It was an unbelievable moment, trying to chase him down and just the celebrations that ensued after was – you’re making me relive some really good moments in my career.
OaM: Rewinding a bit, MLS has come a long way since you broke out in 2010/11. You were a player that had a lot of potential, but you were a raw player when you stepped into the Premier League. What were the areas you had to improve in the most when you moved to England?
Ream: I think, in general, just a mentality of, just to keep going. It’s an unforgiving, unforgiving league, the Premier League. But, also the Championship is, it’s unforgiving. It’s 46 games, and that’s just the league. Then you have the FA Cup and the League Cup, and it was just about mentally staying focused for 90 minutes.
And I don’t know whether that was because I was kind of checked out and ready to move on when I was in New York, and, you know, wanted to test myself even more than I was being tested [in MLS]. But, just the mental aspect of, yeah, staying focused for 90 minutes.
Kind of being a little bit stronger on and off the ball, as well; I think that’s really come a long way for me. Listen, I’ve always had the technical ability, the ability to pass the ball, read the game well. And, you know, I think that six years in the Championship really helped me hone the mental side of my game.
OaM: Remind me, were you involved with the national team at all before you broke out with the Red Bulls?
Ream: Nooo. I was never in any ODP or any regional teams, nothing, nothing like that.”
OaM: It’s interesting because, I think about Aaron Long – obviously, coming through with the Red Bulls – and you’re sort of similar to him in that way. He was a late bloomer, not a huge prospect, and yet here you both are with the national team. Is there a dialogue about that when you’re both at the national team?
Ream: Yeah, absolutely. We talk all the time in these camps.
OaM: And obviously he had some interest in Europe –
Ream: Yeah, even when all that was going on, we were exchanging messages back and forth. He was trying to figure out what he wanted and how he could get [a move]. And it was unfortunate that everything was kind of blocked for him and it didn’t work out.
But, yeah, we do, we’ve had multiple conversations since March, when I first came back in under Gregg [Berhalter]. Just talking about the similar paths and what it’s taken to kind of get out, blaze my own path and make a career for myself. And he’s obviously trying to do the same thing.
His story might even be more interesting than mine, with all the USL play that he went through before breaking through with the Red Bulls. I was lucky enough to find a coach in New York that wanted to play me right away. So, I think his is definitely a more interesting path.
OaM: I want to ask you about the start of last season. I imagine with what you went through at Bolton, you would have wanted to start off on the right foot in the Premier League with Fulham. And you had an injury right at the start of the season. How tough was that?
Ream: Yeah, it was really tough, to be honest with you. I think, again, mentally it was, it was difficult, because I knew I had a really good preseason, and I was coming off a really, really good season; being promoted, Player of the Season in a promotion team that you could have picked any of the starting 11 guys for that award.
To pick up an injury, in the way that I did, really, I was doing nothing. We had finished our last preseason game and, two days later, not doing anything, just hanging with the family, my back just didn’t feel right. It was kind of sore and shooting pains down my leg. I knew right away that something wasn’t right. And, I don’t think, it took a good six to eight weeks to kind of rehab it, to learn to walk again, really, it was that bad.
OaM: Those injuries are really tricky –
Ream: It was. It was a nerve injury, and there’s no real timetable. You don’t know when it’s going to heal, how quick it’s going to heal. It’s just, you’re at the mercy of it. So, I wasn’t, I don’t think, fully-fit and ready to go until probably mid-February. But, I was playing games because they felt like they needed me to.
So, it was a long, long, hard time. But, I got through it. That’s, again, the mental side, you work your way through it and you come out the other side of it.
OaM: When you’re going through the type of season that you went through with Fulham, and also Bolton, how quickly can you feel the danger of relegation? How quickly does it turn into a bad situation?
Ream: Yeah, I think, first and foremost, with the number of guys we brought in, it was hard to integrate everybody in a timely fashion. So, I think, I don’t know if it was early as people might think. We knew we were down there, we knew we had a fight on our hands. You know, I think, up until, probably, Southampton away – which was, I want to say, probably almost March (Feb. 27) – we felt like we had the talent to kind of dig ourselves out.
Unfortunately, talent only gets you so far, and, you know, mentality is a big thing. We didn’t have the mentality to dig ourselves out. And, I keep saying the mental side and, it is, it’s huge. There’s only one thing that’s going to stop you in achieving what you’re going to do, and that’s your own mental capacity and what you think you can achieve. And if you don’t believe it, you’re going to show.
OaM: I don’t think it was ever a question for you, though, once Fulham went down, about leaving?
Ream: Yeah, it was never a question for me, if I was going to leave. I’m one of those guys that, I don’t like to move around and jump teams. I want to stay where I’m happy. I want to play where I’m happy. And I know that the system, the coach, everything at Fulham is a perfect fit for me, and it’s the reason I chose Fulham in the first place.
OaM: Last question. You are someone who has totally embraced playing in England. But, I think about St. Louis’ MLS expansion and, when you look down the road, is that something that you’ve set your sights on?
Ream: Ehh, maybe. It’s not really, MLS really isn’t, it’s not on my radar at the moment. Whether that’s St. Louis or New York or Columbus or LA, it’s just not – for me, like I said, I’m happy where I am. I’m enjoying being challenged every single week, sometimes two to three times a week with the amount of games. And I still feel like I have a lot to give, and a lot of years left.
So, yeah, like I said, it’s not on my radar. It would take something very special to sway me the opposite way. But, at the moment, I’m very happy to stay where I am.