Friday, October 31, 2008

Something to build on - Fulham 2 Wigan 0

As Andy Johnson was poking home his first goal for Fulham and his 100th in the league I was somewhere along the Lower Richmond Road. A later departure than intended and unexpectedly dreadful traffic meant I missed most of the first half. That didn’t stop me and my passenger Gibbo, longstanding pal and Fulham compatriot, celebrating as though we were there. We didn’t care that we’d missed the goal and were just pleased we’d taken an early lead.

By the time we got to our seats Fulham’s initial good play had somewhat dissipated and Wigan were in the ascendancy. Just before half time Zaki made use of the space out wide, evaded Paintsil and fired in a great cross which was too high for Schwarzer and found Paul Scharner unmarked at the far post. The Austrian saw his header fly just over the crossbar, it was a big let off for the Whites.

The second half saw Fulham have a very early chance to increase the lead. Zamora did well out wide on right, evaded a Wigan defender and sent a dangerous ball across the six yard box. This eventually fell to Gera who was unlucky to see his shot come back of the post before eventually being cleared. Bullard seemed to having another game where things just weren’t quite working for him. However, on the hour mark, Jimmy saw Andy Johnson make a smart run and took a swift free kick to set the striker clear in the box. Johnson, showing a goal scorer’s instinct, turned sharply towards goal and fired home from an acute angle. Two goals to the good and life became a little easier. Wigan were now forced to attack with more intent (bringing on Jason Koumas, who has played well against us on more than one occasion in the past, for a defender) and Fulham looked more confident on the ball and benefited from the additional space they were given up front.

Clint Dempsey arrived to a good reception when he replaced Gera on the left. Andy Johnson had a great chance for a hatrick when Bobby Zamora sent him through with just Kirkland to beat. His touch let him down and Kirkland came off worst as the striker stretched a desperate toe out to reach the ball. AJ made a good job of his apologies and got away without a card. Chris Baird must be doing the right things to impress Hodgson, coming on for Bullard to play a defensive midfield role and see out the final ten minutes. With the clock ticking down AJ was taken off to receive a standing ovation and was replaced by the ever popular Eric Nevland. Dempsey had our last chance to make it three, showing neat touch to create an opportunity but sending his curling shot just wide of the post.

An important win then, one I wasn’t confident of before the game. We didn’t really play any better than we had against Sunderland or Portsmouth but we took our chances and grew in confidence as the game went on. Johnson took all the headlines but it was Danny Murphy’s performance that stood out for me. Working hard throughout and orchestrating not just our forward play but our defensive work as well.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Time to rest Bullard? - Portsmouth 1 Fulham 1

For the second game in a row we’ve claimed a point when we’ve maybe not completely deserved to. That could be an encouraging sign that we’ve become difficult to beat, or a worrying sign that we’ve been poor but lucky. I don’t suppose we’ll really know the answer to that for a few more weeks, maybe not until the end of the season.

Hopes were raised prior to the game with the breaking news of Harry Redknapp’s departure from the Pompey hot seat to take on the poisoned chalice at Spurs. Surely if ever a club and a manager deserved each other it’s these two. It's impossible to tell how these sort of things can affect a team. They'd played poorly in Europe on Thursday, and I was hoping we could nick a point even before the management change was announced. In the end it probably all evened out.

My view of the game was limited to brief highlights on Match of the Day 2. It looked like we started brightly but were under the cosh for much of the game before a late revival. The goal conceded came after Jimmy Bullard attempted to dribble through the centre of the Pompey midfield. He ran straight into trouble, was easily dispossessed and remained sitting on the floor as the Blues counter attacked swiftly and scored. Not good. A quick ball had been played through to leave Defoe and Crouch in a face off with Hangeland and Hughes. Defoe dragged Hangeland right before playing a neat ball across the penalty area for Crouch to fire home. Hughes was helpless to react.

Hodgson reacted by first bringing on Dempsey for Gera (who had been playing on the right wing), then gambling on a three man defence by bringing Nevland on for Painstil. It was an uncharacteristic change in system but it paid off. A through ball was nodded down by Nevland (playing wide right) to Andy Johnson, AJ made a quick return pass for Nevland to chase. The Dane Norwegian then fired a perfect cross into the six yard box where Clint, timing his arrival perfectly and completely unmarked, was ready to slot home with a lovely half volley. Nice crisp passing and great movement off the ball, this is exactly what Hodgson wants them to do.

An important first away point and possibly signs that Roy is thinking about changes to the starting line-up. Since I waxed lyrical about Bullard’s chances in the England set-up he’s not been able to put a foot (or a pass) right. Reports suggest he had another poor game and was certainly at fault for the goal we conceded. Time to give him a break I think, even if just for one game, with Wigan on Wednesday night followed by Everton at the weekend, we need to use the squad. Dempsey seems the most likely candidate to fill the gap. I think he usually plays best when he's central, and his reaction to his goal on Sunday indicated a man ready to show his true worth.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Not very good - Fulham 0 Sunderland 0

A dreadful match. One of the worst games I've seen in recent memory. On the day the marvellous statue of Johnny Haynes was finally unveiled, you'd have been hard pressed to find a less fitting game to pay tribute to the Maestro. Crikey, I enjoyed losing to West Ham more than this snooze-fest. The fact that we could feel some relief in claiming a point from the game and the visiting team could justifiably claim they should have taken all three shows how really shocking we were.

During a shockingly poor first half both teams seemed to be struggling to find any spark. The only talking point that still lingers in my memory was a Sunderland freekick a few minutes before the break. Two Fulham players (Hughes & Hangeland?) combined to make what had appeared to be a good tackle, but the referee saw things differently (possibly feeling that two against one was not quite cricket) and awarded the kick in a dangerous position on the edge of the D. Kieran Richardson, who was lively throughout, sent a shot screaming towards Schwarzer's left hand side where it rebounded off the post, over Schwarzer's head, and seemed to nestle in the net on the other side. Except it didn't, it bounced of the right hand post too before eventually settling in Schwarzer's grateful hands (having possibly - if BBC reports are true - hit the left hand post yet again). This all happened almost too fast for my brain and eyes to keep up. Just to add to the humour, as the freekick was struck most of the 4000 strong Black Cat's support, were otherwise engaged chanting at a group of Fulham supporters on the riverside who had clearly done something to upset them. This meant most of them didn't even see the ball hit the first post. As they began to celebrate en-masse, the Fulham end had suddenly realised it hadn't gone in and were able to have a bit of a chuckle at the Wearsiders expense.

The second half began much as the first had ended. Fulham passing the ball neatly but aimlessly, Sunderland defending well and catching us on the break whenever they could. The few chances that were created seemed fall mainly Sunderland's way. Dean Whitehead sent a fierce drive just wide of the Fulham post and Kieran Richardson sent a lob over a scrambling defence only to see the ever reliable Aaron Hughes arrive to save blushes by clearing off the line. Then Kieran Richardson lined up to take another freekick, again on the edge of the penalty area, though slightly further out than his first half attempt. A bit of pushing and shoving between Pascal Chimbonda and the Fulham wall caused the Ref to step in and have a few words. Richardson then sent a rocket of a shot flying past a very static Schwarzer, for what seemed to be the goal to finally break the deadlock. But wait, no, the goal was disallowed, apparently because Chimbonda was backing into the wall. This sort of thing rarely goes our way and I was beginning to wonder whether we were going to use our entire season's luck up on one game.

This did at least finally fire Fulham into some sort of response. We started to attack with more purpose and created a few half-chances to give the home fans a glimmer of hope that we might find a goal to win a game we scarcely deserved too. Dempsey came on for an inconsistent Gera, but then made his first pass an overambitious cross field effort that gave it's intended recipient little chance of reaching. David Healy made his first return to the Cottage (receiving a generous round of applause, which I felt must have rubbed the salt into the wounds of poor Steed Malbranque who had been booed at almost every touch of the ball he made) and it seemed inevitable that he'd pop up to score a late winner. Thankfully this didn't happen, but he did get his head to a ball that fell to Djibril Cisse who smacked a stunning half volley over Schwarzer and almost cracked the cross bar in two (I'm beginning to suspect we might have signed up the goal posts from Reading after their impressive performance against us at the Madjeski last season). The final word in the game fell to Jimmy Bullard, who took a well placed free kick in the dying minutes for what was clearly our last chance to win the game. With a certain inevitability he smacked his effort straight into the middle of the Sunderland wall. This seemed to sum up our day and it wasn't long afterwards that the Ref took pity on us all and blew the final whistle.

There were very few positives to find although we did at least put an end to our four game losing streak. We also managed to pick up a point in a fixture that we'd lost last season. Aaron Hughes worked very hard at the back as did his partner in defence Brede Hangeland. John Paintsil had a shocker, not just defensively, where he was run ragged by a vibrant Richardson, but also going forward where he didn't seem to have complete control over his own feet. I guess we always knew he'd be this type of player, but I've been worried about his performances for a few weeks now. A lot of work to be done on the training field it seems, maybe a full week together will restore that spark to the side we've not really seen since Bolton.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Back to the Cottage

With the International shenanigans finally out the way (for a few weeks at least) we can get back to fretting about the state of our League campaign. It seems a long time since the disastrous 5 minutes against West Ham and, following the loss at the Hawthorns, we find ourselves fourth from bottom with both Newcastle and Spurs below us. Precarious to say the least. My sense of optimism is hardly helped by our impending visitors. Last April the home game against Sunderland seemed to be a must win game. It was a game we ended up losing with very little fight and was the point at which I finally put my hands up and accepted relegation. The benefit of hindsight eh?

My expectations for this weekend are pretty low. Our current form doesn’t suggest a team capable of improving on last season’s effort and it seems to me that Sunderland have made some very good additions to their squad. They won on their last visit to London (a 2-1 win at Spurs, but who doesn’t win there this season) and put in a very creditable performance against Arsenal (a 1-1 draw) in their last home game. I’m not confident. We need some big improvements to pick up a much needed win.

Before the game there will be the excitement of the
Johnny Haynes Statue unveiling. Tosh Chamberlain and Johnny’s wife Avril will be in attendance for what will, no doubt, be an emotional occasion. Fans are invited to gather in front of the Cottage from 12:00 onwards for a 12:45 ceremony. Much credit for all this should go to the Johnny Haynes Statue Action Group who have put in a lot of work to make sure it has happened.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Stand by your man-ager

Sometimes it's not individual games that highlight a problem but a cumulative effect over a number of matches. The 1-0 loss at West Brom was individually no worse than losing at Hull on the opening day or losing to West Ham last week. But coming, as it did, on the back of three straight league defeats (and four in total) it became a more significant event. The Blackburn game could be explained by a little bit of misfortune in the last few minutes, the West Ham game by a five minute period of chaos. Add them all together though and they start to point towards a more serious problem. We've had a healthy share of possession in these games and can even claim to have been a bit "unlucky" at times but we're not claiming points.

Despite this I'm happy to trust that Roy is doing the right things and these will eventually lead to the team getting it right on the pitch. I'm possibly helped in this by an acceptance that being relegated from the Premier League wouldn't cause me any serious anguish. I'd resigned myself to our fate last season, before the miracle of Kamara turned things around, and it seems to have stuck with me this season. Supporting Fulham has never been about chasing success or winning trophies for me. I'd love us to do well, I want us to make a bigger effort in the cup, but dropping down a division no longer holds any dread. We'd just get the chance to have another go, begin a different stage of the Fulham F.C. adventure. There are some problems with the side, I doubt there'll ever be a time when there aren't, but I'm content in the knowledge that Roy can see them as clearly as I can and will be working out what he can do about rectifying them. We've got a couple of weeks off until the next league game, and unusually I think this might help us out a little. It gives Roy a chance to assess his options and see what changes he can make to re-focus the team.

I want to see Fulham move away from the cycle of hiring and firing managers at regular intervals. I think I've talked about this before but in general successful teams have managers that have been with their clubs for a long time. Every club wants to find their Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger and I think Roy could be that man for us - I don't think we're realistically going to find much better - and I'm going to stand by him until the end (bitter or otherwise).