Fulham’s last successful ascent from this level of English football is remembered for a dramatic April away win secured by ten men with a late, late goal. Making direct parallels between the night that Sean Davis saw off Blackburn back in 2001 and yesterday’s impressive dismantling of Norwich City might be stretching the link too far – but the central point remains, gutsy backs-to-the-wall wins away from home are what gets you out of the Championship, and Slavisa Jokanovic’s side answered a big question about their character at Carrow Road this weekend.
The Serbian himself said afterwards that there would be ‘no surrender’ in the race for a play-off place and his words were merely a stirring reinstatement of what the team had just delivered. No matter that Fernando Forrestieri had sneaked a late winner past Cardiff City at Hillsborough or that Newcastle conceded a last-gasp equaliser at home to Leeds – getting three points in adversity against a side who had lost just three times at home all season sent out a real statement to the Championship’s top six. Fired up by an what appeared an unjust red card (for Rufus Brevett at Ewood Park, read Chris Martin on his old stomping ground), Fulham’s ten men battled brilliantly – and produced a far more complete footballing performance than anyone could have envisaged at half time.
There have been a lot of criticisms of Jokanovic’s decision to hand Tom Cairney the captain’s armband. He’s not a natural leader, they said – the same sort of allusion to British bulldog spirit that was thrown at David Beckham when he took over the England captaincy. Some leaders don’t have to cajole and wave their arms around histrionically, they just lead by example. Cairney did that yesterday. He was everywhere – causing the Canaries all manner of problems and leading poor old Alex Tettey on a merry dance through the centre of midfield – and, when the Whites were given a penalty at the start of the second half, who stepped up to end the spot-kick hoodoo? That’s right. Cairney dispatched it with a coolness that belied what must have been a beating heart – and gave Fulham precious breathing space.
Jokanovic’s tactical decisions need saluting here as well. In the absence of Chris Martin, most managers would have opted for a big man up top – in the form of Cyriac or Lucas Piazon – but that would have gone against the Fulham head coach’s possession philosophy. His side have kept the ball at close quarters all season with a brilliance that has seen football correspondents claim they are the Championship’s Barcelona and, such is the confidence the players have in the plan, Jokanovic was loathe to rip it up in fifteen minutes. He pushed Floyd Ayite on as a lone forward and the man whose goals have reignited the Whites’ play-off bid rose to the challenge. Ayite charged across the Norwich back line and carried the ball forward with purpose – his willing running creating the greater chances for Fulham than their opponents. When Jokanovic did introduce Piazon, the pair combined magnificently for the clinching third goal.
Tim Ream’s presence on the teamsheet since the turn of the year has prompted some fierce debate and the American has picked up his far share of stick as one of the latest scapegoats, but he was a colossus at the heart of the defence yesterday. Time and time again, Norwich floated high balls into the box and Ream repelled them with excellent clearing headers. During a period where Fulham were under immense pressure, Ream’s ability to play a clever pass out of the back proved invaluable and, although Tomas Kalas has received most of the plaudits this season, the former Bolton centre back’s contribution to a crucial win shouldn’t be understated.
Neither should that of Marcus Bettinelli. The academy graduate has had to wait an awful long time for his chance in the first team – especially following a succession of David Button blunders – but he has taken his opportunity with both hands. Bettinelli’s distribution with his feet, apparently the reason the ex-Brentford goalkeeper was preferred at the start of the season in what Jokanovic concedes was ‘a very difficult decision,’ was exemplary yesterday and he came up with massive saves as the Canaries ramped up the pressure. Just how he clawed away Timm Klose’s header before half time I don’t quite know – and he two made excellent stops to deny Jacob Murphy and Alex Pritchard as well. The home fans were incensed by Bettinelli’s perceived time-wasting – a special shout-out to the Norwich supporter who thought it appropriate to aggressively lambast the goalkeeper and scare the little Fulham mascot trying to get her shirt signed after the final whistle – but any gamesmanship from the visitors paled in comparison to what Reading, Sheffield Wednesday and Burton Albion, to name just three, have got away with at Craven Cottage this season.
Such a commanding victory leaves Fulham in a terrific position, with Wednesday, Reading and Leeds in all their sights ahead of another crucial clash with Aston Villa on Easter Monday. The magnitude of the win was recognised at full time when Cairney, in another moment that enhanced his leadership credentials, took the whole squad over to the travelling supporters. He was soon followed by a passionate Jokanovic who, in a rare outward show of that raw Serbian passion, clenched his fists in delight as he thanked the travelling 1,500 Fulham fans. Far from being bottlers, Fulham are keeping their composure at just the right time to make the Championship run-in very interesting indeed.