The joy on Clint Dempsey’s face matched that in Fulham hearts. After he had punctured Tony Adams’ managerial debut at Portsmouth with a late equaliser that nobody saw coming, the American wheeled away to the travelling fans in delight. As he ran along the byline, he mouthed ‘I’m back’ over and over again. There was a message in there to Roy Hodgson as well as his positive acclaimation to the Fulham fans who looked likely to make the long trip to London mulling over another away defeat.
It was Hodgson’s substitutions that sparked a late Fulham revival in a game that looked to meandering towards a routine home win. Unremarkable it might have been, but it would have been welcome in Portsmouth. After all the upheaval after Harry Redknapp’s departure this week, a good performance and three points on pitch would have just been what the Fratton Park faithful ordered. Adams, widely tipped to take over on a permanent basis having been in temporary charge alongside coach Joe Jordan for this game, looked like he would get his first win too after the lively front pairing of Jermaine Defoe and Peter Crouch combined to give Pompey a deserved lead.
But Hodgson threw caution to the wind and gambled with time running out. He threw on Dempsey, who has largely played second fiddle to the uninspiring Zoltan Gera in the Fulham midfield this season, and Erik Nevland in a late bid to salvage something from a game that appeared to be slipping away. And out of nothing, it happened. Nevland brought the ball forward down the right and swung over a delightful cross to the near post. It asked to be buried and Dempsey did just that, dispatching a volley clinically past David James from close range.
Fulham had an enjoyed a late spell of possession before the equaliser but their finishing had proven frustratingly weak. First, Bobby Zamora shot straight at Jones from a decent position, and then Brede Hangeland rued heading into the goalkeeper’s stomach having found space from a Jimmy Bullard corner. Hodgson’s side had faded after a bright start, with Andy Johnson posing particular problems for the Portsmouth defence. He brought a decent save from James after turning smartly and had a goal chalked off for offside just before half time.
By that point, Portsmouth were the more threatening. The hosts came into the came much more after Younes Kaboul nearly forced the opening goal over the line from a Lassana Diarra corner. Richard Hughes came close to breaking the deadlock when his powerful shot was repelled by Schwarzer, who also did well to deny the dangerous Peter Crouch at his near post. Nadir Belhadj waltzed through the Fulham defence all too easily on a mesmorising run towards goal and Schwarzer was grateful to be able to block his shot.
The second half followed a familiar pattern. Pompey did most of the pressing with Jermaine Defoe, keen to catch the eye with his England claims in mind, proving a particular threat. He might have had two goals before he played a key part in putting Portsmouth in front. The former Spurs striker shot just wide from a promising position and then saw Schwarzer smother another drive before the home side finally took the lead.
Hodgson will have been particularly disappointed with the way his defence let Defoe roam with the ball at his feet, backing off as the England international received the ball 25 yards from goal. That allowed Defoe to progress to the edge of the box and gave him too much time to pick the crucial pass for Crouch, who clinically shot past Schwarzer from twelve yards out. It could have got worse for Fulham shortly afterwards when the bright Belhadj skipped into a dangerous position and saw his curling shot superbly turned onto the far post by the fingertips of the Fulham goalkeeper.
Hodgson was delighted with his team’s spirit afterwards, praising his players for never giving up. It was a trait that dragged Fulham out of a seemingly hopeless position at the foot of the table last season – with that gripping finale at Fratton Park in May – and the Cottagers boss will be hoping that fight continues. He’d do worse than calling on the likes of Dempsey and Nevland again in the future.
PORTSMOUTH (4-4-2): James; Paramot, Belhadj, Distin, Kaboul; Diop, Diarra (Mvuemba 84), Hughes, A. Traore (Krancjar 84); Crouch, Defoe. Subs (not used): Ashdown, Hreidarsson, D. Traore, Utaka, Kanu.
GOAL: Crouch (61).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Murphy, Bullard, Davies, Gera (Dempsey 71); Zamora, A. Johnson (Nevland 80). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Baird, Kallio, Milsom, Seol.
GOAL: Dempsey (87).
REFEREE: Mark Halsey (Lancashire).