It’s not pretty, but it’s certainly effective.
Those words could have been used to describe Stoke City’s attritional approach to Premier League football or Fulham’s very own new found grit away from home. This was our third straight 0-0 draw on the road and must, naturally, be less highly regarded than the points that preceded it at Anfield and Villa Park. Set against our newly found steel away from the Cottage is the fact that we have still mustered only two goals in away league fixtures this season – and both of those came in defeats.
Still, anyone who finds fault with the way Roy Hodgson is organising this Fulham side must have had a jolt to the head recently and will be need of a lie down. This is us, remember, and our relationship with good defending as been as brief as our spells in the top of the table lately. No less an authority that George Graham, who brought success to Arsenal before anyone in North London had even heard of Arsene Wenger, made a great play of the fact that the top sides are built from the back and our rearguard now looks the meanest it has been since we entered the top flight.
We weren’t subjected to as fierce an aerial bombardment as I’d been expecting this afternoon. Part of the reason might have been because Rory Delap, a doubt before the game with an arm injury, hurt his shoulder so severely in trying to launch one of his trademark long throws into the penalty area that he wasn’t able to propel another missile towards our goal. In fact, Stoke’s best chance – probably the only clear cut opening of the first half – fell to Richard Cresswell, the journeyman striker who replaced the injured Mamady Sidibe early on – but the substitute curled his shot high and wide from inside the box.
We weren’t as adventurous as we might have been, however, as Bobby Zamora had injured a hip in training yesterday afternoon and so Clint Dempsey played behind Andy Johnson, who ploughed a lone farrow up front all afternoon. Although a willing worker, the closest the isolated Johnson came to getting a scoring opportunity was howling for penalties at the incompetent Stuart Attwell, whose season isn’t getting any better. I know the pressures faced by young referees all too well and the spotlight had shone brightly on Attwell since he gave the goal that wasn’t at Vicarage Road earlier this season and made all manner of crazy decisions in the derby between Nottingham Forest and Derby last season. He was up to his old tricks again, denying Fulham a penalty for a clear handball by Danny Higginbotham, who was so perturbed by not being able to head clear a cross he decided to use his hand instead. Johnson was furious, Atwell was unmoved.
Indeed, Attwell’s comical performance – complete with strange yellow cards and the legitimisation of challenges from both sides that should have been penalised with bookings, let alone free-kicks – was probably the best part of this dreary affair. Clear cut chances were few and far between. Ricardo Fuller and Pantsil were both fortunate to escape sanction for a fracas off the ball. Pantsil laughably threw himself to the ground after being butted by Fuller, who was particularly stupid because he had already been booked, and Johnson – growing increasingly frustrated – could have been sent off for a horrible lunge.
Pantsil, like Brede Hangeland (for an unfathomable reason) was booed incessantly by the home crowd afterwards, but could have exacted his revenge in the best way possible had he managed to propel Jimmy Bullard’s free-kick wide of Thomas Sorenson. Instead, his header was straight at the veteran goalkeeper. Simon Davies, who drifted in and out of the game again from the left, shot wide when well placed whilst wild efforts from Creswell and substitute Vincent Pericard failed to trouble Mark Schwarzer.
Although Stoke are another newly promoted side we have failed to beat this season, I would have settled for a point beforehand and will gladly bask in the reflected glory of a six-match unbeaten run now. The reason? Places like the Britannia Stadium are notoriously tough to come to. The media might hype up the fact that Stoke aren’t exactly at home amongst football’s purists but they can play the ball on the floor as well as most of the other mid-table Premier League sides. They simply wouldn’t have got here otherwise. This was a fixture we would crumbled away in last season and the Potters have already secured an impressive five home wins this term.
Roy seemed a little frustrated in his post-match interview, reckoning that ‘when you play as well as we did, you’ve got to win’. It’s good to see the manager not resting on his laurels. He’ll drum into the players the importance of the Christmas period given that the league is still tight. With the supposedly more established sides, like Blackburn, Tottenham and Newcastle, all still contemplating a bleak winter, Hodgson is entitled when he sees the table tonight to be content with a job well done.
Teams don’t magically transform themselves overnight. If they did, we’d all be football managers. They evolve slowly, often through shrewd transfer dealings and clever tactics. Roy has seemingly cured us of our defensive deficiencies and we are no longer a soft touch away from home. If he can now get to work on the midfield and try and get us creating a few more chances going forwards then we’ll really be in business.
Before I go, a big thank you to all of our readers who used the comments box in the open matchday thread earlier. I must confess that I’d didn’t think we’d generate enough traffic to make Scott’s idea a success but with a few people passing the time the ninety minutes flew by earlier. It seems like everyone enjoyed themselves and we might repeat the trick for Middlesbrough next weekend.
Right, now I’ve got to go and sort out the food, but please feel free to share your reflections on our performance in the comments. Hopefully, Jack will be along with a more thorough report sometime tomorrow.
STOKE CITY (4-4-2): Sorensen; Wilkinson, Abdoulaye Faye, Sonko, Higginbotham, Delap (Tonge 61); Amdy Faye, Whelan, Pugh (Pericard 68), Sidibe (Cresswell 5), Fuller. Subs (not used): Simonsen, Olofinjana, Cort, Davies.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hangeland, Hughes; Bullard, Murphy, Gera, Davies; Dempsey; A. Johnson. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Nevland, Gray, Etuhu, Stoor, Andreasen, Kallio.
REFEREE: Stuart Attwell (Warwickshire).