I always enjoy my visits to Tottenham (well, maybe, apart from last year). As a young boy, I lived for three years in north London and my Spurs supporting friends often whisked me off to White Hart Lane to see some ‘proper football’. Despite the fact that it was bitterly cold as I set out and there was virtually no public transport on offer whatsoever, I was really looking forward to this game. Amongst probably our largest away following at the Lane since we won 3-0 five years ago, I settled in to watch the action.
Concerned faces and angry muttering greeted the rumour that our defensive colossus Brede Hangeland was missing. Apparently, he had the flu. I presumed that Toni Kallio would be the man to come in, but groans greeted the annoucement that Chris Baird would partner his international skipper Aaron Hughes in central defence. I remember last season Rich spent much of his time debunking the criticism of Baird’s performances and I’ve always thought that he would be much more comfortable at the heart of the defence than on the right of a back four up against speedy wingers.
The booing of Baird has been one of the more embarassing aspects of Fulham’s support. Expressing displeasure is probably a supporter’s perogative but I’ve always been of the opinion that you should get beind the team. The £3.5m price tag for a young lad might have weighed heavily on Baird’s shoulders and a few jittery moments early on wouldn’t have helped his confidence. He’s been deployed as a holding midfielder to soak up pressure in the closing stages of games so far this season but this was his chance to show Hodgson what he could do with another centre back on the manager’s mind during next month’s transfer window.
He slotted perfectly into the back four and made some timely interceptions early on. A crucial header in front of Darren Bent, Tottenham’s quick lone striker, kept us level and he could have almost been a shorter version of Hangeland as he confidently headed the ball away time after time. Spurs, in dire need of points at the wrong end of an extremely tight table, would have targeted this as a game they really could win. They were largely restricted to long range shots in the first half with Bentley shooting tamely at Schwarzer from 25 yards. They struggled to get behind our back four and when they did they found the Australian goalkeeper in fine form. His big right glove stopped a goalbound drive from the lively Aaron Lennon after a surging run from Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
Fulham’s attacking ambitions were largely signalled by Clint Demspey, who was trying to pick up where left off against Middlesbrough last weekend. He fired a speculative shot from the right angle of the box early on and then, after miscuing his first effort, hooked a bicycle kick towards the far corner only for Heurelho Gomes to make a brilliant diving save. Our midfield creativity was rather dented once Jimmy Bullard was forced off with what looked like a hamstring strain and once Dickson ‘Brutus’ Etuhu replaced him it was always likely that we’d be a little more conservative in the middle of the park. Even so, Bobby Zamora might have given us a half-time lead but he couldn’t get the necessary connection to a lovely pass from Simon Davies.
Spurs started the second half with the kind of brightness that we might have expected from them at the very start. Lennon looked busy down the right but Paul Konchesky stood firm and Bentley’s frustration was soon evident, going for goal from all of 35 yards when his team mates had flooded the Fulham box at an attacking free-kick. The England international was soon replaced by Frazier Campbell and, whilst I didn’t feel sorry for Bentley, it must be difficult to produce the kind of form that had made him a prized commodity when playing out of position on the left of midfield. Little Luka Modric looked a lot more effective out there, coming infield to head wide from inside the penalty area when he might have done better, and Roman Pavlyuchenko’s shot was deflected wide by Hughes just after he came off the bench.
The nerves were now amongst their highest for the Fulham contingent. We still sung pretty loud urging the black and white shirts to dig deep and avoid the kind of late collapse that so characterised our dismal season last term. To be fair, on Boxing Day last year, we were out of the contest by this time. As Spurs pushed forward, we might have nicked in when Andy Johnson raced onto a through ball and tried to keep his balance and get beyond Ledley King. He didn’t get the cleanest of connections on the shot but Gomes still did well to save.
That’s four consecutive goalless draws on the road for Fulham now but I think it’s too easy to call Hodgson conservative. He was furious that we’d spurned that late chance – probably one of the clearest of the game – and angrily turned his back on preceedings. More importantly than that, as I’ve mentioned before on these pages, teams evolve slowly rather than falling into place overnight. More work on the training ground will help our midfield to gel but I’d certainly have taken a point if offered it this morning, especially once I’d been told we’d be without Hangeland from the start and Bullard for an hour. Let’s hope we can replicate these efforts against Chelsea on Sunday.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR (4-4-1-1): Gomes; Corluka, Assou-Ekotto, King, Dawson; Zokora, Huddlestone (Jenas 20), Bentley (Campbell 59), Lennon; Modric; Bent (Pavlyuchenko 72). Subs (not used): Cesar, Bale, Woodgate, O’Hara.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Baird; Bullard (Etuhu 38), Murphy, Dempsey, Davies (Nevland 90); A. Johnson, Zamora. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Kallio, Stoor, Andreasen, Gray.
REFEREE: Peter Walton (Northamptonshire).