Well, how inaccurate was my downbeat forecast? This was as complete an away performance that we’ve seen from a Fulham side since we went to Old Trafford and won by the same scoreline back in 2003. It was even more impressive given that we’d just come off the back of three deflating defeats that threatened to drag right back where we didn’t want to be – into the relegation dogfight.
Having hinted that Aaron Hughes might be missing for sometime, Hodgson sprung a surprise in naming the Northern Ireland international alongside Brede Hangeland at the heart of the Fulham defence. Hangeland was immense – and you always thought he’d have to have a good game against a very physical Bolton side. He battled with Kevin Davies, who ‘won’ his fair share of free-kicks, all afternoon and it was the first time that I haven’t felt too worried about Bolton’s aerial bombardment.
A word of praise too for Bobby Zamora. The striker shook off the hip injury that had ruled him out of the Blackburn game in midweek and, although he missed a couple of decent chances, worked his socks off the cause. He was a focal point for our attack, chesting the ball down and laying it off to colleagues. Having suffered a largely toothless evening at the Cottage on Wednesday without him, it’s clear Fulham are a much better team with him in the side.
After a couple of iffy performances, Danny Murphy was back to his best in the centre of the park. Perhaps Bolton didn’t get the memo about denying our skipper time on the ball, but he used it well and barely wasted a pass. His partner in the engine room, Dickson Etuhu, didn’t look like the same man who complained about feeling dead after another midweek game. Etuhu’s just the kind of aggressive enforcer we need for fixtures like this and I’m hoping that there’s more to come from the Nigerian.
It was hardly a classic at the Rebook, but with a biting wind and an unpopular Gary Megson continuing the agricultural approach to football pioneered by Sam Allardyce you could hardly expect an exhibition of purist-pleasing stuff. Nevertheless, we did play some good football, passing it around well and Zamora looked lively up front – getting in behind Bolton on a number of ocassions.
Both John Pantsil and Danny Murphy lifted ambitious well over the bar from half-cleared corners in the scrappy opening stages and then we had a real let off just before the half hour mark. Johan Elmander’s free-kick might have taken a little deflection on the way through to Mark Schwarzer but the goalkeeper juggled it unconvincingly and as Gary Cahill burst onto the ball I was waiting for the net to buldge. Schwarzer made a fine reaction save and even a Hangeland block from Cahill’s second effort didn’t clear the danger. How Gavin McCann missed from five yards only he will now?
Zamora’s critics will point to a miss shortly afterwards as he stretched to reach a right-wing cross but I reckon they’d be very harsh. The ball was well out of his reach, he had to stretch and then be able to control or divert it goalwards and it was far from an open goal. Perhaps a striker with a bit more confidence might have gobbled up the opportunity but even the most athletic of attackers would have struggled to have beaten Jaaskelainen from there for me. Zamora kept plugging away and forced a fine reaction save from the Finnish goalkeeper with a fierce drive from eight yards.
The opening goal when it came was a farcial one. Jaaskelainen looked to be the favourite to reach a hopeful through ball but Andy O’Brien took matters into his own hands. He inexplicably rounded his own goalkeeper in attempting to clear the ball and as it rolled away from him towards the goal, Andy Johnson slid in for one of the easiest goals he’d ever score. The novelty of leading away from home didn’t last too long mind you.
We had less than four minutes to see out (including added time) for a half-time advantage but couldn’t muster it. Kevin Davies chested down a long punt forward, Mark Davies – the former Wolves and Leicester midfielder who Roy was apparently looking at in January before Megson swooped for his signature drove at our defence with real purpose and Elmander’s clever stepover allowed Kevin Davies to trick his way past Konchesky with a lovely beat of skill and finish emphatically.
It seemed like the same old story as Bolton started the second half at a high tempo, forcing a couple of early corners and putting us under real pressure. But they couldn’t find a telling final ball and they had Andy O’Brien offering up gifts like a confused Santa Claus at the other end. Some slack ball control allowed Andy Johnson to race clear and he might have been impeded as he sped into the box. It didn’t seem to matter as Danny Murphy took over possession and smashed a shot against the crossbar. The chance looked as though it had gone but Simon Davies was calmness personified to rifle a low shot goalwards. Jaaskelainen got a touch and Ricardo Gardner tried to keep it out but the ball was clearly over the line.
Megson reacted quickly, throwing on Riga and going to a more direct 4-3-3. The last quarter of an hour was agony as Wanderers piled pressure on the Fulham goal. Schwarzer came and collected high balls as he did for much of the afternoon to relieve the burden on his centre-halves (although one glaring punch could have gone anywhere) and we rode our luck a little bit.
At first I thought the introduction of Kamara for a tiring Zamora was the token late change from Hodgson. But it had a far more dramatic effect. O’Brien completed his hat-trick of assists with a woeful clearance that set up a dangerous Fulham counter attack and Dempsey showed great awareness to play in Kamara who fired in a left-footed shot from the angle that rolled delightfully into the corner. Memories of Eastlands came flooding back.
BOLTON WANDERERS (4-4-2): Jaaskelainen; Samuel (Riga 74), Steinsson, A. O’Brien, Cahill; Gardner, McCann, M. Davies (Muamba 68), Taylor; K. Davies, Elmander. Subs (not used): Al Habsi, Pugrenier, Makukula, Shittu, Hunt.
GOAL: K. Davies (45)
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, S. Davies, Dempsey; A. Johnson (Nevland 90), Zamora (Kamara 84). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Smalling, Dacourt, Gera.
GOALS: A. Johnson (42), S. Davies (56), Kamara (88).
REFEREE: Chris Foy (St. Helens).