We’ve all heard about winning ugly. Well, this was the fuzzy end of the lollipop. It would be wrong to say that I expected us to lose to Blackburn – after 90 seconds I was leaping around as joyfully as the rest of you. But I did think that we stood a much better chance when the fixture was due to be played, especially against an injury-hit Rovers side as they were back in January.
A couple of months later and Sam Allardyce has had the opportunity to work his ‘magic’ up at Ewood Park. I’ve never been Allardyce’s biggest fan and I find his belief that the only reason he was passed over for the England job was the politics of the FA and the Premier League utterly laughable. But he’s a good club manager. He’s made a habit of turning struggling sides into mediocre ones and went a little further with Bolton. Wednesday showed us just what Big Sam was about – his side was physical and rugged, there were few frills, but plenty of big hearts and they got their reward for never giving up. It wasn’t quite the Hull smash ‘n’ grab raid mk. II, but we’ve only got ourselves to blame for failing to kill the game off.
Hodgson’s selection was interesting. Bobby Zamora was injured and that could have created another chance for Erik Nevland from the start. Even if Nevland’s disappointing display against Swansea a couple of weeks earlier had seen Roy err against including him from the start, he could have turned to Diomansy Kamara. Instead, Zoltan Gera came for Zamora and Clint Dempsey was pushed further forward with distinct instructions to try and get next to and beyond AJ when we had the ball.
It’s not the solution that I favoured but it didn’t seem to matter after a minute and half. Clint made the most of the confusion in the Blackburn ranks caused by Danny Murphy’s header, sped past Ryan Nelsen and drove past Paul Robinson. Simple and the cure to those pre-match nerves. Or so we thought.
Dempsey was at the heart of everything positive we created – he ran himself into the ground for us again tonight despite his heavy workload of late – and his persistence created a chance for Johnson, who was brilliantly challenged by the covering Stephen Warnock as he was about to pull the trigger. Dempsey laid on another opportunity: this time for Simon Davies, whose rising drive was pushed out by Robinson and Rovers scrambled the ball clear.
Still we only led by a goal and were given a reminder of just how fickle that lead is when Warnock rattled the post from the edge of the box. His shot was well saved by Schwarzer but the big Aussie still needed the woodwork to prevent the impressive Warnock from levelling matters. We have to look back now at an extraordinary double miss from Gera just before half-time as one of the crucial moments. Robinson did well to block his first shot but how the Hungarian failed to find the target with the follow-up header is beyond me.
Benni McCarthy, on as a second half substitute, seemed to breathe new life into Blackburn and they looked the stronger as the game went on (especially after they switched to a 4-3-3). Seemingly only Schwarzer stood between Blackburn and the three points. He pulled off a truly magnificent full-length diving save to foil Warnock again and our vulnerability was underlined when Chris Samba went close with a volley from the ensuing corner.
As we took a backward step, Rovers went for the kill and were rewarded. They were question marks over offside for the goal but having reviewed the TV footage it seems the assistant referee got it spot on. Tugay headed the ball back across goal – with Hughes challenging instead of Hangeland – and Samba pulled it back for Diouf to score from close range.
The departure of Hughes shortly afterwards, with an apparently serious rib injury, struck me as a big blow and so it proved. I’ve got nothing against Toni Kallio – he’s filled in admirably on the couple of previous ocassions I’ve seen him at the Cottage – but he was turned inside out by the powerful Roberts five minutes from time and there was an inevitably about the way the striker beat Schwarzer with a low shot.
There was still time for a late sting in the tale. Nevland pounced on a mistake by Nelsen and raced into the box. The Hammersmith End held it’s breath. He struck it well enough but Robinson did brilliantly to keep it out. The frustration can’t really be summed in words. My journey home was a rueful one – and quiet at that.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes (Kallio 77), Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Gera (Kamara 80), Davies (Nevland 90); Dempsey; A. Johnson. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Gray, Dacourt.
GOAL: Dempsey (2).
BLACKBURN ROVERS (4-4-2): Robinson; Ooijer, Samba, Nelsen, Givet; Andrews (McCarthy 56), Tugay (Mokoena 82), Warnock, Pedersen (Dunn 86); Diouf, Roberts. Subs (not used): Bunn, Khizanishvili, Villanueva.
GOALS: Diouf (69), Roberts (85).
REFEREE: Rob Styles (Hampshire).