Tomorrow’s trip to the Riverside reminds me of our visit to Middlesbrough towards the tail end of the 2006-07 season. The year that saw a dismal dip in form turn a probable mid-table finish turn into a nailbiter of a relegation battle. It cost Chris Coleman his job and the club, having perhaps realised that appointing Lawrie Sanchez was no guarantee of getting us across the finish line, chartered planes and plenty of transport to ferry the Fulham faithful up to the north east. They reckoned without a timely – and somewhat fortunate win over Liverpool – which rendered the result at the Riverside rather irrelevant. Cheered on by a sold out away following, the boys couldn’t raise themselves and, despite a calm bit of finishing from Simon Davies, were comfortably beaten.
In the grand scheme of things, a repeat of last season’s defeat at Middlesbrough probably won’t matter in the final analysis. We are further clear of the relegation zone than anyone could have realistically expected at the start of the season and, despite a couple of excellent away wins, would still be outsiders to pip West Ham to a taste of European football next year. Although he might be warming to the idea, you get the impression that Roy Hodgson wouldn’t like the Europa Cup as a potential distraction when the task of building on this fine season begins in August. Should we take this rather relaxed approach onto the field against Middlesbrough tomorrow afternoon, we could endure a long evening of soul-searching on the journey home.
Gareth Southgate’s job might not be on the line even if Boro go down – and I’ll leave Middlesbrough fans to comment on whether that’s another brave act of faith by the respected chairman Steve Gibson or something altogether more foolish. But Southgate might just have got his team playing at the right time. Some had written them off as certainties to join West Brom in the Championship next season, but Hull’s ill-timed nose-dive included a defeat at a rocking Riverside last weekend so passion and belief won’t be a problem for the home side.
Boro failed to show their true quality, which in my eyes should be enough to keep them clear of the relegation battle, at the Cottage earlier this season. They lost a midfield tussle and what I remember as a harsh penalty award ended their only real spell of pressure on the Fulham goal early in the second half. Hodgson’s side will have to be well and truly on their guard tomorrow though. Stewart Downing is often mentioned as a threat but you fancy John Pantsil will have his work cut out to keep the talented England international quiet. One slip up and a perfectly-judged cross or a rasping cross could spell danger.
Turkish international Tuncay Sanli also makes a habit of popping up with crucial goals for Middlesbrough. More than that, he can spark his side into life with a moment of skill or a run that takes him past three defenders. He might be a victim of his versatility – which has seen him shunted from the wing to up front – but he certainly won’t shirk away from the fight. With Alfonso Alves powerful and full of running up front, you can safely bet that Mark Schwarzer – on his first return to the Riverside since leaving Middlesbrough on a Bosman at the end of last season – will be kept busy.
Much will depend on what kind of Fulham show up. If we are prolifigate as we were in the first twenty minutes at the City of Manchester Stadium last Sunday, we’ll probably lose heavily. Should we be as clinical as we were after the break at Eastlands, it could be a very enjoyable afternoon. It is highly unlikely that Middlesbrough, full of hussle and bustle and likely to be roared on by a big crowd, will afford us the freedom to stroke the ball around as imperiously as we did at times against City. This won’t be an ocassion for the faint hearted. Dickson Etuhu will need to be ready to ‘go to war’ again – we could do with the kind of fired up performance he delivered against his brother last week.
No bigger compliment can be paid to Hodgson than the fact that Fulham are no longer a soft touch away from home. Pretty football doesn’t mask a soft underbelly anymore. One Middlesbrough site highlighted Danny Murphy and Clint Dempsey as the dangermen to watch out for. This is pretty remarkable when you consider that it is no exaggeration to say that neither were certainties to make the starting line-up last season. The general consensus after Murphy’s first few games was that his legs had gone, whilst it has taken a season of hard work and some crucial goals to convince Hodgson as well as some of the Fulham fans that Clint’s worth a regular place. Nobody is questioning their worth now.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of our successful season has been what we’ve achieved with a largely settled side. You wouldn’t expect too many changes at Middlesbrough. Giles Barnes cotinues to press his claims for a first-team opportunity with goals for the reserves but he’ll do well to make the bench tomorrow. Andy Gray said he could have sat down and picked the Fulham team at Eastlands within a few moments of his arrival. It would be foolish to describe us as predictable. Hodgson’s got as well-drilled and atuned to the task at hand – it looks like a lot of hard work and patient posession have taken us from the brink of disaster to the dizzying heights of eighth. Whether we can stay there remains to be seen.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hangeland, Hughes; Etuhu, Murphy, Davies, Dempsey; Zamora, A. Johnson. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Baird, Stoor, Dacourt, Gera, Nevland, Kamara.