Roy Hodgson had a big decision to make today. He famously loathes making changes and it could be argued that Fulham’s unprecedented success this season owes much to the fruits of having such a settled side. With Bobby Zamora, who has been largely ineffective in front of goal this season regardless of his other qualities and Andy Johnson, our joint top scorer, available for selection after injury, the choice was whether to go back to the tried and tested method or stick with the strike partnership that had dismantled Aston Villa at Craven Cottage last week.
To my great surprise, Hodgson decided to go with Diomansy Kamara and Erik Nevland. Nevland’s quality has never been in doubt. For this correspondent, he’s probably Norway’s version of Teddy Sheringham. Not blessed with the kind of blistering pace that makes him uncatchable, Nevland has to rely on his footballing brain. He has remarkable vision, seemingly faultless judgement in timing a run and an uncanny ability to find the net. It is only his age – and stamina – that stand against him now as Erik finds it difficult to last the full ninety minutes.
Kamara, on the other hand, has divided Fulham fans ever since he arrived from West Brom. One gentleman I sat next to for some of Lawrie Sanchez’s dismal tenure was convinced he was lazy and, given his rich talent, Joe has the potential to be infuriating. But he can also make things happen. And today the two of them together helped Fulham amass their highest points total in the top flight, inch ever closer to Europe and keep Newcastle, buoyant beforehand, still very much in the relegation mire.
The pair’s understanding was evident in our first real attack of note. An outrageous flick from Kamara, similar to the backheel that beat Brad Friedel a week ago, found Nevland just outside the Newcastle box and his curling shot came very close to nestling in the far corner. We looked very composed in possession and played with a freedom that had been missing from our last visit to St. James’ Park, when both sides were far too close to the trapdoor for comfort, and Newcastle’s comfortable victory – their first under Kevin Keegan – lifted them away from trouble.
As expected, the Magies were out of the traps quickly. An early goal was what we had to avoid and, in all honesty, we were fortunate not to be behind inside the first quarter of an hour. Mark Schwarzer had dealt comfortably with an ambitious effort from longe range by Danny Guthrie but he was beaten by Obafemi Martins from close range only for the Nigerian’s shot to bounce back off the post. Martins could perhaps have fared better going across the goal, but the sizeable travelling contingent breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Newcastle huffed and puffed but created precious little. Mark Viduka and Steven Taylor missed the best chances as Jonas Gutierrez flew down the flank and gave John Pantsil a few problems. But too often the delivery from wide areas was poor and our central defensive partnership of Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes, who started his career here at Newcastle, coped admirably with everything that was thrown at them.
Just as the home fans began to get a bit restless, Fulham scored a fine goal on the counter-attack. Clint Dempsey showed the kind of grit that we love to keep the ball as he moved clear of the Fulham area and ferried it infield to Danny Murphy. The Fulham captain played another magnificent searching pass – similar to the one that Nevland scampered onto at Stamford Bridge – and Erik was away. He had oceans of room down the right and cut into the Newcastle box before sliding the ball across goal for Kamara to lift the ball into the net, beating the desperate dive of Taylor on the line. The Geordies howled for an offside flag that never came, whilst the Fulham fans celebrated a brilliant breakaway goal. It came at the perfect time, too, just before the break.
We braced ourselves for a frenetic start to the second period and Newcastle duly came surging forward. Had he been a bit more composed, Martins might have equalised just a minute in but he blazed over from a promising position. Viduka looked like he’d scored with an impudent flick as Schwarzer missed a free-kick but Dickson Etuhu arrived in the nick of time to clear the ball from underneath his own crossbar. We all thought the worst had happened from the resulting corner when Viduka’s powerful header found the net. But Howard Webb disallowed it – first, it seemed, for a foul by the Australian, but I’m told that Kevin Nolan had perhaps impeded Schwarzer on the goalline. It was impossible to tell from up in the Gods but it felt like Fulham had just enjoyed a real stroke of luck.
The complexition of the contest changed again on the hour mark. Kamara looked as if he was going to reach a through ball with the Newcastle defence caught square but Bassong brought him down. Webb gave him his marching orders and the home side were down to ten men. As Newcastle were reorganising, Dempsey went down on the edge of the box but this time Webb waved play on. Nevland might have sealed it but Steve Harper did well to push his powerful effort over the crossbar.
For a side with ten men, Newcastle saw a lot of the ball in the closing stages. Again Martins found some room in the penalty area and, although Schwarzer got something to his shot, it needed Hangeland to hook the ball clear from inside the six-yard box. Newcastle could have snatched a point in the dying seconds had it not been for another wondersave by Schwarzer. Substitute Andy Carroll flicked a high ball on and Nicky Butt’s brilliant volley was heading in but a diving Schwarzer pushed it away to safety.
There was still time for Fulham to carve out a golden opportunity to make sure of the three points. How Dempsey missed a glorious chance from close range with Harper grounded only he will know. Fortunately, it didn’t matter. Other results were kind to Fulham – with old boy Louis Saha putting West Ham to the sword at Goodison Park, although we could have done without Tottenham’s late win over Manchester City. It means that a win – or even a draw – against Everton next Sunday would, remarkably, take Fulham into Europe. Newcastle face a nailbiting final day Hull’s draw at Bolton put them back in the drop zone.
Whatever the result next weekend, there’ll be plenty of reasons to acclaim Hodgson and the boys. This win ensures Fulham will record their highest ever league finish regardless of how we fare against Everton and that feat alone, coming a mere twelve months after we scraped survival with that unforgettable win at Portsmouth on the last day of the season, is worthy of celebration. Never has Tommy Trinder’s famous catchprase – ‘You lucky people!’ – been more fitting.
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-4-2): Harper; Beye, Duff, Bassong, S. Taylor; Butt, Nolan, Guthrie (R. Taylor 72), Gutierrez (Lovenkrands 76); Martins, Viduka (Carroll 80). Subs (not used): Krul, Coloccini, Smith, Ameobi.
SENT OFF: Bassong (60).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Gera, Dempsey; Nevland (A. Johnson 75), Kamara. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Baird, Kallio, Dacourt, Gray, Zamora.
BOOKED: Murphy, Nevland, Dempsey.
GOAL: Kamara (41).
REFEREE: Howard Webb (South Yorkshire).