It seems a bit churlish to criticise after what has been a marvellous season, but Fulham weren’t very good today. Everton, even with a Cup final around the corner and a few fringe players in their side, showed more fight and guile as they strolled to their first league win at Craven Cottage since 1966, when World Cup winner Alan Ball scored the only goal on his debut.
The difference between the sides this afternoon – Leon Osman – doesn’t really get the credit he deserves. Rightly, most correspondents laud the energy of Tim Cahill and his goalscoring threat from midfield. Mikel Arteta’s another quality member of Moyes’ midfield quartet, but Osman’s understated industry does seem to creep by unnoticed. As the first half seemed to be creeping towards a tame conclusion, he collected a lovely through pass from the excellent Steven Pienaar, rounded Mark Schwarzer and the tucked the ball into the empty net.
Osman’s second was a real peach. With the game stretched as we entered the last minute, a Fulham attack petered out and Everton broke up field. There didn’t seem to be too much danger when Osman picked up on possession outside the area but he danced past two defenders in the blink of an eye and curled a wonderful shot beyond Schwarzer.
Fulham seemed sadly lethargic today. Perhaps it was the glorious sunshine that sapped our energy. Everton, with the eager Jack Rodwell strong in central midfield, were stronger in the tackle and first to the loose balls. We might have been further behind had Schwarzer not been right behind long-distance efforts from Rodwell and Cahill. Louis Saha, surprisingly chosen to lead the line ahead of the cup-tied Jo, struck the crossbar early on after Osman had skinned Konchesky and also saw a threatening drive well saved by Schwarzer.
By contrast, the Whites offered little. Nevland and Kamara were denied the space they crave to be effective. Lescott kept the Norway striker fairly quiet and the onus seemed to be on our midfield to make the chances. Zoltan Gera had a disappointing game but he had Fulham’s two best openings in the first half. He should have done better perhaps with a far post header which he nodded too close to Tim Howard and drove a long-range shot over the crossbar.
Despite enjoying a fair bit of possession in the second period, Fulham lacked the killer pass to get behind Everton. Frustration more than anything drew Pantsil forward and, willed on by the fans, he shot wide from the edge of the area. Zamora, on a subsitute, spurned the best chance, shooting tamely into the legs of the onrushing Howard, when through on goal, having earlier provided great comedy when a hopeful cross-cum-shot flew off the side of his boot and over the byline.
There was a nice nod to the future before the afternoon was over though. Aaron Hughes, outstanding all season, gave way to the promising Chris Smalling, who made his first appearance for the club since signing from Maidstone in the summer. The highly-rated defender, already capped by England at under-20 level, didn’t let anyone down and it’s more than possible that we’ll be seeing more of him next season.
Hodgson didn’t like losing this one but was proud of his players afterwards.
It’s one of my very, very best years. I won’t forget how when I came to Fulham we looked doomed. And now we’re seventh. That’s quite an achievement though I don’t want to take the credit. I’m a small cog.
The manager’s modesty evaporated during the post-match lap of honour, where he gave a bow to the corner of the Hammersmith End who sung his name with gusto. Seventh place has exceeded our wildest expectations in a season when progress would have meant avoiding the relegation scrap. Brede Hangeland handed his shirt to a group of fans in the Johnny Haynes Stand who had produced a banner pleading with him to stay. Hodgson will doubtless be hoping to build the team around him.
Europe comes around sooner than we all think. It’s a fitting reward for a marvellous season and will be a wonderful experience. This group of well-coached and disciplined players have done Fulham proud.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes (Smalling 77), Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Gera (Dacourt 73), Dempsey; Kamara, Nevland (Zamora 68). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Baird, Gray.
EVERTON (4-5-1): Howard; Hibbert, Baines, Yobo, Lescott; Neville (Gosling 76), Cahill, Osman, Pienaar (Vaughan 86), Rodwell; Saha (Castillo 79). Subs (not used): Nash, Jo, Jacobsen, Fellaini.
GOALS: Osman (44, 88).
REFEREE: Mike Riley (Leeds).