As I passed a group of Fulham fans making their way down Inglethorpe Street very early this afternoon, one of them was in full flow, offering critcism after criticism of Damien Duff. ‘He’s slow, he’s the wrong side of 30 and his legs have gone’. He stopped sort of saying our Irish winger was useless, but not by much. I should hope Duff’s energetic second half display, capped by a moment of pure brilliance that sealed a vital win, might have changed that gentleman’s mind.
Until a lively second half comeback, it looked set to be another frustrating day for Fulham. Joseph Yobo, although manfully harried by the hard-working Bobby Zamora, and Sylvain Distin looked resolute at the heart of an Everton defence that was rarely significantly stretched and the visiting midfield ran the show. David Moyes would have badly missed Phil Neville, who anchored the engine room excellently until he was carried off with a suspected broken leg sustained when Dickson Etuhu clattered into the Everton captain, but it looked for a long while as though Tim Cahill’s free header at the near post would settle the contest.
Replacement goalkeeper David Stockdale, who generally had an impressive debut in place of the injured Mark Schwarzer, had little chance of keeping out the Australian’s well directed header after Cahill had beaten Etuhu to a Leighton Baines free-kick. Everton had most of the ball in the first period but created little in terms of clear cut chances, the best effort being a deflected shot from Jack Rodwell that Stockdale did well to keep out.
The home side offered little threat to Tim Howard’s goal from their sporadic attacks. Clint Dempsey was Fulham’s most dangerous attacker but shot wastefully wide from a couple of good positions and spurned his best chance at the back post when he sent a downward header narrowly wide. Fulham looked fairly powderpuff and they were in dire need of a rousing team-talk from Roy Hodgson at half-time.
They came out with more purpose and set about Everton with a lot more conviction in the second half. Fulham played at a higher tempo and found a bit more thrust in midfield – with the returning Danny Murphy coming to the fore. It looked as if the captain had a wasted a free-kick, awarded for a foul on the marauding John Pantsil, when he drove it into the whole but Paul Konchesky hit an instinctive shot from the rebound, which cannoned off Distin and wrong-footed Howard in the Everton goal.
Fulham drew real inspiration from the equaliser and, just after the goal, Everton were dealt a real blow when Neville was forced off with a bad looking leg injury after a robust challenge from Etuhu. The Nigerian was looking to play the ball but his studs were showing and he could very easily have left the pitch himself on another afternoon. Neville’s departure seemed to leave Everton without the bite that had previously typified their performance and Duff’s brilliant goal won a valuable three points for Fulham.
Johnson, who returned early than expected from his broken collarbone to face his former side, chased a ball into the right-hand channel as he had done with gusto for much of the afternoon, and played a clever pass into the space that Yobo had vacated to track his run. Duff scampered inside and drove a splendid shot across Howard and inside the far post. It was a worthy winner, but Fulham still have had to survive a couple of late scares to claim the points.
They had Stockdale to thank for their welcome win after the young goalkeeper made brilliant saves from Marouane Fellaini and Yobo at point blank range in the closing stages. The former Darlington custodian looks like a fine prospect for the future – and there’s every chance we may be seeing more of him soon. Dempsey might have made sure of the win when he lobbed a backpeddling Howard only for it to be cleared off the line. It seemed as if Peter Walton’s whistle would never end the interminable five minutes of added time, but when it did the relief was palpable.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Stockdale; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff (Davies 86), Dempsey; Zamora, A. Johnson (Kamara 89). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Baird, Gera, Greening, Nevland.
GOALS: Konchesky (57), Duff (79).
EVERTON (4-5-1): Howard; Hibbert, Baines, Yobo, Distin; Neville (Heitenga 65), Rodwell, Pienaar, Osman (Yakubu 81), Cahill; Jo (Fellaini 69). Subs (not used): Nash, Bilyaletdinov, Gosling, Vaughan.
GOAL: Cahill (33).
REFEREE: Peter Walton (Northamptonshire).