Night games at the Cottage are always special. They have been for me since the early nineties when I fell in love with the wonderful old ground. Much has changed since then: Fulham are now a Premier League side rather than one scrapping in the lower leagues, but thankfully all plans to move us away from our spiritual home have been resisted.
Tonight’s game is massively important. It is probably our first fixture since the opening day at Portsmouth that we could have done as one where we’d have a decent chance of picking up three points. But then we probably said that last year. The six points Hull City took from us last term proved critical in keeping them in the league. They deserved their win at the KC on a balmy August afternoon as, although we started our season with crisp passing and energetic football, we surrendered rather meekly after a promising opening half hour. The return game was a night of frustration: we dominated but didn’t score and the visitors grabbed a last-gasp winner with their only shot on target.
Phil Brown became a figure of fun for many last season. It was rather strange considering this engaging figure, like his club, was considered a breath of fresh air when Hull were flying. Getting the Tigers promoted was no mean feat but to go to places like Arsenal and get wins was extraordinary. As the wheels fell off, the media tore Brown down from his pedestal – criticising him as a self-promotionist, particularly after an ill-advised team talk on the pitch after a nightmare of a first half at Eastlands and his rather off-key celebratory singing on the pitch after Hull had scraped survival by the skin of their teeth.
Whatever the truth is, Brown’s actually made some shrewd signings this season. Jozy Altidore was apparently on Fulham’s radar and the young American certainly has the talent to be a real superstar. He’s started his City career well and could be a real threat tonight. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink scored plenty of goals for Celtic and provides a real aerial presence in attack that they can feed off. He opened his Hull account with the opening goal in their last game – a precious win over Wigan. Then there’s Stephen Hunt, who’s a clever midfielder, always likely to weigh in with an assist or a goal.
Much of the talk in the lead-up to this game has been about how much opprobrium will be directed at Jimmy Bullard this evening. There’s really no need to go through the ins and outs of the transfer: Fulham and Bullard have moved on and we’re arguably a better side without him. He hasn’t played a full game for Hull – having been injured in a tackle by Scott Parker on his debut at West Ham – and marked his return to the game with a wondergoal for City’s reserves. Will Brown be able to resist starting him tonight? And will he get as a good a reception as Hull’s assistant manager Brian Horton believes? I suspect the answer to both questions will be no.
Fulham do badly need a win tonight. Having had victory snatched away in the dying seconds at Upton Park on our last league outing, we are still looking anxiously over our shoulders at the relegation zone, which isn’t all that far behind us. With the exception of two particularly poor games, we haven’t played all that badly this season – and our performances in Europe have been impressive. It’s time to convert the kind of dominance we enjoyed over Arsenal the other week into goals.
And that’s the major problem. Our defensive record isn’t as bad as people have been making out – even if Brede Hangeland, troubled by an injury, hasn’t been as commanding as he was last night – but it’s our inability to find the net with regularity that is a real cause for concern. When our strikers aren’t scoring (if you think I’m talking about Bobby Zamora, Andy Johnson hasn’t managed a league goal since March 14), we need the midfielders to weigh in more. Clint Dempsey seems to have left his shooting boots at the Confederations Cup, although both Danny Murphy and a revitalised Zoltan Gera have found the net in recent weeks.
The big decision for Hodgson tonight is who to play up front. The type of gameplan we might expect from Hull would mean a target man in the mould of Zamora could be useful, but for me Diomansy Kamara deserves to keep his place after leading the line with such distinction when we went down to ten men at West Ham. It should be a very interesting night.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Gera; Kamara, A. Johnson. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Baird, Smalling, Dempsey, Riise, Zamora, Nevland.