I took an old friend, one of the people who had introduced me to Fulham as a youngster, to Craven Cottage tonight. He hadn’t been to Fulham for more than a year for one reason or another and greatly enjoyed the emotional workout that is a night at the football. And it was some workout. The first 40 minutes or so were pretty dire. Blackburn lumped the ball forward, Fulham soaked up the pressure and repelled the aerial bombardment but looked fairly devoid of any attacking ideas until a fine goal, scored at the run of the play, broke the shackles and the pattern of the contest.
Rovers were full of power and vigour as one would expect from an Allardyce team even if the man himself wasn’t in attendance. They had a glorious opportunity to open the scoring as most of the crowd were still finding their seats. Hughes and Hangeland seemed to leave the task of intercepting a hopeful through ball from Keith Andrews to each other and Franco di Santo gratefully raced clear. The Italian striker’s hesitancy allowed Mark Schwarzer to advance from his line and making a tumbling save away to his right.
Fulham lacked their usual fluency, with passes missing their intended target, and Blackburn were buoyed by an early sniff of goal. El Hadji Diouf kept finding space around the edge of the box and, prompted by Andrews – a last-minute replacement for Brett Emerton after the Australian failed a fitness test – Rovers dominated the opening exchanges. Hangeland had to be alert to shut down Andrews after Diouf had skated past Damien Duff and Jason Roberts was a handful.
The man who scored the Blackburn winner here last year hit a shot straight at Schwarzer after being cleverly found by David Dunn and then curled one wide of goal from another promising position. The visitors perhaps didn’t create the volume of chances that their dictation of the play might have merited but it was still a shock when Fulham took the lead three minutes before half time.
Erik Nevland, recovered the illness that had prevented him from partnering Bobby Zamora at Birmingham on Saturday, had until then been a peripheral figure. He found some space down the right, swapped passes with Damien Duff and galloped onto the return ball, thumping a shot past Paul Robinson at his near post. The goalkeeper might have been disappointed to have been beaten in such a manner but it was a really clinical finish. Fortunately, it didn’t matter that the Norwegian fluffed a much simpler second half chance when played in by Clint Dempsey.
The American was starved of the kind of service that he craves in the first half and flitted in and out of proceedings. He was much more involved after the break with his energetic running and clever touches bringing him to the fore. He laid on that chance for Nevland and Chris Baird could have crowned a flowing move with a fine finish from the edge of the box had his shot carried the necessary power to surprise Robinson.
It looked as if Fulham might have to settle for a nervy final quarter protecting their slender lead but Dempsey’s potency settled things. He found himself in the right place to divert Damien Duff’s threatening cross beyond Robinson from close range after a marauding run from right back John Pantsil. There was an anxious moment as we waited for an offside flag to spoil the celebrations but Blackburn didn’t really protest and that made things a lot more comfortable.
There was even time for a little Simon Davies cameo at the end too. The Welshman, continuing his return from that troublesome foot injury and no longer guaranteed a place in Roy Hodgson’s first choice midfield, gave a timely reminder of his quality too with a surging run and low cross that picked out Dempsey, who turned and fired a low shot past a helpless Robinson from six yards to put the icing on the cake. 3-0 sounds very comfortable when in reality, for the first 40 minutes at least, it was anything but.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Greening (Etuhu 81), Duff (Davies 85), Dempsey; Zamora (Gera 58), Nevland. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Dikgacoi, Seol.
GOALS: Nevland (42), Dempsey (67, 88).
BLACKBURN ROVERS (4-4-2): Robinson; Jacobsen, Chimbonda, Nelsen, Samba; Dunn, Grella, Andrews, Diouf; Roberts (McCarthy 66), Di Santo (Kalinic 66). Subs (not used): Brown, Salgado, N’Zonzi, Pedersen, Hoilett.
REFEREE: Stuart Attwell (Nuneaton).