The best teams have resilience in abundance. At times in the past – and even this season – Fulham have crumbled under pressure. Roy Hodgson’s team did it in reverse this afternoon. Usually, so slack in the opening period, they beat Sunderland – a side with the highest proportion of Premier League goals in the first quarter of an hour – out of the blocks and clung onto a narrow lead as Steve Bruce’s side pushed forwards towards the end.
Much of the credit should go to Bobby Zamora, continually decried on our messageboards as not being good enough for this level of football. His fine early header took his tally for the season to sixth and was enough to help lift Fulham to eighth in the table, an impressive feat given our European commitments and early struggles in the lead. Zamora later hit the bar and laid on a couple of glorious chances for the returning Erik Nevland as the home side really should have put the game beyond Sunderland before the break.
The visitors were rather limited in the first period, despite having the game’s opening chance when former Fulham midfielder Steed Malbranque wriggled past Paul Konchesky and shot into Mark Schwarzer’s arms at the near post. The home side settled and soon their passing was creating chances. Damien Duff and John Pantsil were linking up nicely down the right and they combined before Pantsil’s cross was emphatically headed home by Zamora.
Sunderland’s defence were struggling to contain Zamora. Their problems mounted when Anton Ferdinand limped off after half an hour and the back four already had something of a makeshift look to it with Kieran Richardson filing in for the injury George McCartney at left back. Dempsey, drifting infield with increasing regularity, sent two shots wide of Martin Fulop’s goal from long range and Zamora nearly nabbed his second when he headed against the bar from Konchesky’s centre.
Zamora’s strength and touch fashioned a wonderful opportunity for Nevland at a quickly-taken free kick but not only did the Norwegian fail to beat Fulop he drove the rebound over with the goalkeeper grounded and the goal gaping. Fulham would have been good value for more than their single goal lead, but as it was a rousing Bruce team-talk sent Sunderland out with a lot more positivity.
Darren Bent, largely anonymous in the first half, typified the greater intent within moments of the restart when he nearly found Kenwyne Jones with a low cross. Konchesky almost handed the equaliser on a plate when his weak backpass was seized upon by Jones and the Trinidad and Tobago international should have done better than shoot straight at Schwarzer as he ran in on goal. Bent missed two good chances soon afterwards, fizzing a shot just wide, and then skying a great opportunity into the Putney End after Fulham had failed to clear their lines.
Fulham’s midfield lacked the forward momentum of the first half. Zoltan Gera, introduced as a second half substitute, found space in the box and might have headed his second goal in four days but his effort drifted wide of the near post. The Fulham rearguard stood firm, with Schwarzer collecting a number of late crosses, and the Australian wasn’t forced to make too many saves in Sunderland’s final flurry. The closest the visitors came to a point was a long-range drive from the former Chelsea winger Bolo Zenden – and the roar that greeted Mike Dean’s final whistle was more of relief than joy.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, Greening (Dikgacoi 85), Duff, Dempsey; Zamora, Nevland (Gera 68). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Riise, Murphy, Seol.
GOAL: Zamora (6).
SUNDERLAND (4-4-2): Fulop; Bardsley, Richardson, A. Ferdinand (Nosworthy 30), Turner; Cana, Henderson, Malbranque (Campbell 70), Reid; Jones (Zenden 73), Bent. Subs (not used): Carson, Da Silva, Murphy, Healy.
BOOKED: Richardson, Bardsley.
REFEREE: Mike Dean (Walsall)