The final scoreline made this one look close, but it was back to the dark days of Chris Coleman’s era in a first half horror show that saw Fulham look anything like accomplished European competitors at a snowy Stoke. Long after the football had gone stale under Coleman, his team turned into a particularly wretched performance at Sheffield United, when several ‘star’ names just didn’t look all that interested as the ball was pumped forward and the challenges flew in.
The Britannia Stadium passed the test that most of England’s football grounds failed today. Both Carling Cup ties scheduled for this week were called off, leaving Sky with a significant hole in their programming. They plugged the gap with the Premier League game that beat the weather, although Fulham’s fans were far from thankful for the national platform on which their usually reliable defence malfunctioned. Stoke were always likely to be thirsty for points, having been without a league win or even a goal in their last three fixtures, and there was no danger of Tony Pulis letting things drift.
It looked as though Fulham had weathered the early home pressure and were beginning to play themselves into contention when a Danny Murphy mistake led to a sloppy first goal. The Fulham captain lost the ball high up the pitch and Stoke swept forward, earning a corner. Roy Hodgson won’t enjoy picking the bones out of some dreadful defending. All three goals were preventable, but conceding from set pieces should have been unthinkable given how potent the Potters can be from a dead ball situation. Though Matthew Etherington’s delivery was excellent, Robert Huth was given far too much room to flick the ball on and little Tuncay had the simple of tasks to tuck away a header from almost on the goalline.
The lively little Turk was posing all sorts of problems for the returning Brede Hangeland, who looked all at sea at the heart of the Fulham defence. Ten minutes before the break, when the mantra would have been not to concede another, Paul Konchesky carelessly gave away a free-kick down by the right touchline. That afforded Etherington the opportunity to swing in another set-piece and again he took it. Chaos ensued in the Fulham penalty area and either Abdoulaye Faye or Mamady Sidibe might have lashed home the loose ball at the back post. Faye gleefully dispatched the second goal and Chris Baird’s pained expression, arms outstretched in exasperation at the amount of space the goalscorer had, said it all.
Remarkably it got worse for Fulham. There was a hint of offside about a move that culminated in Dean Whitehead heading the ball into oceans of space across the Fulham box. It was marginal but Mark Clattenburg and his assistant waved ball. Hangeland was culpable again, giving Sidibe enough time to cushion the ball, turn and hit a shot down into the ground that bounced away from a stranded Schwarzer. In truth, Fulham were fortunate to be 3-0 down at the break. Huth and Fuller had chances cleared off the line by Damien Duff in quick succession, while Tuncay limped off with a hamstring strain. Stoke had hassled and harried the Londoners, restricted Murphy almost perfectly, and barely given the visitors a sight of goal. Murphy’s early free kick, struck just wide of goal with Steve Simonsen rooted to the spot, was the best Hodgson’s side had to offer.
Hangeland didn’t appear for the second half, but you felt it was merely academic. There was an understandable relaxing of what was at times a relentless tempo set by Stoke in the first period – with game seemingly well beyond a ragged Fulham side. Hodgson’s team had played in patches, but gradually gained more confidence, borne out of the greater time on the ball they suddenly found.
Their spirit wasn’t broken by the loss of Bobby Zamora, a willing runner once again in an apparently hopeless cause, who was taken off to hospital for an x-ray on a suspected dislocated shoulder. Their first bit of fortune helped them gain a footing in the game. Dempsey, introduced in place of Zamora, found Duff in space some 20 yards from goal and the Irishman’s shot flew past Simonsen having taken a sizeable deflection on the way. Dempsey spurned a glorious chance minutes later, having down well to bring down a searching pass from Murphy, but snatched at his shot, which drifted harmlessly over the bar.
As Fulham pushed forward, they left gaps at the back. Schwarzer knew little about an instinctive save from Fuller, blocking the ball with his arm as he dived away to his right and the shot reared up off a committed Smalling. At 3-1, there was a nervousness around the Britannia that simply hadn’t been present as Fulham folded so abjectly in the first period.
It only intensified after Dempsey produced a moment of magic, rifling a speculative volley past a helpless Simonsen from long range after spotting the goalkeeper off his line. The ball dipped beautifully into the net and your mind went back to the comeback of all comebacks at Manchester City that sparked Fulham’s great escape in 2008. In truth, despite their pressure, Fulham created little in the way of clear cut chances as time ticked away. Erik Nevland’s turn and shot was blocked at source, Smalling was thrown forward as an extra attacker, and there was a suspicion of handball against the otherwise excellent Ryan Shawcross, but Stoke clung on for a precious three points.
STOKE CITY (4-4-2): Simonsen; Huth, Higginbotham, Shawcross, Faye; Whitehead, Delap (Whelan 66), Lawrence (Diao 89), Etherington; Tuncay (Fuller 42), Sidibe. Subs (not used): St. Louis-Hamilton, Collins, Wilkinson, Beattie.
GOALS: Tuncay (12), Faye (34), Sidibe (37).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Kelly, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland (Smalling 45); Baird, Murphy, Duff, Gera; Zamora (Dempsey 54), A. Johnson (Nevland 82). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Kallio, Dikgacoi, Greening.
GOALS: Duff (61), Dempsey (85).
REFEREE: Mark Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).