Accrington Stanley might not be a name known around the world, but the club has a place in the affections of the English football lover. It’s about more than just milk. Mention of the name might remind those who have already spent a lifetime going to games that Accrington were one of the first sides to bite the dust at a time when football clubs seeking into the abyss was a real shock. They have sailed close to the wind on several ocassions since they were reformed, including earlier this season, but there’s a cosy, community feel about the Crown Ground club.
John Coleman, the man who has helped steer Stanley back into the Football League and ensured a steady improved season-by-season in League Two, was insistent that his team would give Fulham, not that long ago a lower-league romantic relic themselves, a game. After all, they showed plenty of confidence in disposing of higher opposition in Gillingham on Tuesday and had only lost one home league game all season. A spellbinding first half showed that Coleman’s confidence certainly wasn’t misplaced.
Accrington played the better football and looked the hungrier side on a bumpy pitch. The locals, spoilt for choice Stanley probably sitting roughly between Fulham’s top flight rivals Burnley and Blackburn in geographical terms, were encouraged by the home side’s determination to go at their illustrious opponents. David Lloyd was joined by Steven Gerrard, who came to watch some of his mates, in the crowd and both would have enjoyed seeing the impressive Michael Symes and Sean McColville work Mark Schwarzer in the early stages.
Accrington were moving the ball with greater confidence and a good deal of fluidity. The movment of Symes and John Miles, once a colleague of Gerrard in the Liverpool youth team, was making Brede Hangeland unusually error-prone, though the Norwegian was far from the only one in a white shirt below par. Stanley’s brightest performer was the lively Jimmy Ryan, who looked composed on the ball and threatening in the final third.
It was, therefore, exceptionally harsh that Fulham took the lead from their first attack. Damien Duff’s corner was flicked goalwards by Zoltan Gera at the near post and Erik Nevland pounced to push the ball over the line. If that was expected to produce an avalanche of goals for the Premier League side, plucky Stanley hadn’t read the script. They were level within four minutes, although they profited greatly from some shocking Fulham defending. Schwarzer spilled a deflected shot as he strove to prevent a corner and was horribly out of position. Hangeland would have expected to deal with Sean McColville’s follow-up but only diverted it dangerously across the six-yard box leaving Symes with a simple tap-in.
The celebrations were wild and they was belief oozing out of the red shirts. The excellent Bobby Grant drew another save from Schwarzer before the game-changing moment arrived shortly before half-time. Darran Kempson, already booked, should have more sense than to plough through the back of Zoltan Gera. Even Stuart Attwell had no alternative but to produce a second yellow card.
Coleman’s reorganisation saw Grant moved to left back, but didn’t quell his enthusiasm. Symes wriggled away from a couple of challenges and floated a crossfield pass to the corner of the box, where Grant arrived to volley majestically just wide of the far post with Schwarzer a spectator. It would have been a stunning goal and was indicative of Stanley’s spirit.
Fulham were beginning to have more joy against the ten men. Duff became increasingly effective, dribbling into dangerous positions, and one of the Republic of Ireland winger’s mazy runs eventually edged Fulham in front again. Stanley were caught napping by a quick free-kick and a clever flick from Nevland released Duff, who lashed in the second. Dean Bouzanis might feel he could have done better having got a hand to the shot, but such criticism is probably harsh on the Liverpool loanee.
The momentum had swung in favour of Roy Hodgson’s side by now. David Elm, introduced to good effect when the came was still deadlocked, worked some space for Nevland only for Bouzanis to turn his shot over the crossbar. A clinical late Fulham counter attack distorted the scoreline when Bjorn Helge Riise’s cross was effortlessly guided home by Gera. Stanley kept fighting to the end but, despite the result, they had done themselves proud.
ACCRINGTON STANLEY (4-4-2): Bouzanis; Lees, Kempson, Winnard, Edwards; Miles, McColville (Kee 65), Ryan, Procter; Grant, Symes. Subs (not used): Dunbavin, Joyce, Turner, Mullin, P. Murphy, G. King.
SENT OFF: Kempson (44).
GOAL: Symes (25).
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, Kallio (Elm 58), Hughes, Hangeland; Baird, D. Murphy, Riise, Duff (Dikgacoi 69); Gera (Davies 85); Nevland. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Greening, Kamara.
BOOKED: Baird, Gera.
GOAL: Nevland (21), Duff (61), Gera (81).
REFEREE: Stuart Attwell (Warwickshire).