It was a late decision to make a mad dash up to Bolton. I had a ticket but was struggling to find a way up there, with train prices getting astronomical on the eve of the match, and my first choice of chaffeur had let me down. Fortunately (or foolishly on her part), my friend Laura stepped into the breach. She fancied a day out and was keen to do a bit of shopping. Spending a hour or so in a shopping centre seemed like the smallest of sacrifices considering that Laura would be doing the driving and had never been to football before. By the end, she was singing Jonathan Greening’s name with gusto.
This wasn’t a particularly pretty point and hopes of repeating last season’s awesome win at the Reebok were feint. Fulham’s injury crisis deepened even before kick off. Bobby Zamora was ruled out so Roy Hodgson went with a new Nordic front two in Erik Nevland and David Elm. Nevland’s not really renowned for storming performances from the start and he had a largely frustrating afternoon, but Elm looks to be far better than some give him credit for. He’s got a terrific first touch and a smart footballing brain. This could be another handy Hodgson pick up.
I’m sure a few people will moan that we weren’t particularly adventurous away from home again. But, season after season, Fulham have come to places like Bolton trying to play nice easy-on-the eye football and been bullied out of it. This was a day for scrapping – and it was nice to see the boys battle for everything. Jonathan Greening was gritty again and Kagisho Dikgacoi looked impressive before he was forced off with another injury. At least, the returning Dickson Etuhu could take his place. There’s no denying Bolton had the better of the contest and Owen Coyle demonstrated a desire to win the game with three bold substitutions which might have been rewarded late on had Mark Clattenburg not spotted a push as Kevin Davies headed in from a free-kick.
The first half was a desperately dreary affair notable only for a few half chances. Elm had the first, stretching in an attempt to steer a corner home at the back post, but couldn’t kept his effort down. Kevin Davies, easily Bolton’s best performer on his 500th league appearance, offered an early warning with a low shot that was bravely blocked by Aaron Hughes, then the home skipper’s namesake Mark found Tamir Cohen, who horribly miscued in front of goal.
Davies couldn’t react quickly enough to a deflected cross-cum-shot from Fabrice Muamba but was terribly unfortunate not to send Wanderers in with a half-time lead. His shot from Kevin’s flick on was heading for the corner until Schwarzer produced a quite stunning save. In response, all Fulham offered in the way of a goal threat was a long-ranger from Dikgacoi that drifted wide.
The second period was meandering along pleasantly enough until Coyle summoned his second substitute from the bench. Johann Elmander had already been brought on to add to Bolton’s attacking threat and it was something of surprise that Coyle turned to Vladimir Weiss instead of his fellow loanee Jack Wilshire. The Slovakian preceded to showcase his precocious talents and threaten to end Fulham’s stubborn resistance.
A burst down the wing brought a corner almost immediately and the Manchester City midfielder looked ominously dangerous every time he had the ball. Chris Baird had enjoyed a tidy return to right back, the position that plagued him under Lawrie Sanchez, but Fulham looked more than a little ruffled by the end. Nevland exited gingerly and whilst Stefano Okaka looked lively all the action was taking place at the other end.
Bolton produced a storming finale in which Muamba drove wide and then, in a frenzied last five minutes, the Fulham goal led a charmed life. Kevin Davies looked to have made the winner with a lovely ball that set Elmander free only for the Swede to somehow roll his finish wide. Schwarzer, who had earlier made a fine point blank save to deny Lee, was finally beaten by Davies from the Korean’s set play only for Clattenburg to intervene.
This display was in many ways was the hallmark of Hodgson’s Fulham. Utterly hopeless away from home when he took over, we are now capable of grinding out points. It isn’t attractive, but it’s mighty effective – and puts us on course to be comfortable enough to treat the Cup and Europe with the relish they deserve.
BOLTON WANDERERS (4-5-1): Jaaskelainen; Ricketts, Robinson, O’Brien (Basham 63), Knight; Muamba, Cohen, Lee, M. Davies (Elmander 57), Taylor (Weiss 71); K. Davies. Subs (not used): Al-Habsi, Samuel, Gardner, Wilshere.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Baird, Shorey, Hughes, Hangeland; Dikgacoi (Etuhu 55), Murphy, Duff, Greening; Elm (Okaka 75), Nevland (Smalling 75). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Stoor, Riise.
REFEREE: Mark Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).