Walking to the ground today with one of my friends, we both marvelled at just how meaningless an end-of-season derby with West Ham had become. When I first started going to Craven Cottage, matches against the ‘big’ London clubs were the things you dreamed of, or hoped for on the rare ocassions Fulham made it through the first couple of rounds of the Cup. This year, especially with a Europa League final to look forward too, lazy Sunday afternoons were spent blooding players who hadn’t been getting a regular game.
The post-Hamburg hangover, the inevitable changes and West Ham’s flawless recent record at the Cottage were all cited as irrefutable reasons why we wouldn’t come away with a win this afternoon. Of course, this season should have taught us not to doubt Roy Hodgson. One moment during the second half showed just how much he wanted to win. Chris Baird had just scored his first goal for the club, though the Dubious Goals Panel may still reassign it to Carlton Cole after that hefty deflection, and I spotted Roy rather enraged making extravagant gestures two yards in from the Riverside touchline.
That desire transmitted itself to the players, even if only four members of the victorious side from Thursday survived. Clint Dempsey would probably consider himself unlucky not to be an automatic selection for the Europa League campaign, especially after that deft chip against Juventus. The American just to prove it wasn’t a fluke landed a similar effort on the top of Robert Green’s crossbar having spun into a bit of space 25 yards from goal.
The game was full of pretty passing but had little in the way of sparks in the final third. Mark Schwarzer made two sharp saves from Mark Noble and Manuel De Costa and the Hammers might have felt disappointed to head in at half time a goal down. Fulham’s opener arrived seconds before the break. Dempsey cushioned a high ball for Simon Davies and scampered forward in search of a return ball. There was still plenty to do when the Welshman sent the ball his way but the American makes even audacious finishes look easy. From fifteen yards, Green stood little chance.
With no Bobby Zamora to cast a glance over, Fabio Capello’s scouting report might have focussed on Carlton Cole. West Ham’s striker did little in front of goal for the first hour: indeed his most telling contribution was to divert Baird’s snapshot beyond Green to double Fulham’s lead. To his credit, the former Chelsea forward did make amends almost immediately: capping a clever run to meet Noble’s near-post free-kick with a glancing header to halve the Hammers’ arrears.
Cole does, however, strike you as one of those infuriating front players. He’s capable of banging them in with great regularity but can be frustrating. The large and vocal travelling supporters would have been forgiven for expecting better than a rather unthreatening shot straight at Schwarzer after he had brushed aside Chris Smalling to make some space twenty yards out.
Gianfranco Zola’s side were made to pay for Cole’s lack of composure in front of goal. The kind of comedy capers that had pushed the Hammers so close to the drop zone this season returned. Time and again they failed to repel a Fulham attack and Jonathan Spector then gifted the ball to Erik Nevland just as the danger seemed to have passed. Nevland linked cleverly with his compatriot Bjorn-Helge Riise and substitute Stefano Okaka was on hand to sweep the simplest of finishes in from three yards at the far post.
Guillermo Franco’s stoppage-time riposte – steering in a cross from Scott Parker – was almost irrelevant as the Cottage crowd sung the praises of Hodgson. This victory, Fulham’s first over the Hammers in the league since 1966, took the Whites back into the top half: a position they’ll hope to cement against Stoke on Wednesday night.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Baird, Smalling; Dikgacoi, Greening, Riise, Davies (Okaka 70); Dempsey (Elm 85), Nevland. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Kelly, Shorey, Etuhu, Gera.
GOALS: Dempsey (45), Baird (58), Okaka (79).
WEST HAM UNITED (4-4-2): Green; Faubert (Diamanti 61), Spector, Upson, Da Costa; Parker, Kovac, Behrami (Stanislas 82), Noble; C. Cole, Ilan (Franco 61). Subs (not used): Kurucz, Daprela, Gabbidon, Boa Morte.
GOALS: C. Cole (61), Franco (90).
REFEREE: Andre Marriner (Birmingham).