Cometh the hour, commenth the man. After a Boxing Day pummelling by West Ham had turned even the most optimistic Fulham fan into Scrooge, all the talk was about just how long Mark Hughes might survive at Craven Cottage. Five months after being appointed, the morning papers suggested Hughes had three games to save his job. No matter. Hughes resisted the temptation to make wholsesale changes, instead recalling Chris Baird and Damien Duff, and nobody would have thought that the Ballymena boy would prove a potent goal threat from left back.
The closest Baird came to a Fulham goal was when one was taken off him during last season’s 3-2 win over the Hammers at the Cottage – and he hadn’t found the net since March 2007 when he was playing for Southampton. All that changed in the Britannia Stadium fog. There appeared little danger when Robert Huth headed a Simon Davies cross out of the penalty, but Baird’s powerful 20-yarder screamed in off the far post after three minutes. If that was barely believable, Baird and Fulham were in dreamland six minutes later, when he crashed in a free kick from the edge of the box as everyone waited for Danny Murphy’s shot. Ever the professional, Baird was diligent in his defensive duties too, keeping Jermaine Pennant quiet, and underlining his versatility.
Having stormed into a two-goal lead, Fulham showed the kind of defensiveness stubborness that has deserted them in recent weeks to record their first away win in 27 attempts. The organisation of Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland stood in sharp contrast to the error-strewn display that had presented West Ham with three precious Christmas points on Boxing Day. Mark Schwarzer made a couple of smart second-half stops, but Stoke took a while to exert any pressure on the Fulham goal. The towering Ryan Shawcross eventually almost halved the arrears just before the break: one header was smothered by Schwarzer and another was cleared off the line by Danny Murphy.
Predictably, Stoke were an entirely different proposition in the second period, with the words of Tony Pulis, who had worn an irritated expression for much of the first half, ringing in their ears. The Potters saw much more of the ball after the break but failed to create many clear-cut chances. The Britannia faithful roared their disapproval after Kevin Friend turned down two hopeful penalty appeals. Penalising Johnson after the ball bounced against his arm from a Kenwyne Jones header would have been harsh and Friend insisted that Matthew Etherington’s shot had struck Hangeland’s chest rather than his hand.
Schwarzer made a brilliant save to deny Huth’s goalbound header and Fulham had to soak up some serious Stoke pressure as the clock ticked down, but Hughes won’t have minded a jot. This was just the kind of hard-earned victory to silence the doubters and earn a bit of breathing space ahead of a tough trip to Tottenham next weekend.
STOKE CITY (4-4-2): Begovic; Wilkinson (Wilson 79), Collins, Shawcross, Huth; Whitehead, Delap, Etherington (Tuncay 69), Pennant; Walters (Fuller 55), Jones. Subs (not used): Sorensen, Higginbotham, Whelan, Gudjohnsen.
FULHAM (4-4-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Baird, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Davies, Duff; Dempsey; A. Johnson. Subs (not used): Stockdale, Halliche, Salcido, Dikgacoi, Greening, Gera, Kamara.
BOOKED: Baird, Dempsey.
GOALS: Baird (4, 10).
REFEREE: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).