Fulham are consistently inconsistent. Three successive wins had the west Londoners looking up the table and imagining another top eight finish, but a run of three straight reverses suggested mid-table mediocrity was a more realistic outcome after the last whistle sounds in May. This afternoon’s victory over Norwich City, who have taken to Premier League life in similar fashion to Swansea, who passed their way around Martin Jol’s side with embarrassing ease at Craven Cottage a week ago, snapped Fulham out of their early spring malaise and owed much to an unusually bright start.
Jol’s team have struggled out of the starting blocks far too often for his liking this campaign – often relying on a half-time tongue lashing from the manager to prompt a turnaround. Not so against a Norwich side who sat above them at the start of play, a testimony to just how impressive Paul Lambert’s stewardship of his first top-flight campaign has been. It took just 107 seconds for the Whites to go in front when Dempsey’s predatory instincts got him to the rebound once Bryan Ruiz’s clever curler had come back off John Ruddy before any Norwich defenders, allowing the Texan the simplest of finishes for his nineteenth goal of the campaign.
Fulham’s industry and endeavour was obvious from the off with the tempo lifted by the tonic of an early goal. Such was their dominance that by the time Damien Duff smartly swept in a second to finish a flowing counter-attack eleven minutes later, Norwich’s travelling supporters would have been fearing a repeat of their last visit to the Cottage, when their hopes of avoiding relegation on the final day of the season were cruelly extinguished by six Fulham goals without reply. The quality of Fulham’s football suggested they were certainly capable of building on their two-goal start with Duff’s lofted finish over a stranded Ruddy coming after five fine passes culminated in Dempsey’s threaded through ball releasing the Irish winger into the inside right channel.
Fulham’s fluency wasn’t even disturbed by the early departure of Pavel Pogrebnyak ten minutes before the interval, when the Russian was forced from the field by the weight of a mistimed challenge from Elliot Ward. Indeed, the arrival of Alex Kacaniklic, recalled this week from an impressive loan spell at Watford, actually gave Fulham potency down both flanks and allowed Dempsey to drift into dangerous positions as a false nine. The American’s strength saw him shield the ball successfully from his marker inside the box before drilling a shot against the far post, with Moussa Dembele’s follow-up only blocked by the diving Ryan Bennett.
The Canaries did finally pose a threat to the Fulham goal in the latter stages of the first half and Lambert would have been disappointed with his side’s finishing right before the break. Ward spurned a good opportunity to profit from Fulham’s failure to clear a clearance, skewing a shot wide, while Jonny Howson was even more culpable when he sent a shot wastefully wide after creeping into acres of space inside the penalty area.
Lambert’s decision to switch to a 3-5-2 formation after the break afforded the lively Kacaniklic oceans of room down the left flank and the 20 year-old Swede, who had been highly rated at Melwood when he was on Liverpool’s books, was desperately unlucky not to mark his debut with a terrific goal early in the second half. Cutting inside onto his right foot, Kacaniklic swivelled and almost chipped Ruddy from the edge of the box – only for the Norwich keeper to turn his audacious effort onto the crossbar.
With both sides chasing the pivotal third goal, the second half grew into an end-to-end encounter and Fulham were first to get opportunities to kill off their visitors. Right back Stephen Kelly got forward to great effect throughout and was unfortunate not to score when an ambitious run was finally thwarted by a superb saving tackle from Bennett. Kacaniklic tried again from just outside the box – shooting just wide – before Aaron Hughes sent a decent chance over from a corner and Ruddy did well to fist away from a venomous drive from an advanced John Arne Riise.
Just as Fulham looked good value for a morale-boosting win, they switched off in the final quarter of the game. It has been the story of this transitional season and cost the Whites a rare away win at Carrow Road last year, when Simeon Jackson snatched an injury-time equaliser. Substitute Aaron Wilbraham had already served notice of his intent when he shot wide from a good position, before the former Stockport winger unexpectedly scored his first top flight goal – meaning he has netted in all four divisions of English football – when his speculative shot spun off Hughes and over Mark Schwarzer. In a nervy last fifteen minutes, Fulham almost coughed up another two points but managed to absorb fraught Canaries’ pressure.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Kelly, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Murphy (Diarra 71), Dembele; Dempsey, Duff, Ruiz (Etuhu 82); Pogrebnyak (Kacaniklic 35). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Senderos, Frei, Trotta.
GOALS: Dempsey (2), Duff (13).
NORWICH CITY (4-5-1): Ruddy; R. Martin, R. Bennett, Whitbread (Jackson 45), Ward; Surman, Hoolahan, Fox (E. Bennett 84), Howson, Naughton; Morison (Wilbraham 68). Subs (not used): Steer, Drury, Johnson, Crofts.
BOOKED: Ward, Fox.
GOAL: Wilbraham (75).
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor (Manchester).