Poor old Norwich City. Every time they travel to Craven Cottage they seem to relive the same nightmare. They came with genuine hope of pulling off the impossible back in 2005 with a win on the final day of the season the only way they could prolong their all too brief stay in the top flight under Nigel Worthington. Fulham, with lean, mean Brian McBride playing party pooper, dispatched their with such disdain it was almost cruel and unusual. It was much closer in March when Paul Lambert’s side looked well beaten after two early strikes from Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff, but threatened to pinch a point after Aaron Wilbraham’s spirited riposte with thirteen minutes to play.
On another roasting summer’s afternoon alongside the Thames, there was clear water between these two sides by half time. Fulham, with just one defeat in a pre-season campaign that was all about finessing Martin Jol’s revamp of the club’s footballing philosophy, had the game settled by half time. There was no American to torment the Canaries, with McBride limited to cameos for Wembley FC, and Dempsey persona non grata after attempting to force through away from the Cottage in the wake of a truly astonishing twelve months of football.
On the flanks were one evergreen Irishman in Damien Duff, who opened the scoring with a sumptuous finish after sprinting onto a raking crossfield ball from John Arne Riise which Mark Tiereney decided to admire along with the rest of the Riverside Stand, and Fulham’s newest international in Alex Kacaniklic, who underscored the potential he showed as a Melwood junior, with his first senior Premier League goal only three days after coming off the bench for his Swedish debut against Brazil. Fulham’s four summer additions all featured with Mladen Petric grabbing a couple on his Premier League debut, Sascha Riether raiding forward from right back, Hugo Rodallega winning a penalty from the bench and Mahamadou Diarra, who made his short-term switch permanent over the close season, delivering the kind of imperious display that convinced Real Madrid to make him their big-money replacement for Claude Makelele. In these times when we’re asked to make every penny count, the fact that Martin Jol has yet to spent any of Mohamed Al Fayed’s millions and has strengthened considerably since last season’s surge in the final furlong is commendable.
Not that Chris Hughton enjoyed his chastening reintroduction to life as a top flight manager. The Canaries hadn’t looked particularly porous during a tight opening 25 minutes, limiting Fulham’s flowing one-touch football to a few snapshots from distance until the end of the first quarter. Bryan Ruiz, playing in the inside forward role that was Johnny Haynes’ for a decade, buzzed around with a frenetic energy that has only intensified during his first full pre-season in England.
The Costa Rican might have opened the scoring with an impudent chip over John Ruddy after the England keeper had mishit a clearance but the man handed his international opportunity by Roy Hodgson in Bern was equal to efforts from Riise and Ruiz from the edge of the box. He might have felt he should have prevented Duff’s dinked finish from rolling in off the far post having seen the ball spin away off his right foot, but any opprobrium should be saved for the way his back four allowed Riise’s sixty yard diagonal pass afford Duff a sprint through on goal. The thirty-three year-old has now scored in thirteen top flight campaigns since 1997-98, a record only bettered by Robbie Keane, Alan Shearer, Gary Speed, Andrew Cole, Ryan Giggs and his compatriot Robbie Keane.
Petric, who needed no introduction to the Fulham faithful after his fierce free-kick at the Hammersmith End threatened to ruin Fulham’s big night in the Europa League three years ago, continued his clinical conversion rate with a glancing header from a Duff corner three minutes before the break. There was no need for the goal-line technology even Sepp Blatter’s so keen on, assistant referee Charles Breakspear’s alertness swiftly informing Michael Oliver that Jonny Howson’s attempt to clear before his own crossbar took place inside the net.
Hughton was pair enough to pair Steve Morison, who might have moved from Millwall to Craven Cottage rather than Carrow Road in the January window a couple of years, with the isolated Grant Holt for the second period but his back four failed to heed his half-time words about the need to regain their discipline. The Canaries allowed Ruiz and Petric far too much room to operate in 25 yards from goal and were punished courtesy of the former Hamburg forward’s left foot, with Ruddy a spectator after the ball spun off Michael Turner into the opposite corner.
Norwich’s rearguard were left looking even more leaden footed by a move straight off the Motspur Park training board. Another of Moussa Dembele’s mesmorising dribbles created the space for a lovely triangle between Ruiz, Petric and Kacaniklic. The Croatian’s cute backheel gave the Swede the chance to skip away from a horribly square defence and steer a low shot beyond the helpless Ruddy – which was a fitting reward for Kacaniklic’s energetic display. A fifth arrived from the penalty spot after Turner needlessly felled Hugo Rodallega after Norwich tried to play their way out of trouble from the edge of their own box and the spot-kick was comprehensively converted by Steve Sidwell, who took out twelve months of injury frustration on the ball, a few minutes after arriving as a substitute.
Mark Schwarzer was a virtual spectator for much of the contest called upon to make only two saves, although his late stop from Bradley Johnson’s dipping drive was worthy of the clean sheet that took him above David Seaman into second place on the Premier League’s all-time tally behind only David James. Craven Cottage, soon to be expanded to a 30,000 capacity, can’t have seen many better starts to a season than this. Delia Smith and Chris Hughton will be glad it’ll be at least twelve months since they have to return for a league fixture.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Schwarzer; Riether, J.A. Riise, Hughes, Hangeland; Diarra, Dembélé; Duff (Kasami 74), Kacaniklic, Ruiz (Sidwell 81); Petri? (Rodallega 68). Subs (not used): Stockdale, Kelly, Halliche, Baird.
GOALS: Duff (26), Petric (41, 54), Kacaniklic (66), Sidwell (pen 87).
NORWICH CITY (4-5-1): Ruddy, R. Martin, Turner, R. Bennett, Tierney; B. Johnson, Howson, Surman (Morison 45), Pilkington, Snodgrass (E. Bennett 56); Holt (Hoolahan 77). Subs (not used): Rudd, Barnett, Lappin, Vaughan.
REFEREE: Michael Oliver (Northumberland).