It’s hard to truly encapsulate Scott Parker’s impact on this Fulham side. Marooned in the relegation zone after one stirring comeback against Manchester City wasn’t enough, it appeared as though things wouldn’t get much better at Carrow Road. Rene Meulensteen’s men, without Maarten Stekelenburg and Dimitar Berbatov due to injury, trailed to a speculative strike from Gary Hooper, which looped off the unfortunate Aaron Hughes and over a stranded David Stockdale. The Fulham of a few weeks ago, so hapless at West Ham in the game that eventually cost Martin Jol his job, might not have rolled over – but this side, typified by the tigerish Parker at the heart of an industrious midfield, instead fought back to claim a crucial win.
Some surprise was expressed at Fulham’s willingness to hand 32 year-old Parker a three year contract in August. But here, Parker was the difference between two sides who look likely to spend a few more nervous months looking over their shoulders at the wrong end of the table. He completely neutralised Leroy Fer in the Norwich midfield, with the Dutchman reduced to a violent kick out at his opposite number for which he was lucky not to be dismissed, and, with three minutes remaining, produced the kind of moment upon which seasons turn. Sascha Riether’s right-wing cross was only half cleared and Parker, rushing onto the loose ball more than twenty yards, hit a shot of such power that it flew past the startled John Ruddy.
Fulham’s wild celebrations said all you needed to know about the significance of Parker’s sublime strike. The Cottagers are more used to conceding late goals than scoring them – and they held firm throughout four minutes of stoppage time. That Meulensteen’s side recovered at all from the trauma of falling behind following Norwich’s lively start is a credit to the novice manager’s ability to instill belief and confidence in a side that had one just one of their last nine games. Meulensteen opted to restore the promising Pajtim Kasami to the starting line-up in place of Giorgos Karagounis and it proved an inspired decision.
A shaky Fulham defence looked far from convincing against Hooper, who might have had a second had he been more clinical in punishing a mix-up between David Stockdale and Aaron Hughes, and the raw pace of Nathan Redmond, but the visitors – encouraged by Parker’s grit and Kasami’s guile gradually gained a foothold in the midfield battle. Damien Duff should have done better than divert his dangerous wide on the stretch from close range, before Parker had a goal ruled out for handball after he charged down Ruddy’s rushed clearance. The equaliser arrived shortly after the half-hour mark. Kasami curled a clever free-kick through the remnants of a Norwich wall that had already broken having bought an elaborate dummy from Steve Sidwell.
This was far more open than the archetypal relegation six-pointer but both teams’ profligacy shone through as the game swung from end-to-end. Sascha Riether cleared a Fer header off the line, but Fulham had the clearer openings in the second period. Adel Taraabt, who reprised his role as a loan striker from Saturday, almost produced a sensational first-time finish when he met Fernando Amorebieta’s lofted through ball on the volley ahead of Michael Turner, but Ruddy was in the right place to foil the mercurial Moroccan.
Introducing the fit-again Hugo Rodallega in place of Duff was a measure of Meulensteen’s desire to take all three points and the Colombian thought he had bundled Fulham in front at the far post from a corner, but the goal-line technology indicated that otherwise. Ashkan Dejagah arrived to offer energy down the right and a sweeping move that saw the Iranian link up with Alex Kacaniklic almost saw Steve Sidwell provide the finishing touch, but Sebastian Bassong arrived in the nick of time to make a vital block. Fulham were not to be denied, though, and Parker’s late strike sparked celebrations from one of his former managers, with Alan Curbishley punching the air alongside Alistair Mackintosh just a day after agreeing to become the new technical director at Craven Cottage.
NORWICH CITY (4-4-2): Ruddy; Whittaker, Olsson, Turner, Bassong; Fer, Johnson, Snodgrass (Hoolahan 72), Redmond; Elmander (van Wolfswinkel 62), Hooper. Subs (not used): Bunn, Martin, R. Bennett, Murphy, Becchio.
BOOKED: Turner, Fer, Redmond.
GOAL: Hooper (13).
FULHAM (4-3-3): Stockdale; Riether, Richardson, Hughes, Amorebieta; Parker, Sidwell, Kasami; Duff (Rodallega 58), Kacaniklic (Riise 90), Taraabt (Dejagah 72). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Boateng, Ruiz, Bent.
GOALS: Kasami (33), Parker (87).
REFEREE: Jon Moss (Tyne and Wear).