Hugo Rodallega must like Birmingham. Six months ago, on a rare first team appearance he breathed new life into Fulham’s ultimately doomed relegation battle with a late winner at Villa Park. This afternoon, on the other side of the second city, his cool close range finish from the tightest of angles completed a spirited comeback against Birmingham City, sealing Fulham’s first league win in 168 days and lifting the Londoners off the foot of the table. This gutsy display – following on from Tuesday’s Capital One Cup win over Doncaster Rovers – might also just strengthen caretaker Kit Symons’ claims to take over from Felix Magath on a permanent basis.
Certainly, Symons should receive plenty of plaudits for Fulham’s much improved second half performance at St. Andrew’s. Lifeless and lacking both bite and creativity in the first half, the visitors were much more tigerish after the break, with half-time substitute Kostas Stafylidis typifying the extra vitality in his own whole-hearted performance. Symons’ gamble to replace the talented Bryan Ruiz with a third striker in the form of England under-21 international, Cauley Woodrow, in search of a winner was also pivotal and richly rewarded with Rodallega’s clever finish.
For a while, it looked as if Birmingham’s wretched home run of just one league win in their last 22 matches might be coming to an end. The Blues had created the better chances in a first half that was short on quality with Welsh international David Cotterill the most likely source of a goal. His two dangerous crosses provided chances that were passed up by Clayton Donaldson and Jonathan Grounds, although he had been guilty of missing the best opportunity, dragging a shot wide of the far post from ten yards after Fulham were sliced open far too easily.
If Symons, who assists his former Fulham team-mate Chris Coleman as Wales manager, had warned his side about Cotterill’s ability, they failed to heed his words. His first goal since a summer move from Doncaster arrived nine minutes before the break in majestic fashion, when he was afforded the time and space to cut in from the left and curl a splendid effort into the top corner beyond the helpless Marcus Bettinelli. Fulham, for whom Rodallega spurned the best chance when he miscued an acrobatic volley from seven yards out, should have been further behind before the half-time whistle but for a smart reaction save from Bettinelli when Grounds broke clear in added time.
The visitors were indebted to Bettinelli, who saved a penalty to ensure progress past Doncaster in the Capital One Cup in midweek, again just before the hour when a swift Birmingham break saw Demerai Gray send Brek Shea through on goal with a perfectly weighted pass, but the Stoke City loanee’s fierce shot was superbly parried by Bettinelli at full-stretch. That save proved crucial as Fulham broke from the Birmingham corner with Rodallega’s pace and persistence winning the away side a corner of their own. The ball broke to Nikolay Bodurov from Ross McCormack’s flag-kick and, although the Bulgarian’s speculative shot from fully thirty yards was weak, it eventually found its way to Tim Hoogland, whose own scuffed effort beat Darren Randolph after a deflection off David Edgar.
The scrappy nature of the goal was immaterial – it galvanised Symons’ side. They should have taken the lead just four minutes later but, after being found by Rodallega, McCormack placed his shot too close to Randolph and the keeper saved with his feet. The momentum was with Fulham now and they grabbed a second in the 71st minute. A horrible mistake from Darren Spector diverted McCormack’s pass away from Randolph and into the path of Rodallega, who toed it away from the goalkeeper and calmly hooked the loose ball into the net from an acute angle – sparking delirious celebrations in front of more than 900 visiting fans.
Birmingham’s confidence had deserted them and Fulham, without a win in the league since a narrow home victory over Norwich last April also secured by Rodallega, might have made a nervy last quarter of an hour far more comfortable had McCormack finished another presentable chance put on a plate for him by Rodallega. The Scottish striker snatched at his finish and Randolph was again able to save, but Fulham clung on for a crucial victory.
BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-2-3-1): Randolph; Spector, Grounds, Robinson, Edgar; Reilly, Davis; Duffy (Shea 45), Gray (Thomas 72), Donaldson; Cotterill. Subs (not used): Doyle, Gleeson, Hall, Johnstone.
GOAL: Cotterill (38).
FULHAM (4-1-2-1-2): Bettinelli; Hoogland, Amorebieta, Bodurov, Burn; Parker; Hyndman (Stafylidis 45), Christensen; Ruiz (Woodrow 66); McCormack, Rodallega. Subs (not used): Kiraly, Kavanagh, G. Williams, Smith.
GOALS: Hoogland (63), Rodallega (71).
REFEREE: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire).