Even if Tuesday night’s League Cup win against Sheffield United’s second string in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday night had lifted some of the gloom over Craven Cottage, there was still a fair bit of pressure hanging over Kit Symons this afternoon. A defeat at Rotherham could have dragged his Fulham side to the foot of the fledgling Championship table and intensified the uncertainty over his future, but a first league win of the new season saw the Londoners climbing up towards mid-table and allowed the Fulham manager to feel vindicated by a couple of crucial decisions.
His toughest pre-match headache might have been over whether to pick Lasse Vigen Christensen, one of the few undoubted bright spots of a dismal last year, or Ryan Tunnicliffe, who had starred in his first appearance of the campaign against Sheffield United, in midfield. Christensen has yet to hit the heights of last season and Symons plumped for the former Manchester United youth team skipper. He was rewarded with a performance of real quality, which supplied the bite Fulham’s midfield has been missing in the early weeks of the campaign. The move to reprise James Husband’s loan spell from Middlesbrough paid immediate dividends too, with the left-back offering genuine width and an attacking outlet that won a vital first-half penalty.
Fulham have far too often been cagey in the early stages this season, but not at the New York Stadium. Almost acknowledging the pivotal nature of this fixture at an admittedly early stage in the calendar, the visitors were swiftly into their stride. Tunnicliffe offered an early indication of their intentions when he dragged a shot wide after exchanging passes with Cairney after just three minutes. Fulham were ahead only four minutes later. Ross McCormack found the overlapping Jazz Richards down the right and, although Moussa Dembele couldn’t propel the cross past Adam Collin with his hand, the returning Ben Pringle was on hand to haunt his former club, forcing home the simplest of finishes from close range.
The Whites should have been two goals to the good only moments later following a quick counter-attack but McCormack somehow managed to shoot straight at Collin after the impressive Dembele had burst clear and cut the ball back invitingly for his strike partner. Rotherham’s reprieve proved merely temporary. Husband was chopped down in the penalty area by a wild challenge from Greg Halford – there could be no complaints about the award – and McCormack stepped up to emphatically convert the spot-kick and double Fulham’s lead.
Steve Evans was already simmering on the touchline and his mood would not have improved when Rotherham saw a potential lifeline snuffed out by the assistant referee’s flag. Irish international Paul Green displayed all the right predatory instincts to touch an overhead kick from Jonson Clarke-Harris beyond Andy Lonergan, but he had strayed offside. The home fans were far from happy when referee Geoff Eltringham waved away loud appeals for a penalty after Clarke-Harris went down under a challenge from Pringle, but in truth Rotherham were fortunate to be only two goals adrift at the break after both Dembele and Tunnicliffe came close to extending the Fulham lead late in the first half.
Evans made a double change at the break – bringing on Aidy White and Grant Ward – and was soon forced into a third when Emmanuel Ledesma was sent on after a nasty injury to full-back Frazer Richardson. The Millers penned Fulham back into their own half, with two of the substitutes combining to great effect. Ward’s deep cross was headed back across the area by Ward and Lewis Buxton couldn’t make the telling connection. The home side’s sense of adventure was rewarded when Jazz Richards clumsily caught the rampaging Green inside the box, but there was only frustration when Lonergan flung himself to his right and pushed away Matt Derbyshire’s penalty.
Fulham were now certainly on the back foot but almost grabbed a third through a moment of magic from McCormack, who rattled the crossbar with an impudent effort from 25 yards, but after a composed passing move that must have spanned more than twenty passes, Symons’ side shot themselves in the foot. Dan Burn, who repelled Rotherham’s aerial attacks assuredly throughout, was dispossessed as he sought to bring the ball down high up the pitch and Green fed Clarke-Harris, who gave Lonergan little chance with a delicious curler from 20 yards out.
The visitors sought to shut up shop as Rotherham pressed for an equaliser, switching to a five-man midfield as McCormack was replaced by Christensen, and yet still posed a significant threat on the break. Husband’s rasping drive from the left was pushed away by Collin and, as seven agonising minutes of stoppage time ticked by, substitute Cauley Woodrow settled the contest. Tunnicliffe fed the marauding Jamie O’Hara, who tricked his towards the by-line with a piece of mesmerising skill that beat a couple of defenders, and his low cross was clinically swept home by Woodrow.
ROTHERHAM UNITED (4-4-2): Collin; Richardson (Ledesma 54), Buxton, Halford, Collins; Maguire (White 45), Green, Smallwood, Newell (G. Ward 45); Clarke-Harris, Derbyshire. Subs (not used): Roos, Rawson, Thorpe, D. Ward.
GOAL: Clarke-Harris (72).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Lonergan; Richards, Husband, Burn, Ream; O’Hara, Tunnicliffe, Pringle (Kacaniklic 90), Cairney; McCormack (Christensen 82), Dembele (Woodrow 76). Subs (not used): Lewis, Voser, Hutchinson, Mattila.
BOOKED: McCormack, Christensen.
GOALS: Pringle (7), McCormack (pen 16), Woodrow (90).
REFEREE: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).