After the final whistle, Craven Cottage emptied remarkably quickly. All but the vast majority of the Putney End, where the visiting supporters staged their own summer party. Brighton moved onto six points from two games and, having played with the air of an upwardly mobile side for most of a first half that saw them utterly dominate their hosts, few could argue with their jubilation. That the victory was secured in stoppage time courtesy of a highly debatable penalty as Shaun Hutchinson’s desperate lunge was clear outside the penalty area was merely a minor quibble because so many of the frailties that undermined Fulham’s first season in the Championship were all too present again.
There was the glacially slow start. Brighton looked well-drilled, well organised and attacked with a purpose. Chris Hughton sent his side out to push Fulham onto the back foot from the off with pace in wide positions, an enterprising passing game and a plan to press high up the pitch. It jolted any rhythm that the home side might have sought to establish. There was no Bobby Zamora to line the line – Brighton’s returning hero, who made such a mark in south west London during that unforgettable European run, will play for the Seagulls’ under-21 side on Monday night in a bid to prove his fitness, but that mattered little. Hughton’s other forwards just seemed to treat this as an audition where they might prove their worth.
All the football came from Albion. Tomer Hemed grazed the crossbar with a rising drive from twenty yards after a crisp passing move and the meandering Beram Kayal forced a fine save from Marcus Bettinelli, who returned in goal having signed a new four-year contract with Fulham prior to the kick off. Fulham spluttered in response, but it was little surprise when the visitors opened the scoring. The ease with which Brighton were able to work space for Sam Baldock in the box must have infuriated Symons and underlined the need for defensive reinforcements. Uwe Hunemeier, reckoned to a replacement for Lewis Dunk who was dropped to the bench here, shook off the attentions of Matt Smith and found the marauding Bruno down the right. His low cross dissected the Fulham defence and Baldock, having strolled across the inexplicably statesque Nikolay Bodurov, drove a finish across Bettinelli and into the far corner.
It was no less than Brighton deserved and, although Fulham worked up some pressure prior to the interval, Hughton would have felt his side were hugely unfortunate to go in level. That they did was all down to Tom Cairney, who was Fulham’s liveliest outlet all afternoon. The Scottish midfielder played a clever one-two with Lasse Vigen Christensen down the right flank and then, with little appearing on, curled home a majestic finish with his left foot from the edge of the box, leaving David Stockdale grasping at air. It was a sublime way to score a first goal for your new club.
If that was unjust, Fulham taking the lead in first half injury-stoppage would have been downright criminal, but Smith will probably feel he should have done better than head Jamie O’Hara’s deep free-kick against the post. The hosts drew inspiration from how close they had come and proceeded to dominate the second period. First, Stockdale – appearing against his old club, of course – did superbly to palm a Smith half-volley over the bar after Brighton had failed to clear a free-kick. Then, from the resulting corner, Bodurov headed narrowly wide having stolen in unnoticed. A heartstopping moment for the Bulgarian defender followed, this time in his own box – when he somehow contrived to glance a clearing header against the outside of his own post.
Smith spurned two more glorious chances – sending a header straight at Stockdale from barely six yards out when he had been picked out perfectly by Jazz Richards and then also heading wide – before being replaced by Moussa Dembele. The Frenchman hinted at providing a real threat in behind the Brighton back four, but Fulham failed to find the necessary service to trouble an Albion defence that had already withstood a fierce bombardment. The ‘sucker punch,’ as Symons described it, came at the other end when Hutchinson made the rash decision to dive in and chop down Kazenga Lua Lua as he sped towards goal. The contact was a yard outside the box, but referee Neil Swarbrick pointed to the spot and Hemed clinched the points by sending Bettinelli the wrong way.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Bettinelli; Richards, Voser, Hutchinson, Bodurov; O’Hara, Christensen, Cairney, Pringle (Kacaniklic 63); McCormack, Smith (Dembele 83). Subs (not used): Lonergan, Burn, Matilla, Tunnicliffe, Woodrow.
BOOKED: Bodurov, Hutchinson.
GOAL: Cairney (43).
BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION (4-4-2): Stockdale; Bruno, Bong, Hunemeier, Greer; Stephens (Forster-Caskey 86), Kayal, March (Rosenior 84), Lua Lua; Hemed, Baldock (Ince 79). Subs (not used): Maenpaa, Dunk, Calderon, O’Grady.
BOOKED: Lua Lua, Hemed.
GOALS: Baldock (30), Hemed (pen 90+4).
REFEREE: Neil Swarbrick (Preston).