The rationale for sacking Kit Symons after a poor run of the results was that Championship play-off positions were drifting out of reach. Seven weeks later, after no win in nine games and four points from a possible 27, the prospect of mid-table mediocrity appears positively halcyon compared to the very real possibility of a relegation battle. Without a full-time successor to Symons and the impending restriction of a January transfer embargo, Fulham’s short-term future appears worryingly precarious.
The visitors actually played pretty well at the IPro Stadium this afternoon. They created enough chances to trouble the side that now sit top of the Championship, befitting their own status as the league’s top scorers, and restricted Derby County to a single shot on target. But a timidity in front of goal coupled with the customary lack of defensive cohesion led to another ultimately frustrating afternoon, which sets up what must be billed as a relegation six-pointer against Rotherham United at Craven Cottage on Tuesday night.
Paul Clement’s side clinched their seventh win in eight home games thanks to a freak own goal from American youngster Emerson Hyndman and a cool, late finish by Jacob Butterfield that finally put the contest beyond Fulham. The visitors’ senior head coach, Stuart Gray, who confirmed afterwards that he would be in charge for the visit of Rotherham as the uncertainty over Symons’ replacement continues, was left frustrated by Fulham’s failings in both boxes that scuppered any chance of his side coming away with a point their application might have merited.
That Derby weren’t well in front before Johnny Russell’s cross ricocheted off both Tim Ream and Hyndman on its way beyond a wrong-footed Andy Lonergan owed as much to the hosts’ prolifigacy in front of goal as it did Fulham’s dogged efforts to keep them out. Both Jason Shackell and Martin spurned glorious chances to head the Rams ahead from set plays and Derby’s most dangerous player, Tom Ince, also proved to be their most wasteful. The former Blackpool and Liverpool winger twice screwed shots horribly wide and then, when a rebound fortuitously fell at his feet in the penalty, contrived to chip both Lonergan and the crossbar when one-on-one at close range.
Fulham fashioned good openings of their own too. Alex Kacaniklic might have twice given them the lead: first, on six minutes, when he drew a smart stop from Lee Grant after being released by Ross McCormack, and, later, when he was denied by a fine save from the Derby keeper after cutting inside and shooting towards the top corner from 25 yards. Moussa Dembele’s speculative snapshot also drifted agonisningly wide with the aid of a deflected that had completely bamboozled Grant.
Derby were stronger, faster and more decisive in possession, however, and their pressure told seven minutes into the second period. Russell jinked away from a couple of would-be tacklers but his cross appeared tame before it struck Ream and rebounded into the Fulham net off the unfortunate Hyndman. To their credit, Fulham rallied strongly and might have equalised. Dembele drilled a shot straight at Grant after good hold-up play from substitute Matt Smith, the Derby keeper did well to push away a powerful drive from Luke Garbutt and Ryan Fredericks found the side netting after a dangerous run.
But the lively Martin always posed a significant threat and he had a hand in the crucial second goal when it arrived four minutes from time. The striker cleverly poked a return pass in the direction of Butterfield as he surged through on the Fulham goal and the former Huddersfield midfielder calmly guided the ball past the advancing Lonergan from eight yards. Former Fulham forward Darren Bent almost rubbed salt into the wounds in injury time but his powerful effort came back off the crossbar after another dangerous Ince run.
Fulham now hover just three points above the Championship relegation zone and another torturous battle against the drop – mirroring the one they experienced last season – looks a distinct possibility unless the Whites can end their dismal winter slump with home wins against Rotherham, who thumped Bolton 4-0 today, and Sheffield Wednesday.
DERBY COUNTY (4-5-1): Grant; Christie, Warnock, Keogh, Shackell; Thorne (Hendrick 82), Butterfield, Johnson, Ince, Russell (Weimann 80); Martin (Bent 87). Subs (not used): Mitchell, Shotton, Baird, Pearce.
GOALS: Hyndman (o.g 52), Butterfield (84).
FULHAM (4-4-2): Lonergan; Fredericks, Ream, Stearman, Burn; O’Hara (Smith 63), Hyndman (Cairney 71), Kacaniklic (Christensen 78), Garbutt; McCormack, Dembele. Subs (not used): Lewis, Hutchinson, Pringle, Woodrow.
REFEREE: Scott Duncan (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)