Error-strewn, ponderous, nervy and far too predictable. This was the Fulham we had become accustomed to watching in the Championship rather than Slavisa Jokanovic’s scarcely believable reincarnation of a side used to slumming in at the lower end of the table. Birmingham, well organised and dangerous on the break under one of the country’s leading young managers in Gary Rowett, enjoy their trips to Craven Cottage and should have been out of sight long before Clayton Donaldson converted a second-half penalty to atone for an earlier miss from twelve yards. Fulham’s flying start ended with something of a whimper, restricted after Michael Madl’s first half red card, with Chris Martin – introduced as a late substitute – belatedly adding a focal point to a misfiring attack.
Jokanovic made much of the way in which his summer acquisitions had strengthened a previously threadbare squad prior to kick off, but the Serbian will have to ask some searching questions after his side mustered just a single shot on target and surrendered far too much of the ball. The head coach can’t be immune from criticism having selected a side without Martin and included one of the new arrivals, Stefan Johansen, only to haul the former Celtic midfielder off just 32 minutes into his debut. How Kevin McDonald, who looked uncharacteristically flustered with the ball at his feet, lasted the full ninety minutes – having been pressed into service as an emergency centre back – remains a mystery.
Birmingham were patient, disciplined and much the livelier going forward. Had the Blues been a bit more ruthless in front of goal this could have been a scoreline to rival the 5-2 thumping that cost Kit Symons his job last October. Only some lacklustre finishing prevented Rowett’s side from taking command of the contest before half time – although they must have been the happier of the two teams at the interval after Madl’s dismissal for a cynical foul on Donaldson as he broke into Fulham territory. The Austrian had already been cautioned for sending Che Adams sprawling inside the penalty area, but David Button produced an outstanding save to parry away Donaldson’s spot-kick.
The former Brentford goalkeeper was largely responsible for keeping his new employers in the contest. He might have been statueseque when Ryan Shotton somehow glanced a corner wide when it appeared easier to score, but he produced fine saves to keep out efforts from Jacques Maghoma and Robert Tesche as Birmingham found far too much room in the spaces that Scott Parker has been occupying to great effect in the early weeks of the season. The skipper’s replacement, Johansen, was replaced by Jozabed, who proved industrious and ferried the ball around efficiently, but with McDonald severely below par there was little bite to Fulham’s midfield.
Tom Cairney was faced by three or four red shirts when he appeared in a threatening position and Fulham only really perked up once Birmingham had gone ahead. The goal was entirely self-inflicted with Fulham becoming careless in attempting to play the ball out of the back. Button was almost closed down as he dallied in clearing the ball and McDonald was robbed of possession and Floyd Ayite, in a desperate bid to avert the danger, dragged down Adams a yard inside the penalty area. This time there was no reprieve.
Fulham huffed and puffed, with Neeskens Kebano adding some urgency as a half-time substitute and one slaloming Cairney run almost unlocking the visiting defence, but Birmingham always looked the more likely to add to their lead. Maghoma curled a free-kick wide of the far post from 25 yards and, with two minutes to go, the visitors should have clinched the points. Button did well to spread himself and save from substitute David Cotterill, but the Welsh international improvised brilliantly to find Maghoma at the far post, only for Kalas to head clear from underneath his own crossbar.
It said much for Fulham’s anonymity that their two clearest chances fell to Scott Malone. The full back snatched at the best opening, shooting fractionally wide of the far post with Martin in a good position inside the penalty area, and headed back across goal when a looping cross came to him at the back post. Tomasz Kusczak was hardly extended – and Rowett’s well-organised outfit were certainly deserving of all three points.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Button; Odoi, Malone, Kalas, Madl; McDonald, Johansen (Jozabed 32); Cairney, Ayite (Martin 76), Aluko; Smith (Kebano 45). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Sigurdsson, Sessegnon, Tunnicliffe.
BOOKED: Madl, Odoi.
SENT OFF: Madl (44).
BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-3-3): Kusczak; Spector, Grounds, Morrison, Shotton; Tesche, Kieftenbeld, Davis (Cotterill 75); Adams (Stewart 83), Maghoma, Donaldson (Jutkiewicz 75). Subs (not used): Legzdins, Robinson, Brown, Fabbrini.
BOOKED: Grounds, Spector, Donaldson.
GOAL: Donaldson (pen 49).
REFEREE: Tony Harrington (Cleveland).