After picking up thirteen points from a possible fifteen over the last three weeks, the Championship table provides plenty of reasons for Fulham fans to feel positive this morning. The Whites sit just a point off the top six following the late, late drama at the Riverside on Saturday and Slavisa Jokanovic, who some supporters were eager to sack only a little while ago, would be forgiven for smiling at the way in which his side are coming into form at the start of another calendar year again.
It isn’t just that the Whites have accumulated 22 points out of the last thirty, but that Fulham, who had previous turned in some flat displays (think Griffin Park and the Stadium of Light for examples of pretty lamentable defeats), have begun to marry the magnificent wins, like the one at Cardiff on Boxing Day, with performances full of character. If the point gained from 2-0 down a few days later at Hull didn’t offer an indication of this team’s desire, then the way Jokanovic’s men managed to pull off a victory at the Riverside on Saturday showed that one of the division’s most entertaining sides can also register scrappy victories too.
As I’ve written recently, grinding out those gritty, undeserved victories is the hallmark of a promotion contender. The weekend win over Middlesbrough, who had bossed the first period and had the better of the chances throughout, was a heist of the history order made possible because Jokanovic’s charges knuckled down – recognising that this was a day where their fluent football wasn’t coming off – and simply refused to be swept away under a tide of home pressure. That Ollie Norwood’s last-gasp penalty so enraged Tony Pulis, a man whose comments after the sickening events at the Prestfield almost twenty years ago still rankle, only served to make it sweeter.
The away success this reminded me most of was the scarcely merited win at Huddersfield in March 2015 where Kit Symons’ men survived two Nakhi Wells penalties, were reduced to ten men for the last half an hour, and – having clung to the advantage that came from Alex Kacaniklic’s early corner – somehow sealed the points when Seko Fofana sprinted half the length of the pitch in stoppage time. That goal arrived in the sixth minute of an added time, whilst Norwood’s latest impeccably taken penalty came a minute earlier, but the feeling of unadultered joy among Fulham’s long-suffering away support was just as euphoric.
The enraged reaction of one Boro supporter after the final whistle went viral on Saturday night – and it is an entertaining as anything Arsenal Fan TV could have put together following the Gunners collapse at Bournemouth yesterday. The home side were clearly in the ascendancy for much of the contest and the buoyancy of their start undoubtedly unsettled Fulham, but for all of Adama Traore’s electric pace and Boro’s pressure in the final third, Marcus Bettinelli was not required to make a save throughout.
Fulham’s defence, superbly marshalled by Tim Ream as he notched up a century of appearances at centre back, showed a resilience they might not have managed earlier in the season. They were certainly fortunate that Rudy Gestede contrived to mess up two glorious one-on-ones and would have breathed a sigh of relief when Britt Assombalonga missed two glorious opportunities to seal the victory in added time, but the longer the game went on you could see the visitors growing in confidence.
Jokanovic, too, deserves some credit for the way he reacted so swiftly in the second half. With the Whites missing the guile of Tom Cairney and struggling to adjust to Middlesbrough’s high intensity pressing and direct approach – even after his half-time team talk, the Serbian introduced Tomas Kalas at centre back and switched Ryan Sessegnon to the left wing position, where he relishes influencing a contest. That gave Fulham more of an outlet at the other end of the pitch – and an opportunity to apply some pressure on a Middlesbrough defence that had previously enjoyed a quieter than expected afternoon.
Pulis was raging afterwards that the rub of the refereeing decisions didn’t go for his team. On another day, Kalas would have been penalised for his maneuvering of Martin Braithwaite off the ball in the penalty area that was akin to something you might have seen in a wrestling ring on a Saturday afternoon in the 1980s. But if Boro had buried anyone of the six or seven highly presentable chances, then their supporters wouldn’t have been quite so exercised by the fact that Geoff Eltringham once held a Sunderland season ticket. Many were quick to condemn Norwood for going down easily and winning that decisive spot-kick, but a player of Grant Leadbitter’s experience should have known better than to lunge recklessly inside his own box with time ticking away.
I don’t know if the two managers – who held contrasting views of the key incidents – discussed them over a bottle of wine following the final whistle. Jokanovic could have recounted the phantom Burton penalty if he wanted to, but Fulham probably deserved the little bit of fortune that earned a first win on Teeside since 1984. I still remember Rob Styles pointing to the spot when Edwin van der Sar caught Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink well outside the area back in 2005 – and costing an incredulous Chris Coleman one of those rare away wins. Perhaps the bigger injustice came two seasons later at Craven Cottage when David Healy was denied a late equaliser when his stoppage time shot was smuggled out of the Middlesbrough net by a certain Mark Schwarzer.
The Serbian head coach was nonetheless right to laud his players’ spirit following the slenderest of victories. Neeskens Kebano alluded to the need to believe right until the end – and it is these sort of victories that will be necessary to make headway in a league that remains so crazily unpredictable. Norwood’s own determination to make the rest of the division sit up and take notice, as he told FulhamFCTV after the final whistle, is exactly the attitude Fulham must retain until May if only because nothing is settled in January.