This was more like it. Fulham, without a win in more than a month, brushed aside what Scott Parker described as ‘a wounding few weeks’ and returned to winning ways as they eventually wore down Wigan at Craven Cottage tonight. They were forced to wait until deep into the second half to settle matters, however, after another sweet strike from skipper Tom Cairney followed Joe Bryan’s first league goal for Fulham and made sure of all three points.
It might seem absurdly early for managers to be under pressure, but there were a few whispers circulating about whether Parker, still at the start of his first full season in charge at Craven Cottage, had the nous to navigate his charges through a serious promotion push after Fulham had squandered winning positions against West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield Wednesday in recent weeks. The home side were dominant for most of this match as well, but proved ponderous in possession once again and had to wait until after half-time for the breakthrough.
Wigan almost surprised their hosts inside the first three minutes when the lively Nathan Bryne sped down the right flank and slammed an audacious effort in at the near post that Marcus Bettinelli did well to keep out. That proved to be the Latics’ most potent threat of the first half – the spiky tackling of Sam Morsy, who was booked for a late challenge early on, aside. The Whites quickly applied pressure on the Wigan goal with Harrison Reed only denied by a brave block from Chey Dunkley. The experienced David Marshall fielded another speculative effort from the on-loan Southampton midifelder and then claimed a header from Aleksandar Mitrovic, who posed the Wigan defenders all sorts of problems from the off.
Marshall used all of his experience to rush from his line and narrow the angle to prevent Anthony Knockaert from opening the scoring after the winger had worked a lovely one-two with Cairney and a superb cross from the left presented Mitrovic with a glorious opportunity but the Serbian striker sent an effort fizzing agonisingly over the crossbar.
Somehow, the visitors got through to the interval unscathed but Paul Cook’s gameplan needed revising just two minutes in the second half. There was an element of fortune about the goal, as a Knockaert free-kick was only half cleared and Bryan’s first effort was blocked by a defender. He tried again with his weaker right foot and found the bottom corner to ease any nerves inside the Cottage.
To their immense credit, the visitors pushed men forward in search of an equaliser and the contest became a much more open one. Lee Evans shot just over the bar and had another effort gamely blocked by Cairney, who was eager to make amends after being robbed in the middle of the park. Fulham were also fortunate perhaps not to be reduced to ten men after the tigerish Reed sent Dunkley tumbling to the floor in the Fulham penalty area after the defender had felled Bettinelli at a corner. Reed was only shown a yellow card, as was Mitrovic after another flare up in the middle of the field.
Fulham almost added the crucial second just after the hour when a beautiful spin from the recalled Stefan Johansen set Cavaleiro haring down the middle of the pitch. The Portuguese winger released Bryan down the left and he released Knockaert into the penalty area, but Marshall did brilliantly to parry away the on-loan Brighton winger’s shot and the excellent Antonee Robinson did superbly to reach the rebound ahead of Cavaleiro and clear.
Wigan continued to threaten on the break themselves, forcing a succession of corners to hint at another late comeback, and the increasingly influential Evans almost curled an audacious leveller in from long range, but the visitors were eventually caught out by a goal of the highest quality. Knockaert carried the ball deep into Wigan territory and a tired defender stood off Cairney until it was too late, as the Fulham captain curled a majestic finish into the top corner from 25 yards.
Fulham were far from their fluent best, but Parker will have been pleased with the higher tempo of their passing in the final third in the second half. He will also have drawn great satisfaction from a clean sheet as the Cottagers’ climbed to seventh in the table ahead of a trip to Reading on Tuesday night.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; S. Sessegnon, Bryan, Mawson, Ream; Reed, Johansen (Arter 80), Cairney; Knockaert (Onomah 87), Cavaleiro (Decordova-Reid 69), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Le Marchand, Odoi, Kamara.
BOOKED: Reed, Mitrovic.
GOALS: Bryan (47), Cairney (83).
WIGAN ATHELTIC (4-2-3-1): Marshall; Byrne, Robinson, Dunkley, Mulgrew; Williams, Morsy; Lowe (Gelhardt 74), Jacobs (Naismith 45), Evans; Moore (Garner 69). Subs (not used): Jones, Fox, MacLeod, Massey.
BOOKED: Morsy, Dunkley, Williams.
REFEREE: Dean Whitestone (Northamptonshire).