You can search for excuses for Fulham’s first defeat of the season at Bloomfield Road. There was an international break that disrupted the momentum of an excellent August, a mini injury crisis and maybe there’s something in the curse of the manager of the month award. But there’s no escaping the harsh reality that battling Blackpool wanted it more. Neil Critchley’s side hadn’t won a league game since impressively winning the League One play-offs but they played at a faster tempo than their highly-fancied visitors from the outset and richly deserved all three points secured by the brilliant Josh Bowler, who snuck a shot between Paulo Gazzaniga and the near post, after being allowed to run into the Fulham penalty area under little pressure.
After that the Tangerines defended for their lives with the veteran Richard Keogh outstanding at the heart of a well-organised back four. It took far too long for Fulham to test the home rearguard in both halves and their only spell of prolonged pressure came once Rodrigo Muniz was summoned from the bench with ten minutes to go for his eagerly awaited debut. You couldn’t fault the Brazilian’s desire but he might have done better with two late headers and his deflected effort in stoppage time was gleefully snaffled by Chris Maxwell.
Fulham were far from the fluent side that had swept to stylish victories at Huddersfield and Millwall last month, shorn of the creativity of Harry Wilson and Fabio Carvalho. The Welsh winger missed out after coming off against Estonia with a head injury this week, whilst Fulham’s teenage playmaker is understood to still be feeling the effects of a heavy challenge against Stoke City that injured his ankle. Marco Silva handed Domingos Quina a debut after his deadline day loan move from Watford, but the Portuguese midfielder’s muddled performance only served to highlight what was missing. The closest he came to a moment of inspiration was when he scooped a chip over the crossbar in what proved to his final act of a frustrating afternoon.
Where Fulham were fitful and more than a yard off the pace, Blackpool’s boldness was evident from the outset. Keshi Anderson posed particular problems in the early stages fizzing a cross-cum-shot across the face of goal and then, after seizing on a mistake from Josh Onomah, firing fractionally wide from 25 yards. Gazzaniga then had to dash out of his penalty area and tackle Tyreece John-Jules with his feet after the on-loan Arsenal striker had stripped Tim Ream of possession and the Argentine needed lengthy treatment to his right foot before he could continue.
Bowler, who spent two years in the Fulham academy set up as a youngster, was leading Antonee Robinson a merry dance down the Blackpool right. He played in Anderson with a lovely reverse ball only for the former Swindon winger to try and beat Gazzaniga from a tight angle rather than look for a cross and Denis Odoi then did brilliantly on the stretch to divert a teasing Bowler ball in out of danger. Fulham created only half chances in response, with Ivan Cavaleiro shooting wastefully wide after a swift early counter attack, and then drilling an effort straight at Maxwell after cutting in from the right. Jean-Michael Seri came closest to breaking the deadlock when his ambitious try from distance flew just wide, but going in behind would have been exceptionally harsh on the home side.
The pattern of the first period continued after the interval. Fulham looked lethargic and Bowler almost punished them inside two minutes of the restart but Gazzaniga gathered the winger’s shot at his near post as space opened up. The visitors clearly didn’t heed that warning. The right winger raced onto a poor pass from Seri and advanced into the box, with Tim Ream and Robinson slow to react, to fire home a fine solo goal, although Gazzaniga should have dealt with the sliding finish. The former Tottenham keeper was then nearly caught out by Jerry Yates from close to the halfway line as the home side’s adrenaline levels surged.
Onomah whistled a long-range effort agonisingly past Maxwell’s far post, but Blackpool were assured in defence and limited their visitors to few clear cut chances before Silva turned to Muniz in a desperate attempt to preserve Fulham’s unbeaten record. Kevin Stewart wasted a free-kick in a promising position, before Bowler’s commitment to the cause was underlined when he produced a brilliant bit of defending to deny Quina an equaliser at the back post. The Londoners belatedly laid siege to the Blackpool goal in the final ten minutes with Odoi and Muniz drawing good saves from Maxwell with headers and Harrison Reed volleying off target after the Serbian’s clever knock down.
Muniz looked the likeliest to grab a late leveller, but a share of the spoils would have been distinctly undeserved. Blackpool toiled manfully to keep the division’s most devastating attack alarmingly quiet, but this was far from a backs-to-the-wall effort. Critchley, a nurturer of significant young talent at Liverpool’s academy before taking his first senior managerial post, sent his side out to exploit Fulham’s propensity to play from the back and he got his tactics spot on. If Silva needed any reminding of how tough the English second tier is, this should serve as a wake-up call.
BLACKPOOL (4-4-2): Maxwell; Gabriel, Garbutt, Keogh, Ekpiteta; Stewart, Wintle (Dougall 79), Bowler, Anderson; Yates (Lavery 72), John-Jules (Husband 87). Subs (not used): Grimshaw, D. Sterling, Gretarsson, Carey.
BOOKED: Stewart, Gabriel, Garbutt.
GOAL: Bowler (49).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Gazzaniga; Odoi (Muniz 79), A. Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Seri (Reed 67), Onomah; Cavaleiro, Decordova-Reid, Quina (Kebano 67), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Mawson, Bryan, Chalobah.
BOOKED: Quina, Reed, Odoi.
REFEREE: John Busby (Oxfordshire).