Saturday’s triumph at Hull City wasn’t pretty, but it was mightily important. In the context of an unpredictable division, where Bournemouth roared back to snatch victory at Blackpool deep into stoppage time, the narrow away win on Humberside preserved Fulham’s six-point cushion at the Championship. Maybe more crucially, Marco Silva’s side now have an eleven point advantage over third placed Blackburn Rovers – who travel to West Brom tonight – with their gargantuan goal difference worth another point on top.
It might be tempting for Tony Khan and company to commence the planning for what has proven impossible previously – a stay of more than a season in the top flight – but Silva’s steely dismissal of the table and his ‘one game at a time’ mantra won’t allow the playing staff to look any further to the visit of Huddersfield, on an incredible twelve match unbeaten run, to Craven Cottage on Saturday. That’s wise, since seemingly unassailable leads can disappear in the blink of an eye as we’ve already seen this season, and will serve to quash any complacency in the ranks.
The narrow win over the Tigers extended the league leaders’ unbeaten away win to eight Championship games. The biting cold, teeming rain and terrible pitch meant that flowing football Fulham like to play was always going to be secondary to spirit and character – and show it proved. Harry Wilson passed up a number of presentable chances in the first half, which saw the home side grow in confidence, but two moments of magic just before the hour proved decisive.
Neco Williams’ exquisite delivery found Aleksandar Mitrovic in the box and our Serbian scoring sensation did the rest. His header – from fully fourteen yards out – was arguably the best of a terrific bunch from his Fulham career. Going away from goal, across a marker he had already outwitted, Mitrovic had a narrow window of opportunity – and glanced the ball deftly into the corner of the goal that Matt Ingram had no chance of winning. It says something about our talisman’s enduring excellence that such a superb fitness has almost passed without praise.
A second clean sheet in succession was the bedrock around which this battling away win was built. Fulham had their jitters but Marek Rodak made a couple more crucial saves and the visitors kept hold of the three points with the air of serial winners. Silva made this point after the final whistle, whilst Tim Ream – speaking like a veteran centre half – admitted he enjoyed the tight victories even more than the spankings Fulham had handed out earlier in the campaign. This would have been the sort of fixture where the Whites might have floundered under Scott Parker and it is the difference between automatic promotion and another nerve-jangling journey through the play-offs.
It might have been a much closer affair than the trouncings of Fulham’s free-scoring January, but there is progress there too. Before the Whites’ push for promotion was curtailed by a series of coronavirus postponements, Silva’s side seemed stuck in a rut on the road. They conceded a second half header to former Fulham academy graduate Elijah Adebayo to drop points at Kenilworth Road and faded alarmingly in the second half at Preston, even before Ched Evans’ controversial equaliser. It was easy to blame the effects of an untimely norovirus outbreak, but there was a suggestion at the time that Silva’s adventurous style had been worked out – especially as Derby had held the Whites to a goalless draw at Craven Cottage three days earlier. That there was no such disappointment at Hull owed much to Ream and Adarabioyo’s steadfast defending and the presence of Nathaniel Chalobah in front of them, as well as Bobby Decordova-Reid’s fleeting Stefan Johansen impersonation in the dying stages.
In such a competitive league like the Championship, Fulham won’t be able to blow away the opposition all the time. It’s brilliant when it happens and we should certainly savour this special season as it looks likely to rival or even eclipse the magical year under Jean Tigana when those watchable Whites ran away with Division One. Fulham’s fortitude at Hull shows that they can grind their way to a gutsy win, a valuable attribute when in pursuit of promotion, and a fitting riposte to the idea that the Cottagers could still be a soft touch. It may prove precious in the top flight, too, but that’s a tantalising thought for the future.