Opposition in focus – Barnsley

Scott Parker will urge his Fulham debut to sweep away the disappointment of failing to beat Millwall on Wednesday night by seeing off Barnsley at a wet and windy Craven Cottage tomorrow afternoon.

The Fulham boss will need no reminding of Barnsley’s ability to surprise after the Tykes inflicted a shock 1-0 defeat upon Parker’s men in south Yorkshire on the opening day of the season. Barnsley have failed to build on that outstanding start with popular German manager Daniel Stendel, who masterminded their return to the second tier, paying for a poor run of results with his job. Although Gerhard Struber initially stitched together an excellent home run, Barnsley have mustered just four league wins all season and they are now cut adrift at the bottom of the table.

They have recorded just six points on the road all season, although both Struber and skipper Mike Bahre were in upbeat mood about their survival chances as they looked ahead to the trip to London. The Austrian coach could be pinning his escape hopes on a familiar face to Fulham fans in Cauley Woodrow, who has scored nine Championship goals this term, and has hardly stopped finding the net since he made the switch to Oakwell last year. Woodrow and the ex-Portsmouth striker Conor Chaplin have proven particularly potent up front, combing for a total of 23 goals, which represents 62% of Barnsley’s total for the season.

Struber will have to do without the services of first-choice goalkeeper Samuel Radlinger, who was outstanding against Fulham at Oakwell in August. Midfielder Marcel Ritzmaier will also miss out, whilst Bambo Diaby is banned and Mads Andersen will be rested. He will hope that by juggling his side the Tykes can produce the type of dynamic display that so frustrated Parker’s side on the opening day – and benefit from making a sell-out home crowd restless.

Just as it seemed that Fulham’s own injury crisis was easing came the news that Terence Kongolo, who had only just broken into the side following his loan move from Huddersfield, will miss the rest of the season with a foot problem. Winger Anthony Knockaert should be ready to return having missed the trip to the Den through illness and it seems that Harrison Reed, a big miss in central midfield, could be close to full fitness after starting training again this week. Maxime Le Marchand joins Kongolo and Alfie Mawson as long-term central defensive absences.

Fulham might have missed a golden opportunity to leapfrong Leeds in south east London earlier this week, but with Marcelo Bielsa’s side facing a tough test against Bristol City, a win over beleaguered Barnsley could see the Whites in the automatic promotion places. On what is sure to be an emotional afternoon after the death of Fulham legend Jimmy Conway, it might fall to the Cottage faithful to roar Parker’s men on to a vital victory.

MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Bryan, Odoi, Hector; McDonald, Onomah, Cairney; Decordova-Reid, Cavaleiro, Mitrovic.

MY PREDICTION: Fulham 2-0 Barnsley.

Up next: Barnsley (h)

Fulham get an early opportunity to put the disappointment of drawing with Millwall, offside decisions and the failure to move in front of Leeds behind them when bottom of the table Barnsley visit Craven Cottage tomorrow afternoon. The Whites will have been dismayed by their underwhelming performance at the Den on Wednesday night but in truth it could have been a lot worse for Scott Parker’s side, given that Millwall might have nicked what became an even contest after Jon Dadi Bodvarsson’s controversial equaliser.

Parker might have cause to reflect on his own decisions after his side failed to seize the advantage in the Championship’s automatic promotion race. It may well be that Kevin McDonald, restored to the starting line-up to such devastating affect in recent weeks, might not be able to start three games in seven days any more but would this game have been a more suitable one for him to miss. Harry Arter’s display in south east London was rusty at best and his petulance towards the end reminded me of the ill-discipline that saw him inexcusably sent off at Cardiff earlier in the season. The Whites’ badly missed some ballast at the base of the midfield.

Parker’s plumping for Aboubakar Kamara didn’t really come off either. The Frenchman was subdued and lethargic for much of the match. Ivan Cavaleiro impressed off the bench – but his arrival came much too late as Fulham seemed powerless to shift the tempo of a contest that suited the hosts far more than them. Congolese winger Neeskens Kebano was barely given any time at all to turn things round, but almost managed to steal three points with an athletic header from a late corner that rattled the crossbar and ran away to safety. There’s a case for Kebano, always a livewire, to get a little more match action.

The biggest disappointment of this week arguably came off the pitch with the news that Terence Kongolo will miss the remainder of the season having sustained a serious foot injury in the final ten minutes at Blackburn. Kongolo’s presence in the squad was a huge boost to Fulham’s promotion prospects with depth in central defence severely lacking previously. Parker might well be left depending on Tim Ream and the imperious Michael Hector for the remainder of the season, given that Alfie Mawson has just undergone knee surgery. There’s certainly little margin for error at the back now.

Barnsley visit the Cottage in a whole heap of trouble at the foot of the table. That sunny opening afternoon when the Tykes were good value for a narrow win at Oakwell seems an awful long time ago. They have managed just three wins in their subsequent 31 league games – and are already nine points from safety. Gerhard Struber had initially overseen an upturn in form when he arrived in south Yorkshire but Tuesday’s deflating defeat by Birmingham City put another dent in a young side’s already fragile confidence.

Barnsley have a track record of springing surprises against the top sides this term. They have already held leaders West Brom to two draws and former Fulham striker Cauley Woodrow, who has scored nine times in 21 appearances so far this term, would like nothing better to shine on his old stomping ground. There’s always been the suspicion that Woodrow, who broke into the Fulham side as a teenager with the Whites battling against the drop from the Premier League, didn’t get a fair crack of the whip under Slavisa Jokanovic – and he’s been in great goalscoring form from the moment he made the move to Oakwell.

He could be paired with former Portsmouth striker Conor Chaplin in attack if Struber decides to go for broke in search of another shock success. It’s not as if the Tykes don’t have the talent to pose as many problems as Storm Dennis tomorrow afternoon. Alex Mowatt has been an outstanding performer at this level for many years, whilst Mike Bahre ran the show when Barnsley embarrassed Parker and Fulham on the first day of the season. Struber will need to shuffle his pack with injuries and fitness issues robbing him of the services of defender Mads Andersen, goalkeeper Sami Radlinger and midfielder Marcel Ritzmaier. It will be a tall order for them to keep Fulham’s possession-based football at bay for another ninety minutes.

MY FULHAM XI (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Ream; McDonald, Onomah, Cairney; Decordova-Reid, Cavaleiro, Mitrovic. Subs: Bettinelli, Christie, S. Sessegnon, Johansen, Knockaert, Kebano, Kamara.

Former Fulham winger Jimmy Conway dies aged 73

Some very sad news to report this afternoon. Fulham legend Jimmy Conway has passed away aged 73 having fought a brave battle against dementia in recent years.

A classy midfielder or winger, Conway was born in Dublin in August 1946. He began his footballing education with Drumcondra junior side Stella Maris before moving on to Bohemians in 1964. He made the move to London to join Fulham as a 20 year-old two years later for £12,000 and quickly became a regular in an entertaining side, establishing himself as a firm fans’ favourite at Craven Cottage.

He scored on his first-team debut against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the League Cup and, after two seasons in the top flight, stayed with the Londoners when the Whites were relegated. Conway scored 20 goals in 1969/70 as Fulham missed on promotion, but netted eight times in 29 games during the following campaign to help his side return to the First Division as they finished second in the league, only a point behind Preston.

Conway spent a decade with the Whites, scoring 76 goals in 360  games and was never cautioned or sent off, a record which makes him the twentieth highest appearance maker in the club’s history. The Irish international, who played with his brother John during his time at Fulham, was also part of the side that famously went all the way to Wembley before losing the 1975 FA Cup final to West Ham. A scorer of sensational goals, including one from an outrageously acute angle at Gillingham in 1971, Conway was immortalised in the famous ‘We’ve got Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy Conway on the wing’ song that can still be heard today. He eventually moved to Manchester City for £30,000 in 1976 and, although never a regular at Maine Road, was part of the side that finished runners up to Liverpool in 1977.

Conway, who won twenty caps for the Republic of Ireland, then spent two years with the Portland Timbers in the United States, where he made more than 60 appearances. He spent the majority of his time in America after ending his playing career, enjoying a two-year stint as assistant manager at the Timbers and then a six-year spell as manager of Pacific University. He was in charge of the Oregon State Beavers for eight years before returning to Portland, where he served as assistant coach for a further nine seasons.

Conway’s love of football was passed on to his son Paul, who also played for Portland, and Carlisle United during the 1990s.

We send our best wishes and condolences to Jimmy’s family.

Kongolo out for the season

Fulham’s promotion push has been dealt a huge blow with the news that defender Terence Kongolo will miss the rest of the season after picking up a foot injury in the win at Blackburn Rovers.

The Dutch international, who signed from Huddersfield on loan at the end of January, had only made two appearances for the Whites and was injured after coming off the bench at Ewood Park during Fulham’s 1-0 win on Saturday.

Fulham boss Scott Parker didn’t hide his disappointment:

Obviously we’re absolutely devastated for Terence. He’s come in, a player which we liked and one we thought could bring something to the squad and to the team. I think I’ve said on numerous occasions that he probably gives us a different attribute to what we have in defence.

It’s just such a shame for him that in his second game he comes on and in his first action he damages his foot. He’s going to be out for the remainder of the season, and he’ll be missed. It’s gutting.

Kongolo’s injury means that Fulham are once again shorthanded in central defence at a crucial time in the season. Alfie Mawson is expected to be a long-term absentee after undergoing knee surgery, whilst Maxime Le Marchand is also sidelined by injury and that leaves Tim Ream, recent signing Michael Hector and Denis Odoi as Parker’s only senior options at centre back.

Fulham miss chance to go second

Fulham squandered the opportunity to move above Leeds United into second in the Championship after drawing 1-1 at Millwall this evening. The Whites were furious that Jon Dadi Bodvarsson’s equaliser was allowed to stand despite the Icelandic forward being a couple of yards offside when he touched home from a corner, but a point apiece was the fairest result on the balance of play.

Scott Parker’s side knew they could move in the automatic promotion places with a win at the Den after Leeds’ draw with Brentford last night and they got off to the perfect start after just three minutes. A quick free-kick saw Harry Arter feed Joe Bryan and, as Millwall’s defence rushed out to meet him, the left-back spun to fire in a low cross for Aleksandar Mitrovic, who gleefully grabbed his third goal in as many games against Millwall.

The hosts, however, hadn’t read the script. Gary Rowett wanted his side to show far more invention and desire than they had managed in a meek surrender to league leaders West Brom on Sunday and the Lions’ answered emphatically with one of their most impressive displays of the season. They were on level terms within five minutes. Fulham failed to deal with Ryan Woods’ corner, allowing Shaun Hutchinson to head across goal and Bodvarsson touched home at the far post. Referee Andy Madley went and consulted with his assistant but gave the goal – only for television replays to clearly show the goalscorer in an offside position.

The equaliser only enlivened the home side’s spirit. Their energetic press, combined with an atrocious playing surface, had disrupted Fulham’s pretty passing and soon Millwall were on the front foot. Some timely covering from Denis Odoi prevented Tom Bradshaw from sneaking onto Bodvarson’s flick, but the hosts had even better chance to take the lead when Bryan brought down the rampaging Mahlon Romeo in the box. Jed Wallace, who had played in the impressive wing-back, stepped up to take the penalty but went for power over placement and blazed it wildly over the bar.

The penalty miss didn’t sap any of Millwall’s energy. Rowett’s men could have easily been well in front by the break. Marek Rodak had to readjust to repel a Romeo effort that threatened the far corner and Bodvarsson was left totally free to divert a Jed Wallace free-kick fractionally wide. Rodak was called into action again to deny Jed Wallace after the winger was found by a wonderful pass from his namesake Murray.

The second half was an altogether cagier affair as the rain began to pour down. Fulham began to assume a degree of control, although clear-cut chances were few and far between. Josh Onomah had an effective game in the middle of the park for Fulham but he lost his composure after engineering a couple of shooting opportunities for himself. With a little more awareness, he might have squared the first chance to a waiting Mitrovic, who was rightly furious. Although they were operating almost exclusively on the counter attack, the clearest chances actually arrived for Millwall. Jed Wallace saw a shot bravely blocked by Ream before excellent approach play from Bodvarsson sent Bradshaw in, but Rodak produced a smart save – not for the first time this season.

Rowett sent on Jiri Skalek and former Fulham forward Matt Smith as the home side sought a winner, but it was the visitors who came closest to snatching the points during three minutes of stoppage time. Their substitutes, Ivan Cavaleiro and Neeskens Kebano, almost combined to grab a famous win with the Congolese winger climbing majestically well in front of the near post to head Cavaleiro’s corner against the crossbar. Such was Fulham’s desperation that Bryan lashed a long-ranger high into the travelling fans as Parker’s men had to make do with a point.

MILLWALL (3-4-1-2): Bialkowski; Hutchinson, Cooper, Pearce (Smith 86); Romeo, M. Wallace, Molumby, Woods (Skalak 86); J. Wallace; Bodvarsson, Bradshaw (Leonard 77). Subs (not used): Steele, Ferguson, O’Brien, Mahoney.

BOOKED: Woods.

GOAL: Bodvarsson (8).

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Ream; Arter (Kebano 88), Onomah, Cairney; Kamara (Cavaleiro 71), Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Christie, S. Sessegnon, McDonald, Johansen.

BOOKED: Cairney, Arter.

GOAL: Mitrovic (3).

REFEREE: Andy Madley (Huddersfield).


February Madness – An Update

In the midst of the Premier League’s first ever winter break, Championship sides are in their busiest period of the year. I wrote an article a week or so ago about our February, and the seven games that we have that could end our promotion bid or see it go into overdrive. Two games in and things are swaying towards the latter. I’ve had a look at all of the fixtures for the current top 6 to give us an idea of the possible twists and turns ahead. It’s so tight that I could have included a couple of teams outside that as well, especially Bristol City, but to keep it simple I’ll stick with 1st to 6th.

With there being so many games in such a short period of time, and many of the top 6 playing each other, we know that the table could look very different by the end of the month. We are in one of the most unpredictable leagues in the world, but over the last couple of weeks very few results have went against Fulham. We have managed to capitalise by winning four out of the past five leagues games, but the pressure is still very much on. We can’t count on the teams around us having bad days over and over again so we need to keep up the momentum.

Fulham have won four out of their last five games

This would probably be the worse time to have a bad run. To come so close to the automatics and then to tail off would reveal a real weak spot in our squad. Being part of the chasing pack is the easy bit! The question now is whether or not the boys can take the chance that has just handed to us on a  silver platter and not let go. In the year we beat Aston Villa in the play-offs, arguably we should have went up automatically, but questionable results right at the end when it was in our own hands cost us. I don’t think anyone cares as we were given one of the greatest days in our history, but things might not end so rosily this time around.

Can we expect Leeds to continue to fall apart? Can we rely on Brentford to start dropping more points? No. We have gotten ourselves in an incredible position, but we have to follow through now. To be honest, I would rather that this opportunity had came further on in the season. Obviously I want nothing less than a win at Millwall, but if we do win tomorrow night and go into second, then we have a heck of a long time to fend off the hunters. Yet, if we don’t win then that is a huge opportunity missed which could eat away at the squad. AH, the dilemma’s of football fans, eh?

This league continues to amaze me. I can’t remember it being tighter than this ever and it’s both the best and the worst thing that could happen. The best because of the pure drama of it, and the worst because at this rate I doubt that I will have any colour left in my hair come May! This stress, though, I wouldn’t swap it for anything.