Defender Denis Odoi feels Fulham’s confidence is returning after seven points from a possible nine in a week lifted the Whites into the top half of the Championship table.
The versatile Belgian, who followed up two assured displays in his preferred left-back role with another strong performance at centre half as he deputised for the injured Tim Ream, believes that Saturday’s narrow win over a competitive Millwall side has helped boost morale around the Fulham squad as they look ahead to this weekend’s west London derby against Brentford. After the final whistle on Saturday, he told FulhamFC TV:
I think if we had dropped a lot of points this week it would have been hard for us to look up there [towards the top six]. Obviously, we need to take it step by step. We cannot get ahead of ourselves. You also feel something changing within the group, but I told everybody before the game that this is an important game because if we lose today, the win from Tuesday was all for nothing. Now we can maybe look up there, but next week is another game, we have a few competitors and I think we should be able to get three points.
Everybody was obviously a bit down after the losses we had before the international break. Everyone was disappointed about the result, about the way things were going and now with seven points out of nine, it’s good for the morale.
Odoi was delighted with the much-needed three points, secured via Ollie Norwood’s first half spot-kick, and a precious clean sheet at Craven Cottage, which was Fulham’s first in the league at home since January.
It’s always good to get a win at the Cottage – especially this season it’s been hard for us to get a win at the Cottage. We’re obviously happy with the three points, but we’re a bit disappointed about the second half, but it’s good to get two wins in a row.
We had a clean sheet against Leeds, but at the Cottage it had been a long time. Obviously, we play offensive football and the downside from that is that we get a lot of goals against [us]. Obviously we’re happy with the nil today and we need to build on that.
The popular 29 year-old is happy to be considered a versatile member of the Fulham squad, having made his name as a left back when he broke through to the first team at Oud-Herverlee Leuven, and was pleased to turn in a strong display at the heart of the defence – similar to his performances at Reading and Leeds – after Ream was ruled out with a problem picked up at Sheffield United.
Also in Belgium, that’s how they know me. It doesn’t really matter for me – obviously I have my favourite positions – I would say left back – but I just try to do my best and if it is centre back, left back or right back then that’s the way it is. Most of my career – I would say 65% I’ve played as a left back – so I’m most used to play as a left back. Obviously when I was younger I played as right full back but when I came into the first team at the highest level, I started playing left back and I played most of my games at left back so that’s why I prefer it.
Odoi was pleased that Fulham managed to resist Millwall’s more direct approach in the second half, even if Jokanovic’s men were disappointed that they couldn’t dominate possession as much as they did before the break.
We knew they were going to play that way. They obviously have big guys up front and that’s the way they play but [in the] first half we had possession and we managed to keep the ball and play a little bit of football. In the second half, I think we forgot to do that and we had difficulty playing football and then they had the ball and obviously they were going to keep hitting long balls.
It must have had something to do with the return of Brian McBride. Fulham, so lethargic and feeble in the first half as Preston North End’s mesmerising football saw them score twice in seven minutes, were gradually awakened once Tom Cairney was reunited with Kevin McDonald in central midfield. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side gained real belief when Oliver Norwood stepped up to score from the spot but, despite relentless pressure, an equalised looked out of reach until the previously faultless Chris Maxwell juggled Tim Ream’s deep cross and Denis Odoi pounced. An injury-time equaliser hasn’t been so wildly celebrated at the Hammersmith End since Cairney’s majestic curler that precipitated Leeds’ laughable slump to seventh place.
That Fulham’s salvation arrived in the 96th minute greatly exercised Alex Neil, who remonstrated with the home fans behind the dugout when they grew tired of Preston’s cynicism. The former Hamilton Accies boss was adamant that Darren England, who appeared to have left his yellow card in the Cottage during the first half, should have blown up after the five indicated minutes. As Neil reflects on how Preston, who looked so sublime with a combination of pace and unremitting pressing, squandered such a dominate position, he would do well to remember that, without the gamemanship that crept into North End’s game, the added time would not have mattered.
The visitors were vibrant from the off, with Tom Barkhuizen almost punishing a short back header from Tim Ream, but David Button scampered off his line. Barkhuizen sent a free header wide from Daniel Johnson’s cross, before a sixty-second spell that summed up the fine margins of the Championship. Fulham, who had gone close through Norwood and Rui Fonte, looked certain take the lead when Ryan Sessegnon athletically evaded a late lunge from Callum Woods and saw his cross parried away from Marshall, but the Preston something beat away Norwood’s strike with his right hand with Floyd Ayite’s acrobatics only troubling the Putney End spectators.
Preston went straight down the other end and scored. Sean Maguire was a yard offside when Ben Pearson’s pass sent him clear and the Irish forward made the most of his good fortune by supplying Jordan Hugill for his sixth goal of the season. Fulham were in shock and, after Norwood was played in trouble, Alan Browne should have made it two after being played in by Johnson’s clever pass but Button bailed out his side with a smart save.
The home side’s reprieve was short-lived. Barkhuizen found it far too easy to cut inside Ream and fire at goal from the edge of the box, with Button beaten by the deftest of deflections off Maguire. The former Cork City forward soon made an early departure, limping off clutching his hamstring, but the game followed largely the same pattern. Preston looked like they could score at will, with Browne nearly punishing a miscued Button clearance with an outrageous lob from 40 yards that brought former North End loanee David Beckham to mind. At times it seemed as though Kevin McDonald was the only man in a white shirt as he appeared to be covering each blade of grass. The midfielder was denied just before the break by another splendid save from Maxwell.
McDonald was still imperious in the second period but Fulham were fired up by Jokanovic’s own version of the hairdryer and 45 minutes from Cairney, who is clearly still working his way back from that knee injury. The hosts began at quite a pace with Fonte fizzing a 20-yarder fractionally over the bar and when McDonald bent a beautiful effort past Maxwell but saw it come back off the post there was a sense that this might just be one of those days.
Former Manchester United midfielder Josh Harrop spurned a couple of good chances in quick succession, but Fulham were gradually gaining momentum.
Fonte, who had pulled Preston’s centre halves from pillar to post in a desperate bid to get Fulham back into a game that appeared beyond them got his reward for persistence when another intelligent run was spotted by Ayite and some swift footwork enticed Woods to make an ill-advised lunge at the ball. It was a clear penalty, but the drama came after the award. Fonte wasn’t entirely keen to take it following his miss at Loftus Road and Floyd Ayite found himself with the ball in hand, but Norwood intervened and coolly converted the spot-kick, sending Maxwell the wrong way with real confidence.
Norwood kept finding himself in advanced positions. His snapshot from 20 yards almost embarrassed Maxwell, who grabbed it at the second attempt, but the Northern Ireland midfielder looked certain to provide the equaliser in the final minute of the ninety, when Cairney’s lofted pass located Odoi well forward on the right. The Belgian’s header back across was begging to tucked home from close range but Norwood failed to get a telling touch, ending up in the net instead of the ball. Maxwell stayed down for an age clutching first his head and then his knee, neither of which felt the impact of Norwood’s challenge and there was some irony, therefore, in the Welshman’s eventual clanger. With what seemed destined Fulham’s final throw of the dice, Marshall came charged out to collect Ream’s cross and spilled it at the feet of Odoi, who made the matter of finding the net look ridiculously easy.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Button; Odoi, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood, Johansen (Mollo 71); Ayite, Kebano (Cairney 45), Fonte. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Soares, Djalo, Cisse, Graham.
GOALS: Norwood (pen 74), Odoi (90+6).
PRESTON NORTH END (4-3-3): Maxwell, Woods, Earl, Huntington, Davies; Pearson (Welsh 59), Johnson; Barkhuizen (Robinson 71), Browne, Maguire (Harrop 30), Hugill. Subs (not used): Boyle, Vermijl, Mavididi, Hudson.
BOOKED: Earl, Johnson.
GOALS: Hugill (18), Maguire (25).
REFEREE: Darren England (Barnsley)