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Fulham slip up - Sunday Times

last updated Sunday 08th April 2001, 8:20 AM
It was not a good day for favourites, and Fulham's thoroughbreds, like the equine variety, slipped up in the wet.

Hoping to move within a point of promotion, the runaway leaders of the First Division instead dropped two, and will need to play better than this if they are to gain anything from their summit meeting with second-placed Blackburn on Wednesday.

West Brom, nearly relegated a year ago, harbour play-off aspirations of their own, and looked the part here with a strong, resolute performance which could easily have been rewarded with a goal, and a notable victory.

It had seemed like a good day to renew old acquaintance with Craven Cottage, with its echoes of Johnny Haynes and George Cohen, Alan Mullery and Rodney Marsh. A less frenetic, black and white era, when blue sky meant something other than Men & Motors.

But the sun gave way to rain as the match started, and the football took its lead from the weather. Grey and cheerless for the most part.

It is 33 years since Fulham were last in the top division, under Vic Buckingham, and two decades since Malcolm Macdonald was the last to have a decent stab at getting them back there. Ten managers have come and gone since, Ray Harford and Kevin Keegan among them, and it has taken a touch of the exotic to get it right.

France's Jean Tigana has assembled a team playing Premiership football in the First Division, and they remain racing certainties to go up as champions. Tigana, however, is the first to admit that it would not have been possible without the largesse of Mohamed al-Fayed, the wannabe Englishman from Cairo, who has bankrolled the acquisition of players such as Alain Goma, newly recruited from Newcastle, Louis Saha, from Metz, and John Collins (formerly Everton]. Goma was absent, injured and Luis Boa Morte, once of Arsenal, suspended yesterday.

There was a 20-point gap between the two teams at kick-off, but West Brom, who were last in the big league 15 years ago, are looking good under Gary Megson's revivalist management. They need to hang on to their present, play-off position to have any chance of getting to the promised land, and in that context defeats for Wolves, Birmingham and Sheffield United were an unexpected bonus.

The Baggies (well, it was a throwback sort of occasion) have a cosmopolitan flavour of their own, in the shape of Richard Sneekes (Holland), Jordao (Portugal) and Jason van Blerk (Australia), but it was their three central defenders, Tony Butler, Phil Gilchrist and Neil Clement, who caught the eye, with their powerfully obdurate contribution.

In midfield, too, Albion were well served, particularly by Sneekes and Mike Appleton.

Fulham began confidently, as might be expected of champions-elect, but they never thought this one would be easy, and it wasn't. Well drilled in every part of the field, the boys from the black country kept them at bay with no great difficulty, and found time to manufacture the only chances of note in a strangely subdued first half.

There were three of them. First Bob Taylor had a solid header, from 12 yards, touched over by his namesake in the Fulham goal, Maik. The keeper was extended again to keep out another Taylor header at close range. And just before half-time, busy Bob was back again, shooting against the outside of a post from Hughes's headed pass.

Fulham, for their part, passed it around nicely, as is their custom, but got nowhere. Fifty-two minutes elapsed before they demanded a save from Russell Hoult, and then Lee Clark's potshot from 25 yards lacked both accuracy and conviction. No matter, at least the league leaders were stirring, and almost immediately Saha produced a better effort.

Midway through the second half, Tigana sent on Karlheinz Riedle, a third striker, in pursuit of the goal he needed, and at once Hoult had to earn his money with a brave save to deny Sean Davis. When the ball squirted loose, Barry Hayles was thwarted by a last-ditch block.

Riedle threatened to break the stalemate late on with an athletic volley which called to mind his halcyon years, but the German veteran found only the side netting at the far post, and Davis was well wide with a 25-yarder that smacked of desperation.

That was certainly the way of it for West Brom in the 89th minute, when first Riedle and then Clark brought high class saves from Hoult.

West Brom were the better side in the first half, Fulham took over in the second, so a point apiece was about right in the end. Megson's analysis was spot on. "Fulham had a lot of the ball in the first half, but ran out of ideas," he said "They pinned us back in the second half, but I was pleased with the way we played against such a strong, passing team. We didn't man-mark Lee Clark, like most teams do, and we didn't try to kick them off the park. We played football. A lot of people have been congratulating me, but I don't see it like that. As far as I'm concerned, we didn't achieve what we set out to do. I thought we could win it."

And so to Blackburn on Wednesday, when first meets second. It will be another tough one, but it is within Fulham's capabilities to succeed at Fortress Ewood after slipping up here.

Fulham: Taylor, Finnan, Melville, Symons, Brevett, Stolcer (Goldbaek 55min), Davis, Clark, Collins (Riedle 65min), Hayles, Saha

West Bromwich Albion: Hoult, Butler, Gilchrist, Clement, Lyttle, Sneekes, Jordao (Chambers 38min), Appleton, Van Blerk, Taylor (Roberts 60min), Hughes

Referee: D Messias

Attendance: 17,795
Source Sunday Times by Joe Lovejoy
Since 1998
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