Thursday, 5 March 2009

28: Fulham 0 - 1 Hull City - 04/03/2009

Unbelievable. After such a trough in form, such a despairing atmosphere among the Tiger Nation and having to read about our death and decline from classless hacks gleeful at being proved "right", we go and do this.

A 92nd minute winner against a side with the second best home record in the Premier League. A first double at this level, having beaten Fulham at the KC Stadium on day one. And, for wildly contrasting reasons, again this game was all about a substitution.

Well, two actually. There's no doubt that it was fairly level, slightly drab encounter at Craven Cottage until Phil Brown chucked on first Manucho - a spectacularly underwhelming presence before this game - and then Richard Garcia, a player who has indirectly and passively caused or prompted or affected much of the arguing about team selection of late.

Manucho replaced the tired Daniel Cousin and instantly began to show us he really can play a bit after all. Touches were deft, feints were untelegraphed, shooting was confident (if a bit wayward), aerial power was conclusive. The lad just needed a goal...

In the second minute of injury time Garcia, who came on for Bernard Mendy after 89 minutes and therefore could still feel the linament on his thighs, tried to cut a ball to the big striker with his right foot. It hit a defender and span wildly out out the left, making the angle impossible and deadening the attack. Garcia gave chase, if only to maintain possession as a point here would prove as precious as any. But no - a typical Aussie mantra of never giving up washed over the City midfielder and he wrapped a gravity-defying left foot around the ball and got an immense cross into the six yard area which the Angolan anticipated and stabbed beneath and beyond Mark Schwarzer.

The celebration of the unused subs and the replaced players said as much as the insanity among the Tiger Nation. They all ran on the pitch. They all felt the relief. They all probably should have got booked. They all didn't care.

Fulham forced two corners in the minute or so which followed the restart but City maintained their cool and the joyous screams at the final whistle were comparable to any the Tiger Nation has shrilled out in these heady recent years. A win at Fulham might not instantly look like a singularly important or euphoric moment but after the trouble we've had, the stick the manager has unjustly taken, the patronising we've suffered from outside quarters and just the dreadful run of late goals conceded and demoralising defeats, we felt this better than anything. It could easily be the most important and, in some ways, the most memorable three points of the season.

Brown picked a standardised 4-4-2, with the big injury worries prior to the game - not least Ian Ashbee and the irreplaceable Michael Turner - coming through fine. Anthony Gardner was, mercifully, restored to the back four alongside Turner, with Kevin Kilbane proving a sensible and wise choice at left back to replace the suspended Andy Dawson, while Sam Ricketts, rightly and with relief, returned to the right back role after Nathan Doyle's inexperience rusted over the last two matches. Kamil Zayatte returned to midfield as Dean Marney began his ban, and Geovanni played, which probably surprised a lot of people who don't know our manager at all, while Cousin started at last and Craig Fagan, also an injury doubt beforehand, turned up on the left. Pace on both flanks, power in the middle, specialism in defence and a creator behind a proper goalscorer in attack. It was, at last, a proper team. Harsh on Garcia in some ways, but given that Mendy is not performing at all at the moment, a return to his best position on the right of midfield may not be far away.

Sunshine carried us all the way to London but it turned very cold very quickly as the players lined up. Instantly, Mendy weaved through a couple of tackles and won a free kick which Geovanni had his eye on. Though the angle seemed more suited to a left-footer, the absence of Dawson and the Brazilian's own obvious determination to reclaim his manager's faith meant he was the only candidate to take it, and he slapped the ball just a yard wide.

To be honest, we barely came close again for the rest of normal time. Fulham had the better of play in terms of chances, but even they were rare or speculative. Turner and Gardner were magnificent at the back, with Ashbee also providing extra depth in defence when needed. Danny Murphy and Bobby Zamora exchanged passes down the right flank which allowed Zamora to cut in and fire a shot which was both high and wide.

Paul Konchesky, responsible as much as Fagan or Caleb Folan for City's opening day win, then swung in a penetrating cross from the left which Andy Johnson managed to delicately flick towards the far post, but Matt Duke was able to watch it drift beyond the net.

Fulham pressed more, but City were holding out with a mixture of competence and ease. Zamora's run and low centre avoided Johnson's stretch in the six yard box and ran right across to Clint Dempsey, whose goalbound effort was blocked brilliant by Ashbee's desperate sprawl.

Geovanni had a bouncing snapshot deflect wide as City regained some momentum, but soon the home side were at it again as Simon Davies volleyed Zamora's pullback into the ground and over Duke's bar.

As half time approached, it seemed hopeful. Fulham had the majority of possession but were overly patient, refusing to utilise Johnson's pace and allowing the Tigers to regroup. There was one minor scare in injury time when Mendy made en error in possession which allowed Zamora to cascade down the left and cut inside. His shot was well barricaded by Ricketts but it fell to Johnson who flashed the rebound wide.

Half time, a good defensive display and a bit of glitter in attack. This was winnable, provided the old concentration issues of so many matches in the barren spell didn't sink its teeth into us again.

Fulham got a closer early in the second half when Davies crossed to the far post Dempsey to head against the woodwork. The angle was so narrow though that it would have been a miracle had he got the header on target, and the outside of the post was the best he could manage. Dempsey then had another go from 25 yards as shooting from distance became a Fulham policy for the rest of the game, but Duke batted it over the bar after a little backpedalling. Dempsey took the corner, Brede Hangeland flicked on and Johnson headed goalwards only for Mendy to clear off the line.

That was close. But City's defence did what it needed to do, and did it well. Long range efforts continued to rain in, with Duke again swatting aside a dipper from Konchesky, before City countered and Fagan set up Cousin who wasted the chance by sending it high and not handsome.

The hour mark passes and Dempsey crosses low towards the scrounging Johnson, only for Ricketts to swing at the ball and get something faint enough on it to repel Johnson's finish. Fulham could have scored by now, but their paucity was as much about City's resistance as it was about their inability to finish.

Johnson wriggled free of Ashbee and shot low for the far corner which Duke collected to his left. Still a goal seemed unlikely from either side, and with his recent antecedence to consider, a goal for City appeared even more unpredictable once Manucho replaced the surprisingly ineffective Cousin with 15 minutes left.

There then followed a terrific individual 15 minutes from the gawky Angolan. He took a ball from Ashbee and shot from distance slightly too high almost as soon as the game restarted, then glanced a Ricketts free kick inches wide after Geovanni, in full flight, had been fouled.

Fulham had two half opportunities to win it as injury time ticked closer - Davies shot instantly from a counter attack and Duke got it away, then Turner committed a most out-of-character faux pas by slipping in possession and letting Johnson take the ball; only to then turn to a definitively in-character moment by stealing the ball of the England striker's toes with panache and, no doubt, some relief.

Brown chucked Garcia on for the shattered, invisible Mendy, and then sent Nick Barmby on as three minutes added time was announced. Geovanni walked off, with the crowd feeling that Brown's humility and the player's change of attitude was entirely vindicated, and the applause for the Brazilian may also have been an appreciation of the manager's decision to pick him in the first place.

Injury time brought the brilliant, dramatic finale, crafted by the two subs, both of whom will be pressing for a start against Newcastle United a week on Saturday. While the momentum would have been nice to maintain this weekend, a run of four games in nine days means the players - and fans - should be grateful for a rest this weekend thanks to the congestion in Arsenal's calendar rendering City's FA Cup quarter final opponents still undecided. But this was just as big as any quarter final could claim to be, and as little as two more victories - of any nature - will now be enough to keep the Tigers airborne in the top division. What a fantastic night.

Fulham: Schwarzer, Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky, Davies, Murphy, Etuhu, Dempsey, Johnson, Zamora (Kamara 89). Subs not used: Zuberbuhler, Nevland, Gera, Dacourt, Stoor, Kallio.

Hull City: Duke, Zayatte, Turner, Gardner, Kilbane, Mendy (Garcia 89), Ashbee, Ricketts, Geovanni (Barmby 90), Fagan, Cousin (Manucho 76). Subs not used: Myhill, Hughes, France, Halmosi.