CRIKEY, where did spring suddenly come from? Twenty-four hours after watching my hands turn a strange bluish-purple at Doncaster, I was positively sweltering in the sun at Fulham. Mind you, I was wearing a winter coat, a jumper and a shirt.
Has there ever been a better time to be a Fulham fan? Last season, the club recorded their highest-ever league finish (and won this blog’s prestigious Gubbometer prize to boot.) This season, they’ve somehow managed to sail along quite nicely in the Premier League while going on a Europa League run bordering on the surreal.
Did they really knock out the holders Shakhtar Donetsk in the last 32? And did they really come back from three goals down on aggregate to knock out Juventus? THE Juventus? And did they really win the tie with a gorgeous chip from Clint Dempsey? Even if you were there to see it, you must have struggled to believe it.
Fulham manager Roy Hodgson popped up this morning on Radio Five Live’s Sportsweek, the show in which Garry Richardson politely asks awkward questions to high-profile guests who politely avoid answering them. It’s like Newsnight transported to the Victorian era, yet it’s compelling listening.
Richardson politely tried to probe Hodgson for the secret of his success, but the Fulham manager steadfastly refused to take any credit at all. As Jeremy Paxman would say: Oh, come on. Roy, you’ve managed to transform Bobby Zamora into a candidate for England’s World Cup squad. That in itself shows genius.
Maybe it’s an obvious thing to say that Hodgson’s understated style seems to fit Fulham perfectly. There’s something reassuringly old-fashioned about Hodgson, just as there is about Craven Cottage.
For a start, no sensible person would ever go there by car. (I went by car. I parked so far away, I was practically in Hammersmith.) And the Johnny Haynes Stand – the oldest in the Football league – is a Grade II listed building. The brick façade on the outside of the stand facing on to Stevenage Road was my first sight of the ground on getting there for yesterday’s match against Manchester City. Once inside, I was shown the way to my press seat by a friendly and helpful steward, who was very keen to tell me about the stand’s history.
It’s got a lot of character has Craven Cottage, sitting beside the Thames, along the route of the Boat Race. But it’s not a cheap day out, especially if you’re an away fan. City’s fans threatened to boycott this fixture last month after learning that they would have to pay up to £49 for a seat. As Howard Burr, secretary of the club’s Centenary Supporters Association, said to me at the time: “It’s City who have got all the money – not their fans!” There was still, though, a large and vocal away following yesterday.
City’s owner Sheikh Mansour has invested something in the region of £220million in the team since taking over in late August 2008. Not all of the purchases have worked out, and there has been a change of manager along the way, but they have a good chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
Their problem – it’s always been City’s problem – is inconsistency. They are the only club to have done a Premier League double over Chelsea this season. They’re also the only club to have failed to record a home win over Burnley. You never quite know what you’re going to get with City. But you do know what you’re going to get with Carlos Tevez.
At present, City look a far more dangerous side when Tevez is playing. They missed him when he flew home to Argentina on compassionate leave to be with his daughter, who was seriously ill after being born prematurely. It’s hard to think of another player who could go through all that worry, then get on a plane, fly for the best part of a day to get back to England, and then score twice against Chelsea.
Fulham couldn’t handle Tevez in the first half yesterday. Perhaps they were tired after their efforts against Juve – this was their 49th game of the season, and they do not have a Champions League-sized squad. Whatever the reason, they stood off to allow Tevez a crack at goal in the fourth minute, which keeper Mark Schwarzer saved well. And the Argentinian played a part in City’s opening goal three minutes later.
It was a curious moment in the game, because Fulham almost scored seconds before City did. Damien Duff crossed from the left, Zamora headed across goal, Zoltan Gera lifted the ball over Shay Given, but Kolo Toure hooked it away.
Then Tevez set Craig Bellamy off down the other end, and his shot was deflected against the post by Aaron Hughes. Schwarzer, wrongfooted and off balance, couldn’t get his hands on the loose ball, which Roque Santa Cruz prodded into the net from tap-in distance.
That goal calmed City down. Although it didn’t calm Patrick Vieira, who irked the home fans by clattering into Danny Murphy, a challenge which went unpunished. Zamora worked hard to try to drag Toure and Vincent Kompany away from their centre-back positions, but Vieira and Gareth Barry made a point of covering for them. City looked more solid defensively than they have for a long while.
Fulham, in the meantime, continued to give Tevez too much space. Nine minutes before half-time, he fed Bellamy down the left, darted into the area to take the return pass, skipped around an exposed Chris Smalling and made it 2-0. Simple.
It should have been more after the break, with Adam Johnson hitting the post and curling another effort just wide, while Bellamy also went close.
But with 15 minutes left, Barry was judged to have handled Chris Baird’s cross – I wasn’t convinced – and Murphy’s faultless penalty gave Fulham hope.
That set up the kind of frantic finish which had Fulham equaliser written all over it. In the closing stages, Kompany appeared to handle Bjorn Helge Riise’s cross – it looked a stronger penalty shout than the one that was given – but referee Lee Probert turned down the appeal, and City held on. They sit two points off fourth spot with a game in hand.
Manager Roberto Mancini spoke of his hope that City could finish in the top four, although his attempts to get to grips with English still frustrate his attempts to express himself clearly.
I didn’t help matters by asking if he thought the win could be a springboard for City’s Champions League push. He didn’t know what the word ‘springboard’ meant – which is fair enough. After all, I don’t know how to say it in Italian. I was perhaps over-ambitious in throwing a gymnastic equipment-related metaphor at him.
Fulham don’t have time to feel sorry for themselves, as they have an FA Cup replay at Tottenham on Wednesday. There’s a Europa League quarter-final against Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg to come too. By the end of this season, Hodgson’s side will have played a minimum of 60 games. Great times, but exhausting times.