A somewhat laboured but deserved victory over Newcastle concludes a good month for the Whites. Despite the woes of autumn, our season seems back on track
Let's begin with a snapshot of our latest win. It was the Whites third game in a week and for much of the first half it showed. Neither the pitch nor a whistle happy ref helped, with Fulham disjointed and a long way short of their vibrancy against Spurs. Misplaced passes and hesitancy in midfield kept the home fans largely mute, although we had a full house.
Credit to Newcastle for frustrating us and breaking up the flow of the game. I never thought I'd be writing this, but Joey Barton kept them ticking over, had plenty of the ball, and remained disciplined throughout - even in a losing cause. Not a sign of petulance from him.
The half-time chat from the Sky studio featured Lee Clark and Chris Coleman. Both wore the captains armband for the Whites, both were adamant Brede had been unfairly manhandled in the box going for two first-half free-kicks. Video vindicated their view, but Brede is almost too saintly for his own good - neither complaining nor seeking to exploit the situation. The first obstruction by Williamson was the more outrageous of the two, the lino on the Riverside too pusillanimous to raise his flag. Mark fired off a dose of verbals in his direction, now why can't the FA show some guts and suspend the official concerned?
No matter, some strong words must have been exchanged at half time. Fulham upped the tempo immediately and created three good chances in the first 5 minutes after the restart, with the last Duff skewed a ricochet horribly wide of the post from close range. A howler and he knew it. However, Fulham's fleet-footed forwards were now hitting their stride, Sidwell settled and that allowed Murphy more time, while our back four remained as solidly dependable as ever.
The breakthough came with our captain's great long pass over the top putting Duff in the clear and this time the Irishman made no mistake on 67, the way he celebrated his first goal of the season told you how relieved he was to get that monkey off his back. In the last 20 minutes Fulham returned to some of the swagger we'd seen Sunday. A clutch of openings came the way of Dempsey, Moussa and sub Kakuta - the product of quicksilver passing, alert running and great control. With more composure in the box, and without ever playing close to our best, Newcastle could have been on the end of a thrashing. Man of the match? Take your pick between Pants and Moussa.
As we move up to 12th I am very optimistic about our last third of the season. Fulham's attacking players will pose problems for anyone. How we are going to integrate Zamora into this mix I would not like to hazard a guess. I'd be very interested to canvass opinion as to who you think should makeway for the return of the big man. Not Dembele or Dempsey. AJ...Duff? Does Kakuta get a look in? Surely he must on the evidence of his 20 minutes yesterday. And what now for Gera, Davies and Kamara?
Managers value two qualities above all other in the modern era. Pace and power. A generation ago there was room in the game for elegant passers like Jim Baxter and our own Johnny Haynes. The game now is much more demanding, fitness levels have taken a quantum leap. What Fulham - after astute building in the past six months currently have - are what I call explosive players across the pitch. Footballers all with a turn of pace and no little skill who make things happen, or hustle opponents into errors - AJ, Clint, Moussa, Damien up top and Sidwell in midfield. It's simple to define our upswing in form when you consider pre Christmas we had just ONE player offering this dimension consistently, the matchless Mr. Dempsey. Tireless and brave, give thanks our saviour has remained injury free this campaign.
With the spectre of relegation hopefully banished before Easter, though we have both Chelsea and Man City coming up, I've drawn a comparison between where Fulham stand now and this time last year. After a 0-2 home reverse to Villa at the end of January 2010 we were on the wobble, not having picked up a win for 6 weeks. That put added pressure on our midweek game with bottom side Portsmouth four days later. but we scratched out an unconvincing win at home 1-0, turned the corner and went on a nine match unbeaten run in all competitions that took us up to the two legs with Juventus. And we all know what happened after that...
To put things in perspective then, despite the slow decline from last October onwards as the goals dried up, this time last year we sat 10th in the league with 30 points from 24 games, now its 12th and 29 from one game more. The conclusion to draw from this is that 12 months on, and following the change in management and coaching staff, Fulham is right back on the even keel established under Roy.
Fears that Hughes might impose a more robust and direct style have proved unfounded. The only side without a sending off to date and the lowest number of yellows. Our magnificently drilled back four is last year's model, minus Konchesky. We are still playing football the right way, with signs a more adventurous and - hopefully - winning mentality to away games is on the horizon. In fact, in light of the three new faces arriving in January, one could argue the Fulham of 2011 now carries more promise than Woy's.
Despite the injury setbacks, amidst the volatility and transient nature of football our great little football club must be congratulated for sound governance and solid progress. One final theme that shows a consistency of purpose over time.
Consider the back four for Wednesday's game. In my preview I doubted Newcastle's ability to get behind them. They could not. Since the stumble against West Ham we have three straight shut outs in league action at the Cottage, barely conceding a sniff of goal to opponents. Woy was responsible for Pants, Brede and Mark. The much maligned Sanchez however brought in Hughes, Baird, and crucially Danny Murphy back in 2007 - three of our most consistent players.
This weekend we have a winnable game at another of our bogey grounds, Villa Park. The Villans will hopefully see a team transformed from the one that needed a stoppage time header by Hangeland to snatch a point in early November.