Fulham and us
By Ian Grant
Last night, a cat decided to rearrange my patio for me. Very kind and everything...but, on reflection,
the "toppled containers, scattered soil and flies hovering around turd" look isn't really what I was after. A
bit too avant garde(n) for my tastes, unfortunately. So I spent half an hour this morning putting it all back
in place which, in the case of the cat's latter contribution, was a pretty disgusting task.
Now, as regular readers will know very well, I'd usually take advantage of such an opportunity and introduce
my match report in metaphorical fashion. Something about the opposition arriving uninvited and crapping on our
patio, probably. Or our pretty, but unprotected, flowerbeds getting ransacked by a destructive, enemy force.
You get the picture.
The thing is, of course, that such an introduction would be wholly inappropriate on this occasion. Saturday was great
in every respect. Hell, even the second half tannoy announcement that trains were going no further south than Harrow
proved to be insignificant - by the time I'd fortified myself for a nightmare journey with a suitable amount
of Guinness, everything was running smoothly. And I have to mention the Irish Hornets, Pat and Joe, whose post-match contribution
to the laughter and merriment and plain old happiness was second only to that of the team. It was a "top of the world, top of the league" sort of day. The kind that leaves you
a million miles away from the drudgery and irritation of the working week, that feels like a very welcome holiday.
It couldn't be going any better. So what if Fulham's victory over Blackburn means that we're
back in second? Really, who cares? Let them set the pace, let them take all the attention, let them do all the
hard work. Right now, we're perfectly placed - when you run a long distance race, you want to be just on the shoulder
of the leader, breathing down their neck. While our form continues, every Fulham win is good news. Frankly, while
our form continues, there is no bad news.
So QPR came, looked pretty reasonable in patches, and were swept away by some of our most fluent and intelligent attacking football
since the days of Ronny Rosenthal. Ironic, then, that two of our goals were scored directly from corners by our right back...
somehow, and for the first time, the ruthlessness of our finishing didn't match that of our approach play. Still,
this was excellent and thrilling, a performance of balance and poise as well as occasional ferocity.
Naturally, it helps if you take the lead in the first two minutes. It also helps if your opponents' complete
lack of regard for the basics of defending makes it stupidly easy to take the lead in the first two minutes. The start
was breathless, to say the least. In the opening seconds, the absurdly lanky Crouch, whose limbs appear to be
able to move in three directions at once, had demonstrated unlikely skill in beating Paul Robinson and crossing
for Langley to head at Alec Chamberlain. The Watford keeper hurled the ball out towards Nordin Wooter, suddenly
setting a Watford break in motion. After he'd charged into the QPR half, Wooter's cross was headed behind and,
from Robinson's corner, Neil Cox stole in unnoticed to open the scoring with a powerful, stooping header. I
spent the next five minutes attempting to get some notes down.
What followed was no less frantic, even if it yielded less goalmouth incident. Really, we were astonishing -
pace and power in equal measure, with Wooter popping up on either wing and Noel-Williams smashing his way through
the centre. Although our commitment to attacking offered the visitors more opportunities than they might've expected and
occasionally stretched our defence, this was a Graham Taylor side in full flow. Needless to say, it was glorious
Curious, then, that such fabulous football didn't create more chances. When we've stuttered and stammered on occasions
this season, we're always had that ability to find a way to get a glimpse of goal...yet in the first fifteen minutes,
despite much that was wonderful, it didn't quite happen. Perhaps we were a little over-elaborate, but QPR's makeshift side was hanging on
admirably - what they understandably lacked in coordination, they compensated for in tenacity. Indeed, they actually
came closer to scoring as Langley's free kick curled a foot over the bar (in fairness to Chamberlain, he'd judged it
well and let it go) and Koejoe fired wide from a tight angle. Langley had another try from a free kick after twenty-five minutes,
but missed the target by rather more.
Having failed to get that vital second goal by aesthetically pleasing means, we returned to our first method after twenty-two minutes. This
time, however, Cox wasn't helped by a complete lack of marking. Instead, he rose so high from a crowd of
players and met the ball so perfectly. That Harper managed to get a hand to it illustrates the point - he couldn't
keep it out, it was just too well-placed and too powerful.
After a shaky start last season, Neil Cox has become a full back in the grand Graham Taylor tradition. For me,
there was a moment shortly after the second goal that proved the point. As we won a free kick twenty-five
yards from goal, everyone's minds turned to thoughts of an extraordinary Cox hat-trick. If ever he was going to
unleash a thunderbolt of a shot into the top corner, this was surely the time. Instead, he stepped up and slid
a pass into the area for Allan Nielsen. Now, that's a player who's not only unselfish and working for the team,
but who's also concentrating entirely on what he's doing. Terrific.
Now, you might think that nothing could've followed Cox's heroics. Well, you'd be wrong. Usually, I record the
time of any significant incidents in these reports. In which case, the next one took place after thirty-one and
thirty-two minutes. Yes, we had the ball for that long - so much for the Charles Hughes
methods that we're supposed to be obsessed with. Something like thirty passes in total, moving the ball swiftly and
neatly all over the pitch, before Wooter pirouetted and unleashed a shot that smacked against the angle of bar and
post with Harper beaten. That would've been the goal of the season, no argument whatsoever.
Then, for a moment or two, we got a bit distracted. We allowed Kulcsar to amble forward and, with no-one attempting
to close him down, scuff a shot wide from just outside the area. Worse, we let the ball bounce through towards Koejoe,
who was attempting to bring it down and score from six yards when Paul Robinson arrived from nowhere, flattened him, everyone around him and
half of the Main Stand. He took the ball too, even though it was still at knee height. It was pretty much the greatest tackle I've ever
seen, quite honestly. Not because it stopped a near-certain goal - it had none of that desperation. Simply because
of its sheer, monstrous, unstoppable power. It was the tackle that all other tackles call "sir".
Things quietened down a little towards half-time as Gerry Francis' emergency reorganisation, bringing on Connolly
and Peacock, began to give his side some kind of foothold in the game. Wardley's drive from twenty-five yards
whistled over. However, the problem for any side that concedes the first goal against us is that they're going
to get murdered on the break - so many games have already been characterised by the sight of Watford forwards
streaming towards the opposition goal and so many games have already been conclusively won by one decisive break. So, although
Wooter was slightly wasteful in shooting over from twenty-two yards after sprinting onto Helguson's pass, it could
be taken as a sign of things to come in the second half.
After the referee had blown, the body language of the two teams was significant. While the Rangers players dragged
their feet on the way back to the dressing room, the home side jogged past them as if eager to get the interval over
and resume hostilities. The ovation they received was well deserved - not the most secure football we've
ever played, perhaps, but as fresh, fluent and creative as the First Division allows. All in all, a fine response to the
challenge of keeping the winning run going after a two week break.
Vicarage Road has been lacking decent half-time entertainment for some time now. Problem solved. This one
was a joy. Whoever had the idea of letting the penalty shoot-out be rudely and hilariously compered by Roger Mellie of Viz - apparently intent on reducing all of the
participating youngsters to tears, culminating in a magnificent volley of abuse ("DON'T SMILE! YOU WON'T BE
SMILING WHEN YOU MISS, WILL YOU?") to the final penalty-taker (who missed, inevitably, and received further abuse
instead of comfort) - deserves a bloody medal. The same applies to whoever spiked his tea.
But that was the end of the fun for a while. There was an inevitability about Rangers' start to the second half - Francis'
reputation may have been sullied by his unsuccessful spell at Spurs (his successors have hardly filled
the trophy cabinet) but he's a good enough manager to refuse to let his side crumble so completely and be beaten
so comprehensively. Because of that inevitability, though, our reaction was disappointing - we seemed unprepared
for an onslaught and we were instantly in trouble when it came.
So, after Wooter had sent a rising shot at Harper, all hell broke loose. Naturally, Crouch was the main target -
if you've got someone who's seventeen feet tall in your penalty area, you've got a problem that needs solving - but
that wasn't something that had changed while the teams were in the dressing room. No, we just lost control -
pushed back by Rangers' furious attacks, the midfield became non-existent and we could do nothing to turn the
tide. Urged on by loud support from the Vic Road end, QPR were sensing a comeback. Suddenly, the points really
didn't look very secure.
There was too much panic, too much desperation. We'd been caught off-guard. Koejoe nearly latched onto Crouch's knockdown and was foiled
by a flailing tackle from Ward, and it just seemed as if there was no way to stop the onslaught. As it turned out,
the only way to stop it was to concede - after Connolly had dived in to score from yet another Crouch header, QPR
seemed pacified and never again managed to reach such heights of passion. Certainly, there were a couple of dodgy
moments after they'd pulled the goal back - Crouch (inevitably) drifted a header wide from Darlington's cross, for
instance - but the idea that Alec Chamberlain could finish the game without making a save of any kind would've seemed
unthinkable a few minutes before.
The third goal settled it, then. Predictably, it came on the break as QPR chased the game. Helguson supplied
Noel-Williams, who still had much to do...and he did it all, holding off a defender to get into the area and
somehow picking out a shot into the top corner as both players appeared to be doing little more than tussling
for possession. A quite sensational finish, the equal of that famous goal against Sunderland.
That was it. QPR didn't manage another goal attempt. Their spirit had been broken, every attack seemed to get
ambushed and result in a more dangerous counter-attack. Again, some of our football was outstanding. In particular,
there was Robinson's sublime sliding tackle on Peacock, robbing the Rangers veteran of possession as he burst forward through
the midfield and then setting up a sweeping move that so nearly resulted in a fourth goal. Having won the ball,
Robinson supplied Clint Easton, on for Micah Hyde, whose fine cross-field pass switched play to Wooter on the right wing. Noel-Williams
arrived to meet the cross at the near post and was only denied by Carlisle's awareness in tracking back to
As if announcing his return to match fitness, Gifton was simply too much for the Rangers defence to handle
in the second half. He might've had a hat-trick. Two minutes after the blocked header, he was at it again - sent
clear by another excellent Easton pass, he shot early from outside the box. Harper fumbled unconvincingly and
the ball arrived back at the striker's feet. This time, his left foot effort was directed at the keeper...but even
then it nearly squirmed underneath his body.
We were rampant. Worth highlighting Steve Palmer's role in all this, I think, simply because his name is rarely
mentioned right now. The point is that a team has to have balance. When you've got three or four players hurtling
forward on a mission, you need someone to ensure that everything's secure if it goes wrong. Otherwise, you simply
can't commit those players forward with such abandon - you don't want Allan Nielsen and Micah Hyde hanging around in the
centre circle while the ball's in the opposition penalty area. So, in every way, Palmer's role within the side is as vital and
irreplaceable as it is uncelebrated. And, apart from an in-form Richard Johnson, he's the only person at the club
who can do the job. It's harder than it looks, you know.
Getting back to the action, Noel-Williams shot rather selfishly at Harper from an angle after Wooter and Helguson
had combined in yet another swift break. Helguson, who played in Gifton's shadow on this occasion, curled a shot at
the keeper from twenty yards; Easton blazed over from distance; Noel-Williams volleyed acrobatically and inaccurately.
Then, just as injury time entered its final seconds and it appeared as if it was time to pack away the notebook, the
most bizarre incident of an action-packed game. Yet again, the Hornets pounced on the ball and sped away towards
the Rookery. Tommy Smith, on as a late substitute, fed Noel-Williams and time stood still as he sauntered in
the general direction of the goal. He teased Harper, slowly inching his way around the keeper as if he was on a
cliff edge, and finally presented himself with an empty net. At which point, Harper reached back, pulled one
of the striker's ankles away and waited for the referee's whistle. The whistle came...but it was for the end
of the match. Much to Neil Cox's disappointment, I'd imagine.
Another "potential banana skin" gets consigned to the dustbin, then. Despite having had only two on-target efforts in
the whole ninety minutes, you look at QPR and suspect that they'll trip someone up on their travels before the end of the season.
It won't be us, though.
Twenty-four hours at the top is quite enough, I reckon. We don't need it. Fulham can keep showing off and keep receiving
torrents of praise in return. That's not our style - we'd find it distracting and we've already been treated to lengthy demonstrations
of what happens when we lose concentration.
No, we'll just keep our heads down and work hard. It's the only way. It's our way.