By Morgan Phillips
After gaining seven points from three mid- February matches Fulham should have provided strong opposition for Middlesbrough but the visitors enjoyed an easy victory.
In the third minute Stewart Downing glided though the Fulham defence and Albert Adomah, unmarked, elegantly headed past Lonergan. Shortly afterwards Ryan Fredericks fell painfully and was barely able to run yet the coach Jokanovic kept him on the pitch. Faced with a further Middlesbrough foray down the left wing Fredericks could not even attempt a tackle. Chris Baird in desperation tripped Ramirez and from the penalty spot Grant Leadbetter increased the visitors' lead.
Belatedly Fredericks was replaced by Dembele, whose bicycle kick deserved a goal. Madl was equally unlucky when his fierce low header was scrambled away by a defender. Generally though Middlesbrough stifled the Fulham attack, and the first half became tedious.
As sometimes happens Fulham improved after the interval and substitute Jamie O’Hara was presented with an easy chance. Had he converted it, the crowd could have spurred Fulham on to earn a point. Instead O'Hara missed and there was a further calamity when Richard Stearman’s clumsiness led to a red card.
The game at Reading at least started more promisingly. Moussa Dembele, newly voted London’s Football League Player of the Year, put his team ahead from Michael Madl's header. However Amorbieta's pointless shove in the penalty area allowed Reading to equalise and Robson-Kanu gave the visitors the lead in the 41st minute. Fortunately Jake Cooper’s similarly obvious foul on Ryan Fredericks allowed McCormack to rescue a point. This result was barely satisfactory for the Black and Whites, especially as the clubs below them were beginning to mount their recovery.
Those hardy souls who braved a cold, damp evening at the Cottage for Burnley's visit (8th March) saw a truly exciting match. Fulham attacked from the start but conceded a 9th minute header by Sam Vokes (almost inevitably unmarked). Moussa Dembele laid on the equaliser for McCormack, then bundled in an inspired pass from Luke Garbutt. Ryan Tunnicliffe assisted in each Fulham goal.
Largely outplayed in the first half Burnley equalised after the interval when Cairney was penalised for a foul on Joey Barton. Fulham have given away so many penalties in the present season but here at least Mr Whitestone’s decision seemed harsh. Undoubtedly the referee erred later in the match by not punishing a Burnley player who deliberately prevented a quick free kick.
Either side could have won but Andre Gray secured the visitors’ success in the 61st minute when he easily outwitted the Fulham defence.
The outstanding performances of Scott Parker and his men in that match went unrewarded and the result left Fulham just two points above the relegation zone. As the head coach put it, ‘It’s very complicated for us to score so many goals to win games.’
The home match against Bristol City, the team just below Fulham, did nothing to make life easier for Mr Jokanonovic.
Once again the home side started purposefully, and took the lead when Michael Madl put Ross McCormack in the clear. The striker’s perfect lob seemed to hang in the air before landing just inside the net.
Unfortunately Fulham did not increase their tally; on the contrary they seemed content to keep the ball in their own half, a policy that has misfired so often. After the interval Dembele should have settled the match when Ryan Fredericks created an easy chance for him but his control let him down. The impetus switched to Bristol City when Luke Garbutt lost the ball in mid-field to Marlon Pack, who ran through and scored almost unchallenged. Yet another injudicious foul gave Lee Tomblin a free kick that would tempt any striker. From the Hammersmith End we could see a clear gap left by the five man wall, and without much exertion Tomblin exploited it.
As against Burnley the Fulham players never stopped trying but the double defeat must have damaged the players’ confidence as well as the club’s position in the table. So fans must be thankful for the point earned at Birmingham by a much changed Fulham team. Bettinelli replaced Lonergan, and Rohan Ince celebrated a rare start with a first half goal. It arose from a splendid passing movement involving Parker, Hyndman, McCormack and Cairney, though the goalkeeper should have saved Ince's shot. Burnley equalised but the point kept Fulham just above the relegation zone.
Had the team lost this match there would have been a nervous fortnight before the vital game against MK Dons on the 2nd April.
As our players keep repeating, Fulham's fate lies in their hands - but it certainly helped that while Fulham gained a point at Birmingham the teams below them (MK Dons, Charlton and Bolton) were all defeated.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and unless specifically stated are not necessarily those of the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham