Passion, desire, determination, fight, fearlessness and effort. Words that each and every professional footballer should encapsulate when they cross that white line. Football isn’t just about the winning, it’s about belonging and feeling part of something much more important than just 3 points. Knowing that you have a connection with the players representing your club whom might not be as talented as the opposition or may lack confidence due to a dip in form but a team that never give up and reward the supporters with a performance to be proud of. Scott Parker’s Black and White Army delivered just that.
The West London derby hasn’t been kind to Fulham in recent years. Just 3 top flight wins in 49 matches going into the 50th meeting yesterday afternoon. Only 1 win in 14 seasons of Premier League football thanks to the ever-popular Luis Boa Morte’s shin. Add to that what has been a desperately poor season and you don’t need a genius to work out the likely result. But this particular derby wasn’t merely about winning. The defeat at Southampton has almost certainly ensured our fate come May and surely all the team have left to play for in the remaining 10 games is pride.
Scott Parker had a successful career. He is respected by so many within the game for the way he conducts himself on and off the pitch. Someone who the current squad know so well and can relate to. His responsibility at present is to play an identical role to the one Kit Symons played in restoring dignity, credibility and a feel-good factor within the club; reuniting the dressing room and connection with the fans. “We’ve got our Fulham back” was a popular chant sang during the early days of Kit’s reign and on first impressions, there is certainly a sense of déjà vu within the Cottage walls.
We’ve seen it so often of late. A familiar face, an arm around the shoulder, a younger, more current manager who is respected by the fans. Ole Gunner Solskjaer, Neil Harris, Darren Moore, Eddie Howe, Gary Monk. All of whom have experienced a level of success with the club who decided to give them a chance. In my eyes this trend will continue to be popular because footballers nowadays are precious, they are molly-coddled and, in many cases, are (very) high maintenance. They need a father figure to guide them through a season, particularly the bad times like those we are facing right now. Scott Parker is that man in principle. Claudio Ranieri simply wasn’t. In fact, the only thing the Italian seemed to be very effective at was maintaining his relationship with the media, whilst his players became more and more disillusioned by what he was trying to do (let’s not get into that, we would be here all day!). Scott was a leader as a player and his guidance for the rest of this season should restore a level of confidence in the players and in an ideal world, will convince them to stay and fight for the badge next season.
We all wondered what the line up would be for his first game and it’s fair to say that common sense prevailed. A combination of last season’s playoff heroes and players that know the Premier League (plus Rico and Bryan). Something finally seemed to make sense. Football can be a simple game in truth and instead of going for wholesale changes, reverting back to the possession-based Slav style, we found a middle ground. A balance of knowing how to defend and keep our shape as a team but also having the confidence to play and dominate during small spells of the match. There was a tenacity about Fulham’s play. For so long the Cottage was a fortress in the Premier League. Our home and away forms were chalk and cheese with no team getting an easy game on the Banks of the Thames. We saw glimpses of that against the Blues. There was an aggression to our play in both defence and attack. We went long if we needed to and exploited the pace of players like Babel and Sessegnon, who had the beating of the filth’s fullbacks every time. It was exciting to watch.
Unfortunately for us, they also had wide men capable of giving our fullbacks a torrid time. Willian, in particular, controlled the game out wide, bringing back memories of his Shakhtar side all those years ago. Eventually, the pressure told as Higuain produced the perfect finish, rifling in first time from the Brazilian’s cross from the right. We can sit here all day analysing who was at fault defensively, but in reality, it was a class finish from a class player. Sometimes you just have to accept that, especially when our back 4 is made up of Championship-bound defenders, and the Argentinian poacher is used to performing at the highest level.
But this Fulham side was a different breed to the animal slaughtered by the Saints four days earlier. Out puffed the chests and up rolled the sleeves as the Whites’ determination to get back into the game became perfectly clear. Seven minutes later Fulham scored from the most unlikely of sources – and I don’t mean the scorer, Calum Chambers; Fulham scored from a corner! Aleksander Mitrovic’s volley was superbly saved by Kepa who ‘refused’ to let Fulham equalise. But just like Sarri miraculously found a way to brush his keeper’s disgraceful lack of professionalism in the League Cup final under the carpet, Fulham also found a way through. A ‘dreaded’ short corner between Sessegnon and Babel ended with a delicious cross to the back post where an unmarked Chambers did brilliantly to sidefoot his volley into the Putney End net. Kepa failed to react as the strike caught him by surprise and begs the question “Are Arsenal right that Fulham are playing Chambers out of position?” Perhaps he’s a striker! Everyone seemed to be involved with the celebration, showing a unity that us fans have questioned of late. Could it be that any bad eggs have been removed from the basket and going forward these players are now in it for each other rather than just themselves?
The crowd also played their part and it was clear from the way we didn’t let our heads drop or become disenchanted when going behind. It felt like a fresh start; a clean slate. The benefit of the doubt was given to the goals conceded and unfortunately, we could only hold onto that equaliser for 4 minutes before Jorginho produced another top quality finish. What can you do? At least Sergio Rico was back to his best, saving superbly to deny Chelsea a third goal almost identical to the opener – again from Higuain – before the break, keeping Fulham in the game.
The Chelsea manager claimed that his players became tired after 120mins against Man City and a midweek game with Spurs which is why Fulham grew into the game in the second half. I think there’s some truth in that but it only tells you part of the story. In truth, Fulham just wanted it more. The shackles were off. It felt like a weight had been lifted off of their shoulders and the players wanted to show the fans what they were really capable of. We deserved an equaliser and a draw would surely have been a fair result but football can be a cruel mistress sometimes. First, the returning Floyd Ayite did brilliantly to flick the ball into the box for the on running Mitrović to head home…but the Serbian who hasn’t scored since the Brighton comeback directed his effort straight at the keeper. Then in the dying seconds, Sess had the ball in the back of the net but as he wheeled away in celebration, the audible groans would’ve told him the unfortunate news before he turned to see the linesman’s flag pointing agonisingly in his direction. A cruel way for the game to end following such a spirited performance.
To sum up, it was a disappointing result. It’s never nice to lose but the manner in which we draw or lose our remaining games is very important. As supporters, we need to accept that you can’t always win, poor seasons will happen, and of course, you are most susceptible in your first season after promotion. But if the players show that they are up for the fight and give everything they possibly can for our club, then what more can we ask of them? We are all in this together and it appears on the face of it that Scott Parker understands this completely. First impressions count for a lot in life and our caretaker manager is saying, and doing all the right things.
We go again on Saturday against Leicester. First away win on the cards…? COYW!