Ahead of the game, I felt a nervous excitement coursing through my body. An uninspired performance against Crystal Palace last time out didn’t offer much in the way of optimistic thinking for today, yet to consign us to defeat against a fellow promoted side at this stage of the season felt slightly as if I was giving up already.
Without question, our October performances were streets ahead of those we put out in September, but we were still missing that elusive first victory. No disrespect to Slaven Bilic and his West Brom side, but this felt like our best opportunity to take all 3 points from a game so far. They hadn’t beaten us in the league at home since 1967, so this was a must-win.
Parker surprised many, including me, by bringing deadline day loanee Joachim Andersen straight into the starting XI. Few would have thought he’d be involved, especially given the fact he suffered an unfortunate ankle injury not long after joining. He replaced Tim Ream in the team, with Decordova-Reid replacing Loftus-Cheek in our only other change. Personally, I was happy to see the inclusion of Andersen as I felt he would bring an assured and experienced presence to our backline. Not to say Ream lacks experience, but Andersen has far more recent experiences of top-level football in Europe, having played 32 times for Lyon last season, including 6 times in the Champions League. On the other hand, I was sceptical about Reid’s inclusion in the XI over Loftus-Cheek as I think Ruben provides something no one else can in our team: the experience and tactical nous required of Premier League players today.
As the game started, I was cautious with my optimism, as it looked though the same alarm bells were ringing throughout the team. We were naïve in possession and I think we gave the ball away too easily on too many different occasions. We allowed the Baggies to settle on our home turf, something that cannot be allowed to happen in games as crucial as these. With West Brom possessing players such as Grady Diangana and Matheus Pereira, who are capable of deadly counter-attacks, we had to make sure we were comfortable with the ball.
The further the game progressed through the first half, the more apparent it became that young Ademola Lookman is a man who possesses some serious talent. The 23-year-old held a high and wide position and looked to be one of those who could have a real say on the outcome of the game.
Another midfielder who I think has been excellent of late has been our captain, Tom Cairney. People question his leadership credentials but for me, he has always been the man who should be in charge, purely based on his evident passion for the club, the example he sets both on and off and the holes he’s been able to get us out of (see Leeds at home, 2017) since he joined in 2015. When he went down on the 17-minute mark, I was worried. I feel like he is the one in our midfield who can dictate the tempo of a game, whilst also being capable of magic with that left boot of his. Thankfully, he was able to continue.
On 25 minutes, we were able to score only our 2nd home goal of the season and forge ahead through a pinpoint header from none other than Decordova-Reid. Antonee Robinson fizzed a devilish-looking cross into our super Serb, Aleksandar Mitrovic, who teed up Bobby to power home. Perhaps not a goal we deserved on the balance of play, yet something you won’t catch me complaining about. After all, we know how hard wins are to come by this season.
And just 4 minutes later, our lead was doubled thanks to a scorcher from ex-Chelsea player, Ola Aina. Set up again by Mitro after some neat passing play, Aina sent a bullet into the West Brom net – something that was made even more impressive by the fact that it came from his weaker left foot. It was one of those where, as the ball left his foot, I had no doubt as to where it would end up.
After our quick-fire double, I thought that we settled into the game well, and managed to stamp some real authority on it. Karlan Grant missed a good chance for West Brom, sending his effort from outside the area wide of the mark.
In the second half, Fulham could have, and almost definitely should have, made it 3-0. An error by West Brom keeper Sam Johnstone resulted in him giving the ball away to Ademola Lookman, who passed to Cairney. His sumptuous chip was desperately stopped on the line by Conor Townsend, who was only able to tap it into an unmarked Bobby Reid’s feet. However, his shot was aimed straight at Ajayi, who was able to ensure the score remained at only 2-0. Frustrating though it may have been, we should’ve been thankful that we were already two up at that point, though I do feel any striker worth his salt puts that one away, especially one who is fighting to establish himself in the first team. There were shouts for handball, and biased though I may be, I felt there was little the defender could do and any body movement was a natural rather than a deliberate attempt to prevent the goal.
Thankfully, we were able to see out the remainder of the game without controversy and we proved well worth the 3 points we had fought so hard to gain. I thought this was a mature and clinical performance, one of our best under Parker so far but also a performance that sets a benchmark for us to improve upon, as it goes without saying, there are far tougher tests on the horizon. And those tougher tests start with a trip to the Olympic Stadium next Saturday night.