It was not long ago that Fulham fans would have snapped up an away point as another towards the magic 40 needed to survive, only to repeat the process again the next season.
A 1-1 draw where many stronger sides have already faltered – a result that even goes down as a missed opportunity – is testament to the new Fulham, a resilient yet pleasing team which started to come together when Roy Hodgson became manager almost two years ago. Exactly two years ago, to the day, Lawrie Sanchez took charge of the last game in his ill-fated spell at the helm, a game which highlighted the Whites’ then-familiar lack of concentration late in games. Despite being the better team at Craven Cottage on December 15, 2007, a stoppage-time error from the previously impressive Elliot Omozusi gave Newcastle a penalty, and with it three undeserved points. Fulham were once again undone by a late loss of focus, the kind of mistake Hodgson aimed to stamp out as soon as he took the reins.
It was not a lack of concentration as such at Turf Moor on Saturday which gifted Burnley their equaliser, rather a slight misjudgement from Aaron Hughes to head the ball on a plate for the technically-excellent Wade Elliot to volley home. Even such a slight error from the back five is a very rare occurrence under Hodgson’s tutelage, which has made holding a lead a far less agonising experience for the Cottage faithful. But, inevitably, a lead must sometimes be given away, as the weekend’s result proved. The scarceness of such an incident allows Fulham fans to appreciate the skill required from the Burnley winger to fire past Mark Schwarzer, and can look at Elliot’s ability, rather than any defender’s lack of, as the reason the hosts shared the points.
Elliot’s goal was only the eighth Fulham have conceded in Premier League second halves this season, and one of only three that have actually cost points. The other two were Robin van Persie’s winner in September and Junior Stanislas’ last-gasp equaliser just a week after that. Goals at the death used to be a thing of Whites fans’ nightmares, but only by looking at the statistics does Hodgson’s influence on the defence really become clear.
Sanchez became Fulham manager full-time in the summer of 2007 after successfully (scrappily) guiding his team to a fortunate win over Liverpool’s reserves, and was at the helm until Mohamed Al-Fayed gave all Cottagers fans an early Christmas present. In those five months of the 2007/08 season, he managed to convince his players that matches lasted only the length of a rugby game as they routinely turned off in the last 10 minutes. In fact, nine times in 17 games Fulham shipped goals in the closing stages of Premier League encounters and, perhaps more tellingly, in every case but one did those goals cost points.
Compare that with the same time frame this season, in which the Whites have allowed just the one goal past them in the last 10 minutes of matches, and Hodgson’s importance becomes obvious. On Saturday either side could have won it in the dying stages, but Fulham in fact looked the more likely as the Whites’ backline – Brede Hangeland in particular – dealt with everything in the air or on the ground. Hangeland has undeniably helped the Fulham cause, but it wasn’t just the change in personnel which had an effect – the defence started to improve before Hodgson’s signings had time to have a say. No-one whilst Sanchez was in charge would have suggested Hughes was a key member of the Fulham XI, but now the vast majority who watch the Northern Irishman each week believe him to be as important as his central-defensive partner, Hangeland.
Paul Konchesky was also a part of that miserable Sanchez defence, yet both he and Hughes are part of the consistent back four which performs week in, week out. It is not a coincidence, Hodgson’s defenders are dominant, they work as a team, and, crucially, keep their concentration over the full 90 minutes – and that is all directly the manager’s influence. Fulham have shown throughout last season and the first half of this that even without so-called star players, a defensively sound team can still be successful in a league where glitz and glamour steal all the headlines.
They will need to stay dominant throughout the festive season as both Manchester United and Tottenham visit the Cottage either side of Christmas, and the Whites take the trip down the road to Stamford Bridge on the bank holiday. Three matches that will show what the Fulham backline is really made of.