First, on Boxing Day, the Whites played Champions League hopefuls Tottenham off the park, only to be denied by a commonly calamitous goalkeeper who had apparently unwrapped a box of ability the day before – and then the woodwork when Heurelho Gomes was actually beaten. Then, two days later, heroic defending worthy of three clean sheets was rewarded with one lapse of concentration being punished and a most unlucky own goal from the otherwise faultless Chris Smalling. Hard to take, yes, but hardly unexpected considering this club’s ability to turn ‘Fulhamish’.
Fulhamish allows the likes of Gomes to be a hero, it frequently shows barren strikers the net (although fortunately Roman Pavlyuchenko didn’t play), and it punishes promising young centre-backs for not giving Chelsea an inch for 75 minutes. For the first time this season the enigma that Cottagers fans are only too aware of has reared its ugly head. The beast lures fans into rarely seen states of mind, such as confidence, optimism, and joy, before robbing the good people of SW6 of such feelings. Its purpose is to serve as a reality check to all those who have allowed their feet to rise from the ground that this is still that small club by the Thames. And what a harsh reminder it was – all Fulham fans’ feet are planted firmly in quick-drying cement.
The most Fulhamish thing about the Stamford Bridge defeat? There are a few main ones, actually. Firstly, the ever-present John Paintsil had Didier Drogba in his pocket all afternoon, but he was forced off (with what we know now could be a season-ending injury) and Chris Baird – who was excellent in midfield – was switched to right-back. Minutes later Baird was caught too narrow to head away a cross which Drogba met – to devastating effect. The match was effectively lost when one of three impeccable defenders went off. This led to a few moments of Lawrie Sanchez-esque defending, and on to the second point – an own goal from nowhere. Smalling was imperious in the air, quick and strong on the ground, and he looked every inch a Premier League centre-back, but just as this writer was thinking he is one for the future, the ball cannons off him and into the net. No fault can be put on the youngster making his full league debut, but it is the kind of incident that can often harm progress – he was huge on the pitch, and now is his chance to prove he is the same off it with a performance against Swindon, should he start.
To a certain extent Baird must prove the same. The Northern Irishman was once a scapegoat playing where he was asked to switch to on Monday, right-back, and was blamed for almost every goal conceded at the start of the 2007/08 season. Through little fault of his own, he simply cannot play in that position, but he must forget about those terrible months of his career and continue to play as he has been in midfield – it is unlikely he will be called upon to replace Paintsil. Such minor errors from Baird and Smalling would probably, at another club, go unpunished, but the New Year should allow for reflection and time to regroup for the second half of a so-far successful season. Fulham are not a top-six side – yet. But with the same level of improvement as seen this year, by next season they could well be.
Another European place is still within range should Fulham win their game in hand but, perhaps more importantly, the club is not one of the 10 or so teams embroiled in the battle to stay in the Premier League. It appears looking up rather than down is allowed under the rules of Fulhamish, yet a strong festive points-haul that reflects the players’ performances against two of the current top five is. Perhaps the club will never stretch further than Europa League occasionals, and perhaps top-four scalps will remain the exception rather than the rule. So be it, as for Whites fans the thrill of being the underdog is the only way they know.
With Roy Hodgson having signed a new 12-month rolling contract, hopefully 2009 will be just the start of this new Fulham era, as opposed to its peak. Roll on 2010.