As victories go, they tend not to get much tougher than Fulham’s on Saturday. That Mark Hughes managed to lead his side to a win despite 90 plus minutes full of tactical fouls is testament to his winning mentality and his players’ never-say-die attitude.
In the end, football was the winner as Moussa Dembele’s double eventually put an end to Wolverhampton Wanderers’ stubborn – and certainly calculated – resistance, but the overriding memory of the match will be of Bobby Zamora’s five-to six-month injury lay-off that will force Hughes into a rethink of his season strategy. The 29-year-old had capped off a remarkable career turnaround with a recent debut for his country, but he will now be forced into a long period of rehabilitation from arguably an avoidable incident.
It would be unfair to blame Karl Henry for setting out to hurt Zamora, but the danger of tackling from such an angle, especially when one leg is always going through the opponent’s, reared its ugly head in that incident at the weekend. Most of the time, such tackles are deemed reckless and the player in question is cautioned – as Brede Hangeland was late on for a similar offence – but in truth there were far more obvious examples from the visitors of tactical and unnecessary fouling that showed their aim on Saturday was to stop the footballing side from playing their own game.
For the first-half it was effective, with Fulham being unable to get into their flow due to often needless fouls disrupting any sign of an attack. The home fans’ frustration was first vented towards the referee, Phil Dowd, for his failure to award the first of two very good penalty shouts, and eventually turned to the visiting players after the constant infringements did not cease. The final incident that infuriated the Cottage faithful was Henry’s returning of the ball to his own goalkeeper after Hangeland had been down injured. Marcus Hahnemann put it straight out of play, but the intent had been clear from the Wolves skipper.
It was at the interval where the home side needed to regroup, and with the help of their new manager did just that. The Welshman managed to refocus his team’s frustration and channel it towards grinding out a justified result. By the end, no one could argue the Whites did not deserve the points as they managed to combine several times in the attacking department, thanks largely to Danny Murphy’s distribution, Dembele’s direct running and Zoltan Gera’s roaming. Ultimately, it was Wolves’ own tactics that proved their undoing, as Christophe Berra’s sending off for two blatant, and certainly needless, fouls resulted in the free-kick that Dembele converted for the last-minute winner. Had Berra let his man past in each incident, his fellow defenders would most likely have stopped the attack – perhaps even fairly – but Fulham were not about to turn down the late gift.
A big part of the second-half turnaround for Fulham was Hughes’ substitution strategy. While his predecessor, Roy Hodgson, may well have kept John Paintsil on the pitch to redeem himself after his dreadful first-half, Hughes has that ruthless streak that was very much needed in a game such as this. Tactical substitutions are a big part of the Welshman’s management style, and the introduction of Chris Baird shored up the right-hand side of the defence where Wolves were getting joy in the first-half. Furthermore, where Hodgson may have looked to accept it was not his day and bring on a substitute to protect the point, the former Manchester City boss instead replaced Clint Dempsey with a recognised striker, Eddie Johnson, whose pace and power in the last 10 minutes won the last-gasp free-kick. While the American can surely only hope to be a bit-part player at best, Hughes’ recognition of what he and his teammates can bring from the bench could prove vital for the Whites to turn draws into victories as the season goes on. This modern, constructive use of the bench has instilled positivity in Fulham’s players, and however close the final whistle came on Saturday, they always looked confident of picking up all three points.
That attitude will be imperative if the massive loss of Zamora is not to affect the season’s ambitions. It will take Dempsey, Dembele and Gera et al to keep working together as they did in Saturday’s second half. If they do, then Zamora might just have a hunt for Europe to join in with when he eventually returns. Without doubt, however, the squad is weaker without their talisman.