Mickey Blue Eyes
If ever we needed a result, it was the home Cup match V Fulham on a Winter Friday night. We sought comfort in the cold. Fortunately we got it in a mostly shapeless match that warmed up in the first half and spluttered erratically in the second. But this season quite rightly we'll grasp our happiness where we may, especially now some of our important players are out injured or, sadly, over the hill. And the bedrock 25,300 who turned up, gawd bless 'em, did just that. You would have to be a right moaning manic-depressive knob head to begrudge them the moment; not that life, footy or otherwise, is ever short of that miscued mindset.
Pitch conditions were treacherous after a day of plummeting temperatures and rain showers that left a playing surface akin to a greasy snooker table. At such times you have to admire how pro players keep mistakes to the minimum, though when they happen they are still wildly irritating for those who aren't playing. That is, us. More than once I found myself yelling at a pass misplaced over a mere five metres and whimpering, "Christ, all you ask for thousands a week is the ability to hit it in a straight line to a Blue shirt." But of course I had a seat and umpteen layers of insulation, an advantage that doesn't occur to you as match mood fluctuates.
When the teams were announced I feared the worst. The Firecracker up front supported by Tim, and Maggy in place of Vic. Everyone else, same as. Royston subbed for Maggy with twenty minutes left and Vic for the Firecracker with five minutes left. Still, it was the Cup, the first to carpe diem usually takes the prize. Moreover, Fulham this season have run into problems similar to our own - injuries and an ageing squad and little money to buy in a solution. Then again the mad football financial model is catching up with everybody, as the lack of transfers demonstrates. For the time being maybe economic sanity prevails. Maybe. Match prospects, then, were balanced precariously. If anything Fulham had a slight edge, their older players not quite as old as ours.
The opening settling-in phase was good for us and kept Fulham penned in their half. They could manage only two attacks, one a perfunctory move down their right, quickly snuffed by Bainsey, the other down their wide left. Naturally they scored from the second after just over ten minutes when the ball was dropped in beautifully behind Phil Neville and their younger wide left man had the legs off him to ground-cross into the middle for a panicky scramble. Naturally the referee was Howard Webb, naturally it was a penalty, naturally he gave it against John Heitinga, naturally because Heitinga didn't have the clairvoyance to get his balancing arm out of the way as he slid in on the ground and someone hit the ball against him. Naturally Heitinga got booked. Naturally the greying ex-pinky Murphy stuck the penalty away and then made the mistake of gesturing to the crowd. Footy, especially capricious Cup footy, is like that. There's no real logic or fairness in any of it.
Uh oh, you thought, is this going to be "one of those nights"? Funnily enough the crowd didn't seem deflated, only irritated because it was against the run of play. And it happened early enough for a fight back. Later on would probably have meant a different outcome. As it was, Our Boys came straight back at them. Shane Duffy hit the bar with a clear header that he will bury with a bit more experience, and there were a few goal mouth scrambles and corners that had every enemy player back in their own penalty area. We weren't exactly peppering them with shots but it was enough to get the crowd warmed up and give the game an edge.
The equaliser came a quarter hour after the penalty when Phil Neville helped break up an attack on the right near the half way line in our half, carried it into their half, and hit a ground pass to Landon Donovan wide right. He turned inwards and sent a left foot high trajectory cross into the middle where the Firecracker (er, could we be seeing a breakthrough here?) made the most of lousy air defence by a big defender and looped a header over their 'keeper's right hand. He was promptly buried under a pile of celeb Royal Blues in the Park End. For a moment I had a vision of him racing past a startled constable on Walton Lane. It's like that when one of our strikers gets a goal these days. You feel like you've just inhaled pure oxygen. Straight away Felli powered forward at right centre mid and cracked a beauty from twenty metres that swerved enough to unnerve their 'keeper but he stayed solid and saved well. Then Landon and Tim went close enough to make us forget the cold.
In the conditions it was a much improved first half performance over the appalling Blackburn game, though there was an understandable lack of one of our few weird consolations this season - possession play that keeps the ball...but is maddening in its sideways ineffectuality and makes you want to scream. Also, one of the features of the game throughout was Landon Donovan's ability to get wide and cross well with either foot. In fact we seem to have (temporarily?) replaced Hit-The-First-Man-Syndrome with a sort of Overhit-The-Cross-Syndrome. And it was enough to keep us off the subject of John's all new i-phone that apparently does everything including separate you from actual human contact in favour of 140 text characters. Humanity by electronic proxy. Well, you can't have everything.
The second half didn't have the same kind of impetus, though Denis got all excited at one point, wrestled for and won the ball against odds just beyond the centre circle, and then smacked in a "shot" from thirty metres that almost dislodged an unguarded cup of Bovril in the Upper Street End. You have to hand it to him, he kept trying to muscle the enemy all evening. We were pressing but it wasn't really persuasive and Fulham seemed incapable of wresting the intiative from Felli, who had a stormer helped by Darron Gibson at centre mid, as did Shane Duffy at centre back. As the half wore on both sets of older players began to look totally goosed, something that will tell decisively against us if we play younger teams in later rounds. Next goal would win, obviously.
Inevitably the game was littered with unavoidable fouls as players slipped over or mistimed in the conditions. Twenty minutes from time we got another free kick near the half way line and for once it was taken quickly enough to completely undo the Fulham defence: Donovan was set free with room to close on the penalty area at a slight angle and cross another beaut to the far angle of the goal area, whence came Felli with a perfectly judged header across and over their 'keeper into the far corner. It was enough despite a late (sub) Bobby Zamora - Clint Dempsey duo and four minutes extra time.
All told, it was a distinct improvement on the Blackburn Rovers game and welcome for that plus a continuing interest in the Cup. But sooner or later we we'll meet a Cup opponent who'll be much sterner and more merciless than Fulham. We'll see what happens then. For the next few days this result will keep us warm.
Then it's Man City in the League. Oh well.