Saturday, 10 September 2016

Fulham 0 v Birmingham City 1 - SkyBet EFL Championship

Saturday 10th September 2016
SkyBet EFL Championship
at Craven Cottage
Fulham (0) 0
Birmingham City (0) 1
Clayton Donaldson 49 pen
Admission £23
Programme £3.50 (But worth it, plenty of interesting content)
Attendance 17,603 (inc. 3,500+ away fans)
For more pictures from today click HERE
In the build up to this Championship fixture on a wet and grey afternoon in London SW6, only three points separated second placed Fulham and Norwich City in twelfth, in what has become the most open and competitive division in the Football League... and regardless of what your personal views might be about the play-off system (it has been well established for donkey's years and is here to stay, if you hadn't already noticed), the two automatic promotion places, augmented with a third spot that the teams finishing third to sixth will battle it out for at the end of the season, while three clubs go down to League 1, which guarantees a regular turnover of clubs entering and leaving the Championship (one way or another) helping to maintain interest and keeping the competition fresh year after year, as you would expect from a division that gains six new clubs to it's rota each every season, while the same number move on elsewhere.
Bespoke reading material for the train journey home
There was one game played in the Championship last night, when Reading beat Ipswich Town 2-1, a result that affected the league positions of exactly half of the teams in the division, which demonstrates how fine the margins can be between a promotion push and so called mid table mediocrity.
Another example of how nip and tuck it all is, was Birmingham climbing eight places in the league at ten to five this afternoon, when they leapfrogged over their hosts in the table by virtue of their 1-0 win.
Take notes, there will be a mandatory multiple choice test at the end of this long winded and matchday overview!
These two sides played out a 1-1 draw at St. Andrews last season, while Gary Rowett's 'Blues' recorded a 5-2 away win at Craven Cottage the last time they were here, but it was a much altered Fulham line up they faced today.
Under Slavisa Jokanovic, 'the Cottagers' were unbeaten this season prior to this afternoon's game, confounding the pundits who had written them off as relegation contenders, including a 1-0 win in a televised game on the opening game of the season at St. James' Park against Newcastle United, which was billed as being the start of the north east club's first step on the road back to an immediate return to the Premier League.
Time will tell if that's the case, eh!?
Rafael Benitez's side currently occupy second place in the table, four points behind the early season league leaders and pacesetters Huddersfield Town, but you can count all the way down to Sheffield Wednesday in sixteenth if you apply that four point margin in the opposite direction; with the slow starters and also rans such as Aston Villa, Derby County, Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers still struggling to find their feet below 'the Owls'.
But it's still early days yet.
Craven Cottage is a brisk ten minute walk through Bishop's Park from Putney Bridge tube station, which stands on the District Line between Earl's Court and Wimbledon, but it took me around twice as long to circumnavigate the Thames side footpath this afternoon as I vaingloriously tried to take shelter from the rain that was hammering down in the 'sunny south' today.
On the right, a few yards after leaving the station stands the Eight Bells pub, which as well as being highly recommended as a watering hole, used to act as the changing rooms for Fulham St. Andrews Church Sunday FC when they still played their games at Ranelagh House, which used to stand between the public  house and the nearby River Thames.
FSACSFC (also sometimes called  Fulham St. Andrews Football & Cricket Club) were formed in 1879 (four years after Small Heath Alliance, the original name of Birmingham City) and later became know as Fulham Excelsior, before arriving at their shortened title of Fulham FC in 1888. The club moved into Craven Cottage in 1896 and have played in the Football League since 1907.
I'll tell you summat: you don't half get some odd looks when you emerge from a tube station at the same time as several hundred away fans and start taking pictures of signposts.
Not the actual famous Varsity Race that passes Craven Cottage,
but still very exciting to watch nonetheless
Button, Odoi, Kalas, Madl, Malone; Johansen (Jozabed 32), McDonald, Ayite (Martin 76), Cairney, Aluko; Smith (Kebano 45).
Unused subs - Bettinelli, Sigurdsson, Sessegnon, Tunnicliffe.
Birmingham City:
Kuszczak, Spector, Morrison, Shotton, Grounds, Kieftenbeld , Tesche, Davis (Cotterill 76), Adams (Stewart 82), Maghoma, Donaldson (Jutkiewicz 65).
Unused subs - Legzdins, Robinson, Fabbrini, Brown.
'Blues' (well 'Reds' if you must) kicked off today, with an  unchanged line up from their 3-0 home win against Norwich City two weeks ago before the international break and it soon became apparent that they were playing a tried and tested 4-4-2 system of sorts, with Clayton Donaldson playing slightly further ahead up in front of Che Adams. It's impressive that Adams is now trail blazing himself a career path in the Championship, when less than two years ago we were watching him in action for Ilkeston Under 19s in the North Midland U19 League.
The home side played a square back four, but seemed overly complicated ahead of that, where maybe their own playing rotation contributed to their own downfall because although they certainly spent a lot of time on the ball, it was barely ever in  the critical areas of the pitch, where 'the Whites' might actually be able to hurt their visitors.
A raucous 3,500+ Brummies had made the journey south and their will be a few hoarse voices in the West Midlands later on tonight, because the vast majority of the away end were on their feet and singing the praises of their team, for the whole game and even beyond the final whistle.
The home support were at their most vocal when they were displeased with referee, Tony Harrington awarding two penalties against them (and out of relief when David Button saved the first one), but whether their angst was being at the match officials, or their own defence for a string of risky challenges in their own area and some fairly Kamikaze appliance of the rules of engagement, could be open to interpretation. 
Either way, Rowett's side couldn't help but be lifted by such magnificent backing, while a few vocal dissenters among the ranks of the home support was all that it took to visibly effect the confidence of one or two of their team, when a few passes started going astray. It was only a minority venting their spleen, but it might help performances if the Fulham faithful gagged this small element of critics.
But I guess that if you're paying top dollar to watch football every weekend, you're entitled to have your say as well.
Besides Evans, there was even more local non league interest (if you happen to live near me) out on the pitch today, in the shape of Tom Cairney; who has his own chant at Craven Cottage, based on  a reworking of a Chaka Khan song that goes: "Ain't nobody, like Tom Cairney". Before he made the grade as a professional, he used to play for Calverton Miners Welfare, back in the day. 
So now you know.
The visitors were doing a great job of snuffing out Fuham's attacking intentions while they were still in their own half, pressing them across the middle of the pitch, with a well drilled midfield in an attempt to condense play into 'the Whites' half of the pitch.
As I said, Fulham had plenty of possession, but the statistics show that Birmingham had at least three times as many shots on goal, which for an away side who haven't resorted to taking the long ball and direct route is pretty impressive.
Of course, in the final analysis there is only one stat or coefficient that can really make or break any football supporters weekend... and that is the one that gets read out on Sports Report every Saturday tea time, but Fulham ought to be addressing some of the other stuff that their guys who collate all of the other match day data throw up, if they are to avoid having peaked to soon already this season.
I doubt if there are very many people on Planet Football who actually dislike Fulham, or their supporters, or who even have a bad word to say about visiting Craven Cottage, which is always a pleasant experience if my occasional trips to this Thames Embankment stadium over the past few decades are anything to go by.
But their team need to sharpen up in a few areas of the pitch, if they don't want to vanish in a tide that would make the nearby waterway look tame by comparison. 
Hopefully, the new manager and players will tweak the system and improve certain aspects of their game once they all start to get used to each other properly.
Tomasz Kuszczak did well on the few occasions that Fulham did poise a threat and the confidence that it instills in his back four, who are secure in the knowledge that their Polish keeper is seldom found wanting is plain to see, but for the most part any actual goalmouth action was predominantly happening in front of the home fans in the Hammersmith End, which Birmingham were attacking towards in the first half, with Clayton Donaldson in particular was a problematic presence for 'the Whites' central defenders.
Ryan Shotton and Jacques Maghoma were both unlucky to see close range headers fly past the post.
Michael Madl clumsily challenged Che Adams from behind in the area and in spite of the home crowd's protests, the referee had no option to award a penalty... not because he was biased, as some suggested, but because an attacking player had been infringed from behind ten yards from goal. Madl received a caution for his efforts and if Mr Harrington had been favouring the visitors, he could quite easily have brandished a red card instead, under the circumstances.
Fulham had already profited from the benefit of the doubt already this afternoon when a mistimed and clumsy challenge on the wet surface had gone unpunished, so perhaps the referee wasn't the actually to blame for anything at all... just saying.
Either way... a few years ago, 'the Cottagers' keeper David Button and Blues striker Clayton Donaldson had played together for a short time at Crewe Alexandra... and a sub plot was beginning to hatch at the 'Hammy End'.
And Fulham's number 1 put that to his advantage, by approaching his former team mate in the first instance and trying to unsettle him, then he walked off the pitch to wipe his gloves down on a towel, running the clock down with a stalling tactic that delayed Donaldson taking the spot kick and then he almost telepathically knew where Birmingham's centre forward was going to put the ball and got down well to pull of a great save by his left hand post.
Donaldson also failed to score from a penalty the last time he took one against Wigan Athletic last month. Sports psychology is a vastly underrated science and though it took a lot of mettle for the Jamaican striker to take responsibility after his recent miss, it is fairly obvious that Button used everything at his disposal to gain an advantage, though it must be stressed that not all forms of 'gamesmanship' should be misconstrued as cheating. Well played him! 
However, regardless of the circumstances it was still a well taken spot kick and a bloody good save.
To compound Donaldson's frustration, he was booked a few minutes later for a heavy challenge on Tomas Kalas, a Czech footballer who is on loan at Craven Cottage, from Fulham's next door neighbours Chelsea.
But there is an old expression about 'he who laughs the last, laughs the loudest', read on to discover just how apt that old adage was today.  
Madl cocks the away fans a deaf 'un as they wave goodbye to him
Madl soon poured ice water all over Fulham's celebrations however, when he scythed down Adams as he was on the verge of breaking forward and having already been booked, he had to go, thus leaving a gap for Fulham to fill between their defence and midfield. 
Adams for his part is adapting to Championship football really quickly. Skill quota wise he reminds me of the former Arsenal and Everton player Anders Limpar in his prime, i.e. not when he made his four appearances for Birmingham while Trevor Francis was their manager, without the Swedes undoubted talent for falling over in the opposition penalty area, when he indulged in that other variant of 'gamesmanship'... often!
For the benefit of anyone who actually cares what happened to Anders (pretty much all of you then, eh!?), he's 50 years old these days (for a couple more weeks at least) and is the assistant coach at Sollentuna Fotbollsklubb.
HT: Whites 0 Blues/Reds 0
The second half was just four minutes old when Donaldson broke the deadlock.
Button earned 31 England caps when he was younger between under 16 and under 20 level but even with all of his experience, he could do nothing to stop his old friend from burying the ball past him from the spot this time, after Maikel Kieftenbeld was shoved over in Fulham's goal area by Floyd Ayite after he'd seized the ball following yet another defensive lapse.
Blues manager Rowett had insisted that if they were awarded another penalty, Maghoma would be taking it. But the big Jamaican ignored his bosses instructions and the calls from his team mates and put two consecutive misses and the first half shenanigans to the back of his mind, while finishing emphatically in front of the massed travelling ranks from the second city.
Birmingham regained possession straight from the restart and within a minute Maghoma almost showed that he was just as lethal as Donaldson, when he crashed a twenty yard free kick just wide of the upright.
Tom Cairney attacked the visitors goal from out on the left flank, but having rode two challenges Michael Morrison cut out his tame shot.
As the clocked ticked down, Scott Malone came close to equalising, but shot wide when he really ought to have done better.
My favourite Welsh player (he's far better than Gareth Bale will ever be) David Cotterill, on as a second half sub, was thwarted by Button as he went for goal and Kalas made a timely goal-line clearance from when it looked as though Maghoma had doubled the visitors lead witha well struck shot.
In the final minute, with the volume from the away end now threatening to drown out the sound of the big jets departing from Heathrow, Fulham were a coat of paint away from scoring, when Malone hit the woodwork with a downward header that bounced up off the pitch.
Full Time: 
Fulham St. Andrews Church Sunday FC 0
Small Heath Alliance 1
Football League Championship fixtures are now coming thick and fast after the international break, with a full programme scheduled for midweek, that see's Birmingham City travel to Reading, while Fulham entertain Burton Albion. 
Expect the league table to be in a complete state of flux for the next few months at the very least.
On the way back to the overground station to avoid the queues, I passed the infamous Kings Head on the High Road... back in the day I saw Generation X and the Lurkers play there on the same night and lived to tell the tale. Life has just flown by during the interim three and a half decades or so.
Sadly 'Foxy' and his TPF lot never showed up today.