Can Fulham record another great escape?
On April 1st, Fulham were bottom of the Premier League table, eight points behind Norwich City. This weekend they host the Canaries at Craven Cottage, and a win will bring them within two points of Neil Adams’ side.
Bearing in mind Norwich’s final four fixtures are against Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, Felix Magath’s Fulham have every reason to be hopeful. And they have previous, too, twice escaping the grasp of relegation right at the death.
Fulham win – 2.06
Norwich win – 3.40
Draw – 3.20
(All odds provided by GR88.com are accurate as of today and subject to change)
In 2006-07, Lawrie Sanchez’s Fulham side finished just a point ahead of relegated Sheffield United, but their safety was secured with a game to spare thanks to Clint Dempsey’s winner against an under-strength Liverpool side. However another rescue mission from the West London club is one of the Premier League’s most miraculous escapes.
The famed ‘new manager bounce’ of Sanchez didn’t last too long, and when Roy Hodgson replaced the former Northern Ireland coach the club was third from bottom. That is where they stayed for much of the season, later dropping to 19th and entering the second week of April six points adrift of Birmingham City and Premier League safety, with just five games remaining.
With six games to go, they also had the added obstacle of a Bolton side struggling after replacing manager Sammy Lee with professional last resort Gary Megson, but with a reasonably inviting run-in. The Trotters sat one place above Fulham, but four points behind Birmingham. For both to survive would require something quite remarkable.
Bolton did their job, taking 10 points from four games against sides in mid-table and going into their final game merely needing to avoid a record-breaking defeat against a Chelsea side who – by the 80th minute – knew that results elsewhere had ended their own title hopes. Fulham’s task, however was much tougher.
It began in Reading, where the home side’s run of 10 points from five games in March looked to have secured their safety. The Royals weren’t completely out of danger, but an impressive home record (eight wins was more than the number recorded by sixth-place Portsmouth) was working in their favour, and another victory at the Madejski Stadium was likely to confirm their safety. Fulham, meanwhile, had last won a Premier League game in September 2006 – that’s more than 30 games without a victory on the road.
But for whatever reason, something clicked that afternoon – goals from Brian McBride and Erik Nevland gave Fulham a 2-0 win, and, more importantly, hope. It was that hope which inspired them in their next away game, when overturning a two-goal deficit against Manchester City ought to have been impossible. But three goals in the final 20 minutes, including a dramatic stoppage-time winner from substitute Diomansy Kamara, meant survival was in Fulham’s hands.
Fulham were said to be “relegated at half-time”, but by the end of the game there was hope once more. “It won’t be easy but I’m just glad for the club, the players and the supporters that we have given ourselves hope,” Hodgson said.
The next week they welcomed Birmingham, whose slide had been far less sudden. The January arrival of Argentinean striker Mauro Zárate had helped the club keep their heads above water, but their luck would eventually run out.
McBride and Nevland were Fulham’s heroes again, and the latter would go down as a cult hero – his only two goals that season came in the games against Reading and Birmingham, while he won the penalty against Manchester City from which Danny Murphy equalised at the second attempt.
But they still needed one more win. Not just any win either, a third successive away win, after having only recorded two in more than 50 outings. And against a Portsmouth side that still had a chance of European qualification through the league, although their forthcoming FA Cup Final appearance may have provided a distraction.
They couldn’t rely on Birmingham or Reading dropping points: the former had a home match against Blackburn Rovers, while the latter travelled to a Derby side already relegated with a record low points tally. Predictably, both went into the half-time break one goal to the good. On the south coast it was still goalless.
Then, with 14 minutes left, Fulham won a free-kick a few yards inside the Portsmouth half. Everyone went forward for Jimmy Bullard’s delivery, and with defenders watching the likes of McBride and Brede Hangeland, Murphy made an untracked run from deep to power a header past Jamie Ashdown.
There followed a tense few minutes, with Birmingham adding a second, third and fourth and Reading doing likewise. But there would be no more goals at Fratton Park, and Fulham survived to set up several years of mid-table comfort.
The Cottagers have not finished any lower than 12th in the five seasons since, but this year they need to repeat the feat of 2008. Six years on from the heroics of McBride, Nevland, Kamara and Murphy, will West London be holding the likes of Bent, Dejagah, Holtby and Sidwell in similarly high esteem? If that is to be the case, it will all have to start on Saturday.
Betting Instinct Tip – Fulham to win 2-0 is 10.50 at GR88.com
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TOM VICTOR (editor) is the editor and co-founder of Betting Instinct. He has written for a variety of sports sites in the past, including JustFootball, Footy Matters and BeNeFoot.