| Report by Bridport Red
In the pub before this game we were doing the usual "What do you reckon today then?" conversation that a million fans all over the country have at around 2 o'clock each Saturday. Usually you end up with some sort of agreement, but today was unusual in that between us we managed to come up with entirely plausible arguments for all 3 possible results.
Sure, Fulham are without question the best side in this division (especially at home where they had won a cool 13 out of 16 games before today), but by their own exalted standards recently they haven't been playing quite as well as they might, especially since Chris Coleman's unfortunate car crash. Forest, on the other hand, having spent most of last season with an extra name in most of the press (remember how we were "Struggling Nottingham Forest" for so long?), have now changed their title to "Improving Nottingham Forest" - so even the papers have noticed.
Same side as for Blackburn last week, except that Prutts was suspended, so Jonah moved his pace and artistry back into midfield and Marlon returned up front. (Fulham had spent a few more Harrods tokens on relaying 70% of the pitch, so at least Jonah played with the movement of a lighthouse because that is how he is, rather than because he can't turn on mud. And, before you all start, once again I thought he did a steady job within his own obvious limitations.... and clearly Platty thinks he is giving us something because he keeps picking him, so the fans might as well get off his back).
As you would probably expect on their own patch, Fulham started much the stonger - in fact they were to dominate almost all of the first half. On the flanks Goldbaek and, especially, Davis kept Jim and Benny pushed very firmly back into the defensive side of wing back play, and in midfield Collins and Clark kept Riccy (excellent today) and Johnno very busy indeed. We were in danger of giving them too much respect and of being playedout of the game altogether.
Having said that, Fulham are in danger of descending into self-parody. They are patient, they can all pass (well OK, maybe not that donkey Brevett...) and their movement up front is outstanding. When Jean Tigana arrived around a year ago, clearly the entire concept of passing the ball around at the back was a startling novelty to players like Kit Symons who had made an entire career out of hoofing the ball out of defence. But perhaps Tigana should point out to them now that it is not absolutely compulsory to pass the ball 3 or 4 times across your back four before you try any move at all. They are so incisive on the attack when they finally get around to it that you do wonder why they don't get around to it a bit quicker - I swear you half expect their corners to be played back to Symons so he and Melville can try out their square passing just a bit more.
Still, it must be obvious to anyone that their tactics are a total failure when they are 10 points clear at the top, so what do I know? It isn't that I wanted to see them hoofing it up in the air (though by the end we had them reduced to doing exactly that) - just that there were times when I wanted to scream "Oh get on with it!" at them as the ball laboriously went from side to side at the back with no apparent end product.
For all that, by the time they scored after 20 minutes, there had already been a couple of scares as Boa Morte and Saha did their pacey one touch thang through the middle. On the first two occasions the incomparable Bartman did his increasingly convincing Des Walker impression, and the ball made its way back to Symons and Melville so they could pass it sideways again. But that is the point - when we got the ball into midfield we weren't keeping it for long enough, and that was the difference between the sides. As a case in point, for the goal Benny Olsen played the ball nicely out of defence, beat Brevett and passed it to Marlon on the half way line. But Marlon promptly lost it and Fulham did their sideways thing a couple of times before Lee Clark suddenly pinged a long ball over Christian Edwards' head into the channel. To his credit, Swanny did enough to get back to Boa Morte, but when Boa Morte turned inside him at the by-line, his cross was deflected into Saha's path by the advancing Bart. Saha lent back and volleyed it with his left foot - and even then he mis-hit it, the ball bobbling gently into the far corner as Beas was wrong-footed. A good incisive break, but a faintly soft goal at the end of it - but they all count, eh?
For a few minutes after this things looked a bit ominous. Fulham tried the ball into the channels a lot, and more than once we were stretched to keep them at bay, especially when Lurch produced a good save at his near post when Boa Morte set off on a break that was a carbon copy of the goal. Forest were pushed back and reduced to only 2 counter-attacks of any note. From the first DJ did well to lay the ball into the path of the onrushing Brennan, whose shot beat the decidedly dodgy Maik Taylor but was comfortably cleared off the line. From the second Marlon got free up the left wing on the stroke of half time and almost astonished everyone with an audacious lob over Taylor from an acute angle well outside the box. It dropped wide and we continue to await Marlon's first goal of the season, but for a few seconds there I had visions of Jason Lee just up the road at Chelsea a few years ago (though to be fair to Marlon he actually meant his to be a shot, whereas Jason's goal was merely a badly mis-hit cross!).
At half time, then, we were grateful that the score was only 1-0, and frankly we had spent 45 minutes living off scraps and entertaining ourselves by singing the "I've got a shed that's bigger than this; it's got a door AND a window" song about Craven Cottage (yes, yes, it's quaint and gently 1950s and all that - all very Johnny Haynes and George Cohen - but as a football ground for a team on the verge of the Premiership it is frankly a disgrace... yet still the shiney-arses of the local council drag their feet on planning permission).
The second half, however, was a different matter. Platty's game plan of containment for 45 minutes followed by a step up of the pace at half time worked brilliantly against Blackburn, so we obviously thought we'd try it again (though I have to point out that Fulham tried to beat us by playing football, rather than the cynical physical assault of the Souness boys). It took a few minutes to get going, but gradually Johnno and Riccy began to generate a bit more space in midfield and Benny reminded us that he is actually more of a winger than a full back (Rufus Brevett, of course, proceeded to spend 45 minutes fouling him). Up front Marlon's unpredictability (I don't think he even knows himself what he is going to do next, so defenders have go no chance of guessing!) and David Johnson's pace and workrate (he looks better with each passing game) began to give the Fulham defence less time... and slowly the noise levels increased from the 3000 Forest fans as we sensed the possibility of a draw.
Not that Fulham had ceased to be a danger. More than once Bart and Swanny dug us out of a hole, and when they were breached Lurch somehow clawed a point blank header from Riedle back off the line. A good reaction save, but you'd expect a centre forward of Riedle's class to bury a header from 3 yards out, whether it is Beas he is trying to beat or not. He should have scored and killed the game dead.
But he didn't, and we came forward more and more as the game went into its final quarter. Johnno vollyed a few inches wide from a corner. Marlon produced two excellent breaks down the right, beating 2 or 3 players each time (the good side of his game), but then tried to shoot from a narrow angle when there were players better placed around him (the bad side of his game). On one break in particular DJ had steamed into the box at pace and was unmarked on the far post, and for a split second or two he showed his frustration at Marlon's lack of awareness of those around him (you'll have to get used to that, David!)... before reverting to the team player that he undoubtedly is by encouraging Marlon to keep going and do it again. I was seriously impressed with DJ today. Riccy would probably be my MoM, but Johnson wouldn't be far behind for his movement off the ball, his workrate and above all his excellent attitude (he spent much of the game organising and cajoling the players round him, just like Bart and Franky B at the back). Come off it - we can't make Bart Man of the Match every week!
Gradually Fulham became rattled. Boa Morte started to moan at the ref, Saha and Goldbaek were reduced to the old "Oh help me referee, I have been shot again!" reaction to fair tackles (a sure sign that things are not going well), and Melville and Symons stopped pretending to be Paolo Maldini and reverted to the "Stick it into Row Z.... anywhere.... just get rid of it!" defending on which they built their careers. Eventually Boa Morte was booked for a blatant dive in our box [a rare example of the ref getting it right by not listening to the crowd... but then it was our old friend, the original Pantomime Horse ref from the Blundell Park fiasco last season, Mr Tony Leake of Darwen, so why should we be surprised that he was abject?].
Always when you have these frantic finishes, there is one clear chance. If it goes in you get the draw or the scrambled win, if it doesn't you don't. We have all seen it time and time again. So, though there were two or three episodes of pinball in the box as Maik Taylor decided to pay tribute to Forest by imitating the young Norm Crossley, waving to his Mum and flapping like a cornered seagull at each passing cross, the decisive moment came right at the end. Johnno was put through the centre by Ben Olsen and Boa Morte scythed him down just outside the box (though, curiously, he wasn't booked - after all, that would have meant a sending off.... which must stick in the the throat of someone like Prutts, who was sent off for encroaching at a free kick a few weeks ago). This was a bad foul, and Johnno clearly hurt himself (dislocated thumb? finger? wrist? hard to tell but it obviously hurt as he was led disconsolate to the dressing room, and we should hope it isn't serious).
Clear Bartman territory, and up he duly trots from the back. Fulham must have watched the video of Bart's screamer against Rovers last week, because Taylor was clearly convinced the kick would be a carbon copy to the near post. So he then stood rooted to the spot as Bart curled it over the wall to the far post. If anything this was an even better free kick... but it cannoned off the underside of the bar, bounced on the line and spun over everyone's head to safety. 2 inches lower and the net ripples. Even half an inch and it goes in off the underside of the bar.
But it didn't, the chance was gone and Fulham, heaving an almost audible sigh of relief, had won the game.
Back in the pub afterwards I expected some gentle triumphalism from the locals, but I was wrong. At least half a dozen Fulham fans came up to us in the pub and expressed their surprise at how much we've improved since they came to Nottingham in the Autumn. "You are the best team we have seen at our place this season" was a common theme. Easy to say when you've won (and I think they meant in the League), but they did seem genuine. It is also probably worth pointing out that, despite a common misconception from the moaners that we can't beat the top teams, Fulham today became the first side to beat us twice this season, with only Watford, Wimbledon and (embarrasingly) QPR in a position to match that achievement during the remainder of the season.
Keep the faith, boys and girls. We played pretty well today, especially in the second half, and were slightly unlucky not to come away with a point from the best side in the division. The Baggies lost at Brum, Watford lost at Crewe, and in the next couple of weeks they both have to play Blackburn (and Watford have to go to St Andrews as well). We just have to make sure that home games against Wednesday and Grimsby give us the 6 points we require.
It certainly ain't over yet!
© Nottingham Forest 2001