Another triumphant victory. After the dizzy heights of Thursday this was always going to be troublesome, but my word what an ordeal it turned out to be.
Things felt languid from the off, and after two minutes Chris Baird thumped a header past Mark Schwarzer to give Birmingham the lead. A strange beginning – how often do you see very early own goals? – but it ensured we had to play positively from there.
Fulham put together some pretty decent approach work. When we weren’t dropping long balls into the inside right channel – clearly a pre-determined plan, and quite a succesful one – we were switching play quite well, and Duff, Baird, Shorey and Davies all saw plenty of the ball in wide areas. Shots were rarer, though, Birmingham’s famed organisation limiting us to opportunist efforts that didn’t unduly worry Joe Hart.
Half-time came, and we were almost in control of a difficult situation. We just needed a goal.
It didn’t look like arriving. If the first half was full of neat build up, the second descended into park football style bouts of head tennis. We got pushed back and seemed to have lost all of the momentum built up before the break. But ugly games do not always stay ugly, and Damian Duff bagged an equaliser that will demand inclusion on any BBC goal of the month competition.
Duff had started to rise above the mediocrity even before this goal, and here he was cutting inside in trademark fashion. Birmingham had to know what was coming – any advanced scouting worthy of the name would’ve warned them – but on he went, further infield, then out of nowhere he unfurled an unbelievable strike that whizzed past Joe Hart’s right hand, clanked onto the inside of the post, and settled in the bottom corner of the other side of the goal. Duff celebrated before the Riverside Stand (he has done this before and is unique in doing so), “pumped up” (to use the phrase of our times) and delighted with what he had just done. And why not? Goals like that don’t come around very often (except at Craven Cottage, where screamers into the Hammersmith End are becoming happily common).
Birmingham seemed slightly affronted by this, and revved up some attacks of their own. James McFadden, all beard and no substance to this point, capitalised on some lax Fulham defending (we were starting to see a lot of this) and thrashed a drive against the underside of Schwarzer’s crossbar from distance. Was it in? It might have been, but it all happened so fast that nobody could tell. On they came, looking like a side with another goal in it. Fulham were by now huffing and puffing, with Etuhu looking particularly exhausted. We couldn’t keep the ball, we looked ragged. Only Zamora and Gera offered signs of hope, with some typical hard-running, but there was no real end product in the offing. Bjorn-Helge Riise came on and injected some enthusiasm to proceedings, but where would a goal come from?
The game had one more twist. Zoltan Gera (whose performance today may have been a 9/10 or a 5/10 – very hard to judge) earned a free-kick inside the D. Joe Hart will have known that Bobby Zamora recently scored from this very spot against Burnley, but will also have spied Danny Murphy standing over the ball. Neither corner of the net was safe, then, and Hart shuffled nervously on his line, waiting, waiting, waiting, diving, picking the ball out of the net. Zamora’s in such a groove at the moment that his technique is flawless. He addressed the ball perfectly, swung that wonderful left boot, and the ball flew home, winning the game. “Are you watching, Fabio?” called the Hammersmith End. My concern was that the England manager might have left early to beat the rush, but he’ll have seen enough by then in any case. “Bobby for England” sang the entire stadium. Why not?