Ghost of sacked Coleman haunts fragile Fulham
Fulham 1 Sunderland 3
When Fulham are relegated from the Premier League – and it is surely now a matter of when rather than if – Mohamed Al Fayed will no doubt reflect on their demise. In particular the chairman might consider how fortunate he had been to have Chris Coleman as manager.
In their 38 League matches since Fayed dismissed the Welshman 12 months ago this week, Fulham have won five times. Lawrie Sanchez, Coleman's successor, spent £20m on new players but lasted eight months, while Roy Hodgson has been unable to work a miracle. When Fulham supporters look back on Coleman's reign – four years spent largely in mid-table security – they will view it as a golden era.
Coleman brought the best out of moderately talented players, though what he would have done with the transfer kitty spent by Sanchez will never be known. The evidence of Saturday's match, which left Hodgson's team six points from safety with five matches remaining, is that Fulham have a squad that is not good enough to survive in the Premier League.
If every successful team is based around a solid spine, so a losing side can be exposed by its central weaknesses. Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland were ponderous and indecisive in defence, Danny Murphy and Leon Andreasen were outplayed in the middle by Dean Whitehead and Andy Reid, while Brian McBride and Diomansy Kamara were ineffective in attack. At least the latter pair could point to a lack of service, despite the tireless endeavours of the excellent Jimmy Bullard on the left of midfield.
Hodgson's managerial record speaks for itself, but after the match he sounded like a beaten man. "The only remotely positive thing I can say is that the team kept going," he said.
Roy Keane, Sunderland's manager, had sympathy. "I've been a manager for two minutes," he said. "I spoke to Roy Hodgson before the game. He has so much experience and it's nice to plug into that. I hope I'm improving with every day and week, but I must have made 400 to 500 big mistakes this season. What's important is that you learn from them."
Keane has never wavered in his belief in his players and has been rewarded with three successive wins that have all but guaranteed survival. Injuries undermined them, but they are starting to look comfortable at this level. "There's not a better team at training," he said. "They're all competitive and are pushing each other."
Keane admitted that Fulham had the better of the first half until Danny Collins scored just before the break. Michael Chopra added the killer second goal early in the second half, and Whitehead set up the third for Kenwyne Jones.
David Healy's curling left-foot shot was the goal of the match but provided little consolation. "When the second goal went in I knew it would be very hard," Hodgson said.
Goals: Collins (45) 0-1; Chopra (54) 0-2; Healy (74) 1-2; Jones (76) 1-3.
Fulham (4-4-2): Keller; Stalteri (Dempsey, 62), Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Davies, Andreasen (Healy, 57), Murphy, Bullard; McBride, Kamara (Bouazza, 72). Substitutes not used: Warner (gk), Bocanegra.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Bardsley, Evans, Nosworthy, Collins; Edwards (Chopra, h-t), Whitehead, Reid, Richardson (Leadbitter, 57); Murphy (O'Donovan, 87), Jones. Substitutes not used: Fulop (gk), Higginbotham.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Booked: Fulham Andreasen, McBride.
Man of the match: Bullard.
Keane chases All Blacks 'inspiration'
Roy Keane plans to travel to New Zealand at the end of the season to spend three days with the All Blacks' coaching staff as they prepare for the Test against Ireland. It is part of Keane's pro-licence course, which requires spending time in another sport.
"What level of involvement I can have, watching training or whatever, I don't know," he said. "I have the green light to have three or four days with them. I don't know if I will be allowed into any team talks. I'll keep my head down and watch them. Try to plug into what they are about."
Keane has an interest in the Haka. "If the Haka didn't inspire you before a game, what could?" he asked.