Hodgson cautious as Fulham edge away from the trapdoor
Fulham 2 Birmingham City 0
To some this result, and the probable destiny of these two clubs, may have been decided by either a freak injury or the intervention of one of the game's more charismatic figures. Roy Hodgson, Fulham's manager, was more inclined to ascribe it to the prosaic virtues of good coaching and hard work on the training ground.
The injury came shortly before half-time at Craven Cottage on Saturday when Liam Ridgewell fell and turned his ankle. He and Radhi Jaidi had ensured that Fulham's midfield superiority had gone unrewarded, but Ridgewell failed to reappear for the second half. His replacement, makeshift centre-half Franck Queudrue, was at fault for both Fulham's goals.
Fulham thus lifted themselves out of the relegation zone for the first time since Christmas. Birmingham were left needing to better both Fulham and Reading's results on Sunday to survive.
That was the aim of Mohamed Al Fayed when he addressed the players before kick-off. In recent weeks the Fulham chairman and owner has thrown himself into saving the club from relegation with regular visits to the training ground and dressing room. Not every manager would accept this but Hodgson has worked with the Internazionale president Massimo Moratti, and, as he adds, "it's not my club, it's his".
Fayed said: "I fired them up." His methods appear to be carrot and stick. "I made sure that I tell them that if we go down, they are down with us – and I have promised each one of them they will have a £5,000 hamper full of caviar and smoked salmon [if Fulham stay up]."
There is more, however, to turning a team round than threats, tub-thumping and blandishments. Hodgson is an equable man but he bristled when it was suggested he had been just what Fulham needed, "an older head, to put an arm round them."
he said: "I think you underestimate the work that's gone on on the training pitch. I am first and foremost a coach. I'm not the type of manager who sits in the office while others give them a five-a-side. I get out on the field every day. If I was to be given any credit for anything during the last four months, it would be for the way the team's played."
Under Hodgson Fulham have developed an expansive passing game, no mean achievement given the circumstances. Courage in sport takes many forms but one of the more overlooked is the bravery Danny Murphy and Jimmy Bullard showed in getting on the ball. They did not always find the right pass, but they were prepared to try.
Bullard said: "Roy is a football man. He wants us to play the ball on the floor. He's great with the players, he doesn't take any crap, and doesn't tell you crap. He hasn't missed a training session since he's been here, which tells you everything."
Since Hodgson took over at the turn of the year Fulham have taken 18 points from 17 matches. Prior to his arrival they had 15 from 20 and were 19th. Birmingham have also improved statistically since Alex McLeish took over at the end of November, but not as much as the teams around them, which is why they have slipped to 19th.
McLeish spoke of "the frailties of the human mind'"when considering his team's lack of self-belief, and admitted Queudrue in particular will have been "disappointed". The Frenchman failed to cut out Bullard's free-kick, which Brian McBride headed in for Fulham's first. He then made a hash of clearing Paul Konchesky's clearance allowing Erik Nevland to secure victory.
Birmingham must get a result against Blackburn on Sunday. Their home record is decent, but Reading are at Derby while Fulham play a Portsmouth who appear to be thinking only of their FA Cup final date.
The Scot spoke of a long-term rebuilding job and, whatever happens next week, his record with Hibs, Rangers and Scotland suggests he should be given time to stamp his own mark on the club.
But it is not over yet. Hodgson did his best to remind everyone of that. He looked somewhat uncomfortable when Fulham did a lap of honour. Fate may yet have a card to play, however hard he works this week on the training ground.
Goals: McBride (52) 1-0; Nevland (87) 2-0.
Fulham (4-4-2): Keller; Stalteri, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Davies, Bullard (Andreasen 88), Murphy, Dempsey (Healy, 90); Kamara (Nevland, 67), McBride. Substitutes not used: Warner (gk), Bocanegra.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Taylor; Kelly, Jaidi, Ridgewell (Queudrue, 46), Murphy; Larsson, Muamba, Johnson, Kapo (Zarate, 58); Forssell (Jerome, 74), McFadden. Substitutes not used: Doyle (gk), Parnaby.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Booked: Fulham Stalteri, Davies; Birmingham Muamba, Queudrue, Jerome, Jaidi, McFadden.
Man of the match: Murphy.