The very serious people of the sports media, the rather less cerebral minds online and something referred to as “Moose” will have hated the product on display on Sky, but those of us invested in the fortunes of a club punching way above its weight found nothing but joy in a gritty, full throttle performance which brought the first win for such a long time. There are no points for artistic merit.
November fog, no doubt encouraged by the few bonfires not lit over the weekend, provided an appropriate pall over a contest between two clubs who had reached crisis points for very different reasons. Town, with a management team having to weigh up both survival and relegation possibilities simultaneously – with the inherent dangers of the latter at the forefront – find recruitment to bolster a squad which barely survived last season understandably difficult, while Fulham’s extravagant approach appears to have destroyed their much admired free flowing style which, if not abandoned, seems to have been sacrificed for cheque book vanity.
Jokanović cut a lonely, bemused figure on the touchline throughout the game, seemingly wondering what happened to the principles he had instilled over the past 3 years, which is a great pity. Fulham, a likeable club to most, have gained many admirers during his tenure, and their promotion from the Championship was widely applauded as due reward for their refreshing style of play – Town fans will remember the relief at facing Reading rather than the Cottagers at Wembley.
Abandoning continuity and shoehorning expensive imports in to their squad seems like catastrophically bad judgement on the evidence of a night where they flowed like molasses, looked feeble all over the pitch bar the combative Mitrović and were barely able to create threat against opposition which applied overwhelming pressure on their space and time.
David Wagner’s reign at Huddersfield has been of similar length to Jokanović’s – the Serbian arrived at Craven Cottage in December 2015 – and on his third anniversary he oversaw a performance deeply redolent of his momentous time at the club. Utilising many of the players upon whom he has relied for promotion and survival, the trademark intensity, commitment and impeccable game management – qualities so markedly absent at Watford – came roaring back to deliver a 50th win for him and us.
At the heart of everything was Hogg. Covering acres of ground, the on field captain tackled, disrupted and protected to allow Mooy and Billing to influence the game more positively. His two partners in a central midfield which functioned exceptionally well were not shy in the tackle either, and the visitors were rarely allowed to unhook themselves from the heavy shackles imposed upon them.
From the start, the physical battle was comprehensively won. Mitrović aside, the visitors looked cowed and lightweight in comparison and the effect on their fragile morale visible. Schürrle, an outstanding footballer by any measurement, was almost entirely sidelined and anonymous while the other baubles drafted in to no effect barely merit mention.
A scrappy, in all senses of the word, opening 15 minutes was brought to life when a Hogg challenge on Schürrle freed Billing in to space. Striding forward with his awkward elegance, the Dane hit a cracking shot from 30 yards which comprehensively beat whoever Fulham’s custodian was this week only to hit the woodwork. Again. Players and fans could be entirely forgiven for despairing that a home goal would ever come – this was the 7th time attempts have been marginally off target in an opening segment of the season where the fine margins so ruthlessly exploited in the past two campaigns have shifted to the wrong side.
Mooy then provided a decent cross for Mounié only for him to head over when he could probably have done better. The problems up front were not to be resolved despite the ultimate victory, and we will overlook this at our peril in our temporary euphoria.
Rico, for that is his name, pulled off a good save from Pritchard who had turned nicely on the edge of the area to create the space for his decent effort. This lead to two consecutive corners as Town increased the pressure on the visitors and the second, indirectly, lead to the opening home goal of the season.
The initial corner from Löwe was cleared directly back to him, allowing him plenty of time to deliver a cross significantly more threatening. Schindler rose above Fosu-Mensah to head home. Ludicrously, the slight deflection of the beleaguered Dutchman – who was booked then hooked at half time – deemed it an own goal by the powers that be.
The relief around the ground was intensely palpable, and the reward for the intelligent patience of the home support – who can see beyond bald statistics – was a burst of unbridled joy at what could be a significant turning point of a difficult season.
Scoring first is and always has been, crucial for Wagner’s teams. While going behind seems to derail the team and engender malaise, taking a lead anchors the game plan and enhances the qualities of defiance and aggressive control typical of the spirit he inspires.
To gain the three points which were desperately needed, Town had an hour to see off opposition who were demoralised but with latent threat if the stranglehold was loosened.
It was an hour of largely uninterrupted joyful ugliness. From front to back, Town harassed Fulham in to mediocrity, rarely lifting their foot off the throat. While their attacking threat diminished, particularly in the second half when Fulham’s tactical changes saw Town go to 4-4-2, and even Sky were unlikely to be able to polish this particular ordure, the typically fervent home support lapped up the dogged commitment of their side and cared not that it would disappoint someone viewing in Kuala Lumpur or Hicksville, USA.
With Hogg relishing the midfield battle, harassing whatever flair Fulham half remembered they once had out of the equation, Mooy exuding the calm control he can impose when at his best and Billing floating between the lines with the intensity he has added to his game for much of the season, the visitors were restricted to one good chance which Schürrle put wide, a tame free kick and an offside goal which looked avoidable.
Any threat Town carried was provided down the right but Hadergjonaj’s decent runs – he looked backwards less than he had done in the first half – were undone by indecision at the crucial time and not helped by too few Town players attacking the box.
Pritchard, who was as busy as ever, fluffed his lines a little when he was freed on the left but was similarly handicapped by limited support in the box.
The best chance, however, fell to substitute Mbenza with his first and second touch. Billing won the ball in midfield, strode forward and released his teammate with a perfect pass, only to see the young Belgian hurry a shot which sliced towards the corner flag instead of taking the ball further forward. It did, at least, supply a moment of comedy for our worldwide friends.
Fulham’s desperation, and the understandable tiredness of their hosts towards the end, opened up the possibility of them sneaking an equaliser in a game which should have been put to bed with a Town second, but their efforts became increasingly rudimentary and easily repulsed.
A generous 4 minutes injury time were largely played out in Fulham’s half, and by the right corner flag specifically, before Taylor – who was fussy but an improvement on some we have had – blew his whistle to rampant celebration and a collective release of stress.
The aforementioned “Moose” took to Twitter to mock Town’s celebrations of their first win – rather gratifyingly, many responses took down his joyless nonsense – but those inside the stadium stayed behind to acknowledge a performance of no little courage and, hopefully, a breakthrough which can be a platform for better days.
Wagner won’t be fooled by a victory over a moribund and directionless opponent, just as he doesn’t allow his players to dwell on past failures, but it felt important to him and the fans who, by and large, understand the scale of the enormous challenges of this second season.
West Ham, apparently the team supported by “Moose”, will provide a very different level of opposition than the confused Cottagers, but it is a game we can look forward to with a little more hope.