UNBEATEN IN seven matches now, Fulham can be said to have adjusted to the Premiership and this was a heartening display, a triumph of patience after Jean Tigana's team had begun almost as badly as Everton were to play all afternoon.
All Everton did was start a brawl that led to the dismissals of David Weir, for a second cautionable offence, and Luis Boa Morte towards the end. While Boa Morte's straight red seemed harsh, referees and linesmen have a trying job in such circumstances and, in any case, the points were safe for Fulham by then, secured by two goals from Barry Hayles.
A thoroughly competent second half, during which the young French midfielder Steed Malbranque was outstanding, emphasised Fulham's superiority over a side who had not conceded a goal on their previous three outings.
They travel to Merseyside to meet Liverpool on Wednesday, but Fulham, having lost only three of 15 matches in the Premiership, are doing better than the table would suggest.
Maybe, for all the radical changes evident in the boardroom, coaching staff and playing squad, the club are still living in the era when they last enjoyed top-division status.
Let me illustrate my theory thus: you got one point for a draw then, and two for a win, so that a team drawing every match would finish in mid-table; the introduction of three points for a win (a great cause of Jimmy Hill's, incidentally) altered things so that a team drawing every match would be relegated. Yet this season Fulham, as if blissfully unaware, have kept drawing too many.
Everton on yesterday's form were the perfect remedy. Paul Gascoigne, whose introduction halfway through last weekend's match against Southampton inspired a 2-0 victory, started but scarcely figured in exchanges that were woefully untidy; at times every ball appeared to be a loose one.
There is, however, a ploy to which Fulham can turn when their game is so wayward. They can give the ball to Steve Finnan, their admirable Republic of Ireland right-back, who steals forward effectively and has the asset of being able to cross well with either foot. Checking back on to his left to throw Gary Naysmith, he swung over an inviting one, finding Louis Saha, who ought to have scored with a header that was too faintly glanced and drifted wide of the far post.
Fulham can be such a strange mixture, moments of slickness giving way to gaucherie, especially when the personalities involved are Saha and Boa Morte. Each gave a demonstration, dropping deep to obtain possession, running at the Everton defence and setting himself for a shot that was hoisted hopelessly over the top.
With Gascoigne contributing little more than the odd niggle, Everton did not even threaten before they fell behind 10 minutes from the interval, except with a free-kick struck by Alan Stubbs from at least 30 yards which fairly whizzed, hardly leaving the ground, until the long, lean frame of goalkeeper Ed van der Sar fell to stifle it.
If either side were to score, the feeling was that white shirts would be celebrating, and so it proved. Weir fouled Saha a few yards outside the Everton penalty area, in a central position, and Malbranque, already one of Fulham's more impressive performers, played it to the left, finding Rufus Brevett. The left-back measured his short cross to perfection and Hayles, negligibly marked, rose to steer a header out of the diving Steve Simonsen's reach.
As the striker's colleagues gleefully ran to him, van der Sar sprinted from his goal to congratulate Hayles: a gesture both pleasant and astute, the sort of thing that does not happen often enough in a supposedly ultra-professional game.
After a sparkling start to the second half, Fulham increased their lead. Finnan began a superb move, advancing to feed the voracious Malbranque, who exchanged passes with Boa Morte down the right and sent a long cross beyond the far post. Saha picked it up and drove, Simonsen diverting the ball behind for a corner. Malbranque took it and, as the Everton defence failed again, Hayles nudged his eighth goal in 17 appearances, three of them as substitute, this season.
Shortly afterwards, Gascoigne gave way to Niklas Alexandersson and it was all over bar the fighting.
It seemed simple enough. Fulham, courtesy of two goals by Barry Hayles, were cruising to victory over a limp Everton when it all kicked off. David Weir followed a tackle through on Luis Boa Morte, who grabbed the Everton captain's leg to spark a confrontation which saw at least 16 players involved but resulted in the sending off of only the original two concerned, the Portuguese appearing to be the one more sinned against.
There was, earlier, also a plastic bottle thrown from the Everton fans towards the architect of Fulham's victory, Steed Malbranque, which should also require the FA's attention. This latest incident, from the very section of Craven Cottage where Spurs fans also threw a missile in the recent Worthington Cup tie here, is a worrying trend they will need to pronounce on.
It always looked likely to shape up as a tight match between two teams grateful to be in mid-table. Fulham had drawn four of their previous eight home games while Everton had drawn three of their six away. In addition, Fulham had conceded only one goal in their previous four matches, Everton none in their last three.
There was always hope for goals, however, with the lithe Louis Saha paired with the muscular Hayles in the home attack. And while Everton were still without their first-choice pairing of Kevin Campbell and Duncan Ferguson, Steve Watson again filling in as a centre-forward, they did field Paul Gascoigne, who had inspired their second-half turnaround to beat Southampton last week, from the start.
Looking almost too slim these days, Gascoigne was at the hub of most of the better things Everton did, his touch and eye for a pass still intact. Everton, Tomasz Radzinski apart, lack pace around him however and there was an absence of incisiveness in their approach play. Their best hope of a goal looked to be from a set piece.
By contrast, Fulham were their customary silky selves in going forward. Again as usual, their precision around goal eluded them, however, and chances went begging. Louis Saha glanced a header just wide from Steve Finnan's right wing cross and John Collins drove in a low shot which Steve Simonsen clutched gratefully.
Finally they managed a piercing attack before half-time, though. Malbranque played a free-kick square to Rufus Brevett wide on the left and his cross found the head of Hayles, who headed down firmly into Simonsen's left corner.
It was a little hard on Everton, who for all Fulham's possession and pattern-weaving, had barely looked uncomfortable at the back. Then again, neither had Fulham. Edwin Van Der Sar had only to deal with a long-range drive from Alan Stubbs, which he held competently, and the odd curling cross from Thomas Gravesen before the interval.
Everton soon found themselves two goals adrift after the resumption as Fulham emerged with real intent. Malbranque, supplied by Boa Morte, made good ground on the right and from his cross, Saha got in a fierce shot which Simonsen did well to turn round a post. The goalkeeper was powerless from Malbranque's resulting corner kick, however, as the ball was flicked on at the near post and Hayles had a simple task in touching home from a yard for his second goal.
Fulham were now rampant and Malbranque almost claimed a stupendous third, weaving past three defenders before shooting over the bar as Simonsen advanced on him. Malbranque's reward the next time he took a corner was what looked to be a plastic bottle thrown at him from among the Everton support.
More disgrace was to follow, though, with the Everton players as angry as their supporters at their own impotence.
When Boa Morte overran the ball, David Weir piled in strongly to clear, catching the Portuguese on his follow through. Boa Morte then grabbed Weir's leg, to try and stop the Everton captain making any more contact it seemed.
The incident sparked a mass melée which saw Saha and Simonsen, among many others, exchanging pushes. The upshot was a red card for Weir and, less understandably, Boa Morte, the game ending with a bang rather than the whimper that looked likely.
A slow burner of a game between two of the many teams clustered around the middle of the Premiership came alight with goals on either side of half-time and positively flared up 15 minutes from the end, when Luis Boa Morte (for the second time this season) and Everton's David Weir were sent off amid a scrum involving most players on the pitch.
Barry Hayles had scored twice to bring about a deserved victory for a team who - whatever the table says - looked a class above the opposition. Unbeaten now in seven games, they would be well up among the challenging pack if even one of four home draws had been converted into a victory. Lack of goals has been the problem, though Hayles could not be faulted yesterday, except for his part in the brawl.
As he and Louis Saha might both have been dismissed, and Everton were given the subsequent free-kick, their manager Walter Smith was as close as he gets to animation. "The sending off [of Weir] was disgraceful," he said. "He's the only player ever sent off for clearing the ball, getting pulled down and then being stamped on by an opponent. It was a mystifying decision, among many others. We'll appeal if we can."
The hoo-ha began when Weir, already booked, ran heavily into Boa Morte, who fell to the floor and grabbed the Everton man's leg. That hardly seemed a red card offence, but off he went, while Hayles escaped for lunging in with his foot and Saha got away with what looked like a flailing elbow. Fulham's goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar won the prize for running furthest to join in, in his case the best part of 70 yards.
Perhaps he was bored, Everton having given him so little to do. Their players were lucky that the incident deflected Smith's wrath from a feeble performance, which he admitted was their worst of the season. After four unbeaten matches, the last three without conceding a goal, they troubled Van der Sar with one early free-kick by Alan Stubbs and nothing more. Lacking a natural goalscorer in the continued absence of Duncan Ferguson and Kevin Campbell - both some way from regaining fitness - and believing a partnership of Tomasz Radzinski and Joe-Max Moore too lightweight, Smith persisted with a fullback, Steve Watson, as a bludgeon to Radzinski's rapier.
The ploy did not work, and despite an hour's industrious performance from Paul Gascoigne, given a rare start, the midfield was never able to wrench sufficient possession from the former Evertonian John Collins and the excellent Steed Malbranque. For half an hour, Fulham lacked penetration as well, Saha heading their only chance wide from Steve Finnan's cross before poor defending allowed a breakthrough 10 minutes before half-time. From a central position, Malbranque, surely one of the summer's best signings by any club, angled a free-kick intelligently wide to Rufus Brevett, whose cross was headed in by a criminally unmarked Hayles.
The visitors began the second half rather more aggressively, only to be undone within five minutes from a corner that followed the best move of the game. Finnan, exemplary at right-back, began it, Malbranque and Boa Morte played a sharp one-two and the latter's centre led to a shot from Saha, pushed behind by Steve Simonsen. The reprieve was brief: Malbranque's corner bypassed the defence and Hayles tapped in his second goal of the afternoon.
"You might as well go home," chorused the home supporters to the Scouse contingent. Had Malbranque's driving run a few minutes later been blessed with the finish it deserved, instead of Scot Gemmill's lunging deflection, they could have done. All the Frenchman earned was a corner and a bottle thrown at him from Evertonian fans.
Smith decided a more direct force was required in midfield so Niclas Alexandersson replaced Gascoigne, who left to a generous ovation from all round the ground. Thomas Gravesen then made way for Moore, with Watson dropping back to midfield, but there was little improvement and the only remaining drama was the double sending-off. By the final whistle, the Fulham chants had changed to "You're going down with United".
AN EASY victory for Fulham, against a toothless Everton, was disfigured half an hour into the second period by the ugly brawl that followed a clash between Everton's David Weir and Fulham's Luis Boa Morte, which led to the expulsion of both players.
Half a dozen other players might well have followed them or at least been shown a yellow card by the clearly confused referee, Phil Dowd. Boa Morte, trying to forge his way through the middle, lost control of the ball, fell over Weir and had a free kick given against him.
Barry Hayles's two goals ensured Fulham's victory - and he may have escaped unpunished as he appeared to stamp on Weir after Boa Morte's initial foul. Referee Dowd consulted his assistants but did not punish Hayles for his actions.
Boa Morte's explanation was that a boot was coming down on his face and he wanted to stop it happening; hence the fact that he grabbed it.
Walter Smith, Everton's manager, was of another opinion. "Disgraceful," he said later. "I can't understand how a referee who will give a foul to a player as Dowd seemingly did, in Weir's favour, would then send him off. If anyone could say why that was the case, I would be delighted to go in and enlighten the referee, because that was mystifying."
The 3,000-strong Merseyside support (Eds note: actually 1,600) could lead to further trouble as a bottle was hurled at the Londoners' Steed Malbranque in the second half.
"I saw something coming on to the pitch, and if it is the case, it's something I won't condone," said Smith.
Fulham assistant manager Christian Damiano was also critical of Dowd: "The sanction against Boa Morte was very hard as the first foot was from the Everton defender. Boa Morte said the Everton defender's knee and foot arrived in his face. His reaction was to protect his face."
Lacking their two chief strikers, Kevin Campbell and Duncan Ferguson, Everton fielded an attack that failed to produce a single shot or header on goal. Indeed, the only shot of any consequence from Everton was when defender Alan Stubbs struck a tapped free kick hard along the ground midway through the first half, obliging Fulham's Dutch keeper, Edwin van der Sar, to plunge on the ball.
Everton's strike force consisted of the little Polish-Canadian, Tomasz Radzinksi, who scored some good goals for Anderlecht last season in the Champions League, and Steve Watson, who is really a defender and looked like one during this performance.
Fulham were utterly superior, their own midfield brisk and inventive, with Malbranque steadily emerging as possibly the greatest hero at Craven Cottage since Johnny Haynes.
The two strikers, Hayles and Louis Saha, were threatening throughout, with vigorous support provided from the right flank by Boa Morte.
It seemed surprising in the circumstances that Everton did not use Joe-Max Moore, the American striker, from the beginning since even though he poses scant physical threat, he is well used to playing in the position. By the same token, it was odd that Niclas Alexandersson, the Swedish international outside-right, appeared only as a second-half substitute.
Thomas Gravesen, who spent most of the time he was on the field on the right flank, should have been used in his customary position of central midfield, where he has had some influential games this season.
Fulham's first goal arrived on 36 minutes. Malbranque pushed a free kick to Rufus Brevett, whose cross was headed in by Hayles. Five minutes into the second half, Boa Morte served Malbranque on the right, Saha connected with his cross and Steve Simonsen turned the ball athletically for a left-wing corner. Malbranque took that, too. The ball was deflected to Hayles, who beat Simonsen for the second time.
There was some sympathy for Paul Gascoigne, who was so impressive a few weeks ago at Blackburn. The dynamism may have diminished, but the economy of means is still there.
Fulham could have gone ahead as early as the 12th minute. Boa Morte sent the always enterprising Irish international right-back Steve Finnan flying down the right wing, for a cross that was headed just wide by Saha.
The French connection has been vastly successful for this Fulham side. To bring Jean Tigana to the club was a masterly stroke after it seemed that this former elegant member of the French international midfield, a star of the 1982 World Cup, had turned his back on the game, after his bleak experiences in charge at Monaco.
Would he have been tempted to go to Highbury last week, where his two once mutinous young strikers, Thierry Henry of Arsenal and David Trezeguet of Juventus, appeared on opposite sides? A couple of seasons ago, both of them were clearly, in the opinion of their club president at Monaco, "playing to get away", even to the extent of ostentatiously reading a newspaper as Tigana was trying to give his team talk. In the event, Henry went to Juventus that season and failed.
Trezeguet joined the Turin club after scoring France's golden goal in the final of Euro 2000. There he has flourished, though Tuesday's Champions League game at Highbury was emphatically Henry's.