Not enough credit

Monday 18 February 2002

From Fulham Today's Ian McCulloch

It was a curious game against Walsall on Saturday. In an initiative designed to liven up the Cup, the FA introduced some new rule changes that gave the match a very unfamiliar look. Gratuitous shirt pulling was deemed to be acceptable and players were to be judged offside if they did not have three defenders between them and the goal instead of the usual two.

On a slippery pitch that had the players struggling to stay on their feet at crucial times, and with the floodlights on because of the surrounding fog, the new rule changes made for an absorbing if unusual game. Striker Steve Marlet clearly had difficulty with the new offside rule, his face looking more and more demonic as each decision went against him, and Fulham will obviously have to purchase a new set of shirts to replace their current ones which were stretched out of all recognition.

Walsall worked extremely hard all game and made life very difficult for the Whites. For long periods they played with eleven men behind the ball, a tactic that led to Fulham having 67% of the possession in the first half. Despite deciding to play so deep, the Saddlers still had several good chances to score more than their one goal. Their fans probably went home thinking that they could have won the game, but there was a certain air of inevitability that the superior qualities of the Premiership side would come through in the end.

It was a game of contrasts - two of the goals were jokes while Barry Hayles' winner was sublime. An own goal highlighted Walsall's frustrations in a game where some of their approach play was stunning but they missed a couple of sitters. Goalkeeper van der Sar's performance summed up his team's - after flapping at a couple of crosses and punching the ball onto a Walsall head and into his own net, he went on to pull off an absolutely stunning world-class save.

One odd episode in the first half summed up the quirky officiating that had such an effect on the match. While waiting for a Fulham corner to come over, Sylvain Legwinski desperately tried to evade the close attentions of his marker. As he sprinted backwards and forwards in the penalty area, the defender hung furiously onto the back of his shirt, at times almost being pulled along like a water skier. With the ball about to come over and Legwinski embraced in a bear hug so that he could no longer move, the referee blew his whistle and came over to have a word with the defender.

Now what on earth did he say to him? He obviously saw what had gone on, and under normal rules that would have been a penalty, no other option. So was he giving him some advice on how to foul more effectively? It's time that referees were required to come to press conferences and explain the mysteries of their thought processes.

Whatever. Fulham have now moved quietly through to the Quarter Finals for the first time since 1975. The media seem to be doing their best to ignore the Whites' progress, and the three ties played so far, all against lower league opposition, may have looked straightforward on paper, but playing away from home in the Cup is never easy, a point made by manager Jean Tigana after the game. He also said that he was desperately hoping for a home draw in the next round, a sentiment echoed by midfielder John Collins.

"We're only two games away from the Final," said the Scot, "So we're looking forward to the draw. Hopefully we can get a home tie, we've had three away so far. We've done well in all three, but it would be nice to play at home for a change."

Finally, just a quick word on some of the TV coverage of the game. When I got home from the match, I watched a video of the whole game and then the BBC's highlights on later. Sky's Walsall dominated programme was perfectly summed up by presenter Richard Keys' comment at half time: "What a shame for Walsall!"

As for the BBC, their commentator had clearly never come across Fulham before and obviously hadn't thought that they warranted any research. Thus, our £11.5million striker was pronounced Marlet with a "T", Ouaddou as Oddoo, and Finnan as Feenan.

Where do they get them from?