Captain frustration

Wednesday 20 February 2002

From Ian McCulloch

Once again, the post-match analysis is all about the referee's performance rather than the game itself. On a dreary Tuesday night in Teeside, a tight Premiership game against Middlesbrough revolved around yet more controversial officiating.

Boro are on a bit of a roll at the moment; after eliminating Blackburn from the Cup with the help of a diabolical refereeing decision, they went on to take three valuable league points off Fulham that also had a lot to do with the vagaries of the men in black. It's very difficult to feel sympathy for Graeme Souness, but in an evenly matched game, Rovers had a player straight red carded for an incident that shouldn't even have been penalised, and Middlesbrough scored from the resultant free kick. Fulham experienced the same sort of luck.

Skipper Andy Melville expressed the frustration that the whole team felt at seeing their opportunity to climb the table end so unhappily.

"The lads were very disappointed in the dressing room afterwards," he said, "We had a lot of chances during the game, but once again it's been shown that we need to be able to hurt teams a lot more than we do.

"We definitely didn't deserve to lose the game - we should have got at least a point out of it. I think you can say we're bitterly disappointed."

The game itself was a pretty fair reflection of the season so far - lots of good football, plenty of chances to kill the game off, but not quite achieving the result that the fine play deserved. Melville acknowledged that the team are well aware of their shortcomings and know what they have got to do to put it right.

"We had a lot of the ball, lots of possession in front of their back four, we just need a bit more quality right through the team when we get in those situations. We need to get people in behind the defence better, and we need to be more lethal when we're in the final third."

Once again though, controversy surrounded the outcome of the game. In complete contrast to the Blackburn decision, the Boro defender's challenge on Barry Hayles clearly denied a scoring opportunity, but was not deemed to deserve the yellow card that would have resulted in a sending off. To add insult to injury, the free kick cannoned off the wall for a corner, only for the referee to award a goal kick from which Boro broke away to score the winning goal.

Melville was able to couch his frustrations in diplomatic terms, but yet again crucial mistakes have meant that results have gone the wrong way.

"We were disappointed with a few of the decisions," said the Welsh international, "It's difficult for me to say too much - referees have got a very difficult job, we all know that - but we do feel things went against us. Hopefully these things even out over a season, but it's still very hard to take.

"It's getting to be a bit of a habit that when we go into the dressing room after the game, all we talk about is the referee. Our performance last night was pretty good, and yet we end up talking about the referee and a few decisions he's made instead of talking about the positives in the game."

It was a good performance, there's no doubt about that, and as Melville says, the team can draw strength from the performance.

"We were away from home, but as always we went there with a positive approach and took the game to them. They hit the bar from a set piece, but apart from the two goals they were restricted to long shots and didn't really have anything on target. So defensively it wasn't too bad, although we are very disappointed to concede the two goals.

"You mustn't forget that Boro are on the back of a good run, they haven't lost now since they played us at Craven Cottage. It was a big win for them, and it would have been a big for us - we could have moved up into seventh place - so it has set us back a little bit.

"We've three massive games coming up now, but that should be good for us - it will show us how far we've come in the Premiership this year. Earlier in the season we were a bit disappointed when we had three games in ten days and didn't come out of it very well, so hopefully we can come through these games a little bit better, and actually get some good results against the top sides.

"I think we can do well against them, we just need to apply that little bit more quality, and perhaps we need a little bit more belief in ourselves. There's no doubt that we can take things a step further, we're a good side but we've got to prove it, week-in, week-out. It's no good just saying it, we've got to show that we can do it."

Of course, the hiccough in the league shouldn't take away from the team's tremendous achievement in reaching the quarter finals of the Cup, something no Fulham team has done since 1975. But is it possible that this success can have the affect of taking the side's eye off the ball in the league? Melville is unequivocal that a good Cup run can only be beneficial to the team.

"It doesn't have any detrimental effect," he said, "I think the way the team played at Boro showed that. It doesn't enter our heads - all we concentrate on is the game in front of us. If anything, winning in the Cup brings more confidence, so it doesn't have any negative effect.

"We're in the Quarter Finals, and it's brilliant for the team and for the Club and supporters, and we feel very good about it, so it can only have a positive effect on us really. Hopefully it can be the spur that puts us on a good winning run that will take us to Cardiff and all the way up the league.

"Obviously West Brom is going to be an extremely difficult game, they'll be at home with a big crowd behind them, and their defensive record is one of the best in the league. They'll be hard to break down, but there's no doubt that we have the capability to go up there and get a result."

Next up for the Whites are Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea. When fans looked at these fixtures pre-season it was a mouth-watering prospect, but close up it's extremely daunting. There was a feeling that a good result up at Boro was essential because points from these games are going to be extremely hard to come-by.

Perversely, the defeat at the Riverside might well now work in our favour, with the team determined to get the frustrations of the game out of their system and show everyone what a good side they actually are.