You Lucky People

Friday 4 January 2002

From Fulham Today's Ian McCulloch

Some very familiar noises were coming out of Derby's Pride Park on Wednesday night after Fulham's one-nil victory. All you could hear was grumbling, griping, blaming of the referee, bemoaning bad luck and general complaining about the unfairness of it all. There was also a certain air of inevitability that the result was going to go the way it did.

In stark contrast to many of Fulham's games this season though, it was Derby who were doing the complaining while the Whites went home smugly contented after a professional job well done. Rams midfielder Darryl Powell led the complaints. "The goal should never have been allowed," he bleated. "We should have had a free kick for a foul but instead they went down the other end and scored. The referee let us down with some of the decisions that went against us." The boot, for once, was firmly on the other foot.

Wednesday night was the first time for a very long time that the Whites have pulled off a "smash and grab" raid of this type. Far too often we have been the ones in the position of Derby, incensed by yet another big Club coming down to the Cottage, and although not playing particularly well, luckily taking the three points back home with them.

So when did Fulham last "nick" three points? Certainly not this season; all of the Whites' wins previously have been outstanding. In fact the feature of the campaign so far has been not getting the just rewards that their good play has deserved. I don't think there were any "robberies" last year either. Blackburn boss Graeme Souness would probably put forward the stunning victory at Ewood Park, but in all fairness the team put up a stunning display that night, showing heart and character in such abundant quantities that they were able to finish stronger than the Rovers despite playing over half the game with only ten men.

It seems to me that the win at Pride Park was very similar to Manchester United's at the Cottage on Sunday. United didn't play particularly well, they rode their luck enormously in front of their own goal and cashed in on the couple of mistakes that Fulham made. The real difference between the two sides was Ryan Giggs, who on that performance, if the largely anonymous David Beckham is perceived as one of the best players in the world, must easily rank as the best. He would have destroyed any team he was playing against that day. It's a measure of Fulham's bad fortune that Giggs was unavailable against Newcastle on Wednesday, his troublesome hamstring playing up once again.

There was an air of inevitability about the result as well. There was a feeling that if the ball had bounced kindly for Fulham and two or three of the early chances had been taken, and that if the two bloomers that led to goals hadn't been committed, that United would still have proven too strong, that somehow they had the talent to produce a bit extra that would still have won the game. I sensed that amongst the supporters, and I wonder if there was perhaps a little bit of that in the players as well.

But now Fulham find themselves in the position of being the "big" Club against some of the Premiership's lesser sides. For a team finding itself back in top-flight football for the first time in over thirty years, the respect shown them by some of their opponents is remarkable. Derby of course are the perfect example of this, their dourly won point at the beginning of the season led to such unconfined outpourings of joy that you would have thought they'd won the Championship that night. Was there a subconscious feeling on Wednesday amongst the Derby fans and players that no matter how well they did, that the "big" team, Fulham, would still win?

There is a lot of talk about the three leagues in the Premiership. The top five, Man Utd, Arsenal, Leeds, Liverpool and Chelsea, fighting it out for the Title and Europe; the bottom few, the Derby's, Leicester's and Bolton's battling against relegation. And the rest in the middle. Fulham have joined the Premiership firmly in the middle of that middle group, and what a wonderful achievement that is. No real relegation worries and an outside chance of a European place.

Reputations seem to count for an awful lot in football. Fulham need to consolidate on their standing against the lesser lights, but the next stage will be to push on to another level against the top five. The outstanding draws against Leeds and Liverpool need to be turned into victories, and the trepidation shown for the visits of Arsenal and Manchester need to be replaced by the arrogance we had last season that will make those teams wary of coming up against the Whites. It will come. These are early days, but if Fulham can go to places like Pride Park, not be at their best, win anyway, and for the Derby fans to expect that to be the case, then the rest will surely follow.

And don't forget, the Whites are still unbeaten this year!