Bridge too far

Thursday 7 March 2002

From Ian McCulloch

Fulham put in a fine performance, played some superb football at times, and took the game to the opposition. If only they had been able to convert some of the clear opportunities that went begging, then the game could have been over by half time. Once again some baffling refereeing decisions had a strong influence on the outcome of the game.

No, not last night. That's a quote from the Charlton game at the Valley back in September - sounds familiar doesn't it? It's been used in practically every game since then.

What can you say about last night that hasn't been said a thousand times already this season? How can you write something different about a story that has been told on so many occasions that it's getting tedious?

Suffice to say that a 3-2 reversal to their near neighbours was not a just reward for a good night's work by the Whites. It was a difficult night for the fans - to see their team outplay Chelsea for long periods but come away with nothing was a bitter pill to swallow. It was a difficult night also for ex-Chelsea star Jon Harley. Brought back into the side in an unaccustomed midfield role, he acquitted himself well in what must have been an emotionally charged as well as a highly pressurised game.

His pleasure at being selected to play against his old teammates was clearly tempered by his disappointment with the result.

"It was an exciting game," he said, speaking the day after the match, "Good for everyone to watch, but the important thing was the result and it didn't go our way. We were all gutted to be honest. It's vital now that we put things right in our next league game.

"We did have a lot of chances and we should have put some more of those away really. Louis Saha did well to get the two he did get and there was another penalty that we might have got, but really it's another of those days when we've let it get away from us again."

The miracle was that we were awarded a penalty at all - the referee must have momentarily forgotten the FA directive that any Fulham player being kicked over in the box must receive an automatic yellow card. The chances of getting two spot-kicks in that game were miniscule.

"I think it was Frank Lampard, although I'm not sure," said Harley, "He caught Steve Marlet as he was running through with the ball, he's tripped him, right in front of the referee. He had a good view of it, but obviously thought it wasn't a penalty - from where I was I thought it looked clear-cut."

The lack of the clinical finish at crucial times is coming back to haunt us, time after time. Harley thinks that there is nothing wrong with the side that a few breaks and a couple of decent wins can't put right - there's no need to panic.

"All we can do is keep creating chances," he said, "Eventually they have to start going in - last season they were flying in from everywhere, and if we keep playing the way we have done we'll start sticking them away and start getting the results again. We just need a little bit of luck maybe.

"If we could get a win against one of the bigger teams then that would boost our confidence enormously, and really set us up to push on for next season. It's important that everyone does learn from this season; it's our first year in the Premiership as a squad and it's a big step up in class and quality for everyone. But having said that, we're all still fighting, and there's no reason why we can't put a good run together between now and the end of the season; a high finish and a European place is still not out of the question."

It's been a difficult season for Harley. Brought in to replace Rufus Brevett who was widely tipped as not being good enough for top-level football, the England U21 international has had to spend most of the season watching from the sidelines as Brevett has taken the Premiership by storm. In only his third start of the season, this was very much like being thrown in at the deep-end. But it was an encouraging performance, and as Harley says, there's more to come.

"I was pleased to play, especially as it was against Chelsea, but at the end of the day we didn't get the right result and everyone's come away feeling very unhappy about it. I felt I did reasonably well, but it was my first game for a while, and I know that I can do a lot better. It would have been nice if the one I hit in the first half had gone in - I caught it well and it ended up pinging around in the box and it could have gone anywhere.

"What's important is to get a good Cup run now, and get things going well in the league again. Whatever game is next, we've had a bad run and it's just made us more determined, whether it's the league or the Cup. Everyone was up for it against Chelsea, but for the next league game we're going to be even more resolved to get it right. It's important now that we do start getting those results.

"Everyone's still playing with the same confidence, there's no doubt that we have been unlucky - the result against Chelsea could have gone either way, but we've got to make sure we start making our own luck and turn those games our way.

"We've got a great squad, and I'm sure we can still push some more, and have a good run until the end of the season."

There was a sombre mood around the training ground on Thursday. It was not the mood of a team well beaten and despondent however, it was the mood of a team frustrated and annoyed at how another three points had escaped their clutches. Nobody can really explain why so many games have ended up so disappointingly this season, but the resolve to turn things round is definitely there - expect a backlash at the Baggies.