Jack and Loz at the Cottage - Blog 274

Date: 17th February 2024

Opposition: Aston Villa

Score: 1-2

Fulham goal scorer: Rodrigo Muniz

Weather: acceptable

Atmosphere: aggrieved

MOTM: it would be easy to give the award to Muniz who now has 4 goals in 3 matches but Fulham’s best player was Tom Cairney. For years we wrote about his midfield masterclasses in the Championship, never expecting that he would one day show the same prowess against the very best sides

Lunch: Truth

Coffee: the new place opposite the Crabtree

Drinks: the Blue Boat

It seems fitting to begin this blog, not in damp, cloudy London, but 3,000 miles away on the sun baked coast of west Africa. Last Sunday, Alex Iwobi and Calvin Bassey played in the AFCON final having helped Nigeria achieve its well deserved place in that match over several weeks when Fulham missed them badly. Nigeria lost narrowly to a Côte d’Ivoire team in which Jean-Michel Seri was a key player. We were horrified to hear of the abuse Iwobi suffered from so-called Nigeria “fans” and, like the rest of the Fulham Faithful, were delighted to welcome our travelling heroes home.

And much has changed in their month-long absence: London’s streets are studded with spring flowers, Antonee Robinson has become a skin-head and Rodrigo Muniz is the best striker in the Premier League.

Saturday afternoon was the first time for a while when we’ve sat outside drinking coffee, and the first time for a while that we’ve gone to a league match without feeling anxious. Last week’s stylish win over Bournemouth has been widely accepted, even by nervous Fulham fans, as this season’s crossing of the Rubicon.

That’s not to say, however, that we should become complacent, and self-satisfaction wasn’t Marco Silva’s reason for naming an unchanged starting line-up - he wanted to give players the chance to build on recent successes and there was nothing wrong with the structure or organisation of the team. The reason we lost was individual mistakes.

And one individual made lots of mistakes, but we’ll get to him later.

The match began with the first of many offside goals, Villa the culprits that time. Fulham responded with one of their own a few minutes later - a very neat finish by Tim Ream from a superb Andreas/Tom free kick routine. But in and around all this shadow boxing Fulham had the better of the play - Muniz looked sharp despite being throttled by Villa defenders, Castagne was working very hard, and on the other wing Antonee, Willian and Tom were trading passes, places and positions and working their way ever further into the Villa box.

But then, just as Villa were struggling with the impressive Fulham press, something very Fulhamish happened and we gave them a goal. Antonee Robinson took the unusual decision to direct his throw-in to a Villa player, Willian slipped, Leno could do nothing and the ball was in the back of the net.

Despite this self-inflicted set-back, Fulham regrouped and made it to half time without further mishap, give or take a few misplaced passes by Issa Diop.

The second half began with a flurry of time wasting from Villa. Ollie Watkins had at least one near-death experience and the goalkeeper entered a time warp. The referee meanwhile, after a shaky first half, began to lose all sense of where he was and what he was supposed to be doing. But we’ll get to him later.

We would like to describe how well Fulham responded to the second goal but that means we have to talk about the second goal and we’d rather not. Suffice to say, various Fulham defenders forgot how to defend and we were suddenly 2-0 down.

But! Fulham responded extremely well. After a long period or pressing and probing, Antonee made up for his earlier mistake with a sprint to the by-line, an aerial leap and a pin point cross (in all seriousness, this happened right in front of us and his athleticism was breathtaking) and Muniz was in the right place at the right time to tilt the ball into the net. Like all his recent goals, this was a good one and it shows how much he’s developed - he took a gamble and created a goal out of half a chance. Didn’t we used to have a striker who did that….?

Occasionally, and subtly, and in a constructive way, and not very often at all really, we criticise Marco’s subs policy. On Saturday, however, he got it exactly right. He saw the issues with the side and fixed them. The half time replacement of Willian may have been dictated by injury but Iwobi had something to prove and settled straight back in; later Harry Wilson made a noticeable impact and the swap of Ream for Bassey was the right decision, if not an easy one. This is exactly the sort of game where Traore was needed for a late flourish and, even though he didn’t quite deliver it, the intention was clear. (We’re not so sure what the Sasa sub was about but, to misquote Meatloaf, 4 out of 5 ain’t bad).

It’s also unusual for us to criticise referees. It’s a hard job to impose your authority on a fast-moving game played by 22 people who see you as a spare part, 11 of whom are automatically going to disagree with every decision you make. However, you should at least be able to keep track of what’s going on and you should definitely know the rules.

Lewis Smith is 30. He should have been fit enough to keep up with the game but the pace was too much for him. This was perhaps not a physical issue as he was easily manipulated by Villa’s play-acting; he was indecisive, inconsistent and totally inept. Why has he been allowed to fail upwards into the Premier League?

We understand you can’t see everything, that some mistakes will be made. But why didn’t he punish the back pass? Or the hand balls? Why did he allow the Villa players to get away with yellow-card challenges without giving them yellow cards? Why did he blow the final whistle after 5 minutes and 25 seconds of extra time when the ball had been in play for only 57 seconds of the 5 minutes? Well, we know the answer to that - he knew he’d messed up, he could hear the criticism of the crowd and he couldn’t wait to run away. Smith wasn’t ready for a Premier League match; someone should have to answer for his inappropriate appointment, but, as always with referees, they won’t.

However, Fulham didn’t lose the game because of the ref’s incompetence and Villa didn’t win it by rolling around on the floor and wasting time. Villa are a very good side, constantly threatening in attack, always solid in defence. Fulham are quite a good side, inconsistent in attack and sometimes haphazard in defence. We fought to the final whistle; we went close often but didn’t capitalise on our chances at one end and made life hard for ourselves at the other. Careless errors cost us at least a point but the team that finished the game was better than the one that started it, while Rodrigo Muniz ended the afternoon as he began it - currently one of the most prolific strikers in the League.

Random musings:-

- On the subject of welcoming home Iwobi and Bassey, the Nigerian flag a few rows in front of us in H7 was lovely

- Iwobi was so happy that he removed his shirt but then realised how cold it was and had to borrow Tim’s jacket

- Everyone looked at everyone else when we won a corner and neither Andreas nor Willian was there to take it

- Harry and Antonee combining to keep a tricky ball in was a Moment of brilliance

- At one point, Leno wasn’t sweeping, he was just wandering up the pitch

- Joao capped off one of his less influential performances with the yellow card which means he misses 2 matches

- A manager who’s a vampire is bound to be good at the dark arts

- Were there some Iberian handbags in the first half? (Top quality leather obviously)

- as the ref’s wrong decisions racked up Marco must have checked his bank balance to see if he could afford another £80,000 fine. It seems he couldn’t, but Fulham fans have made the point for him.

Whilst this was a frustrating afternoon and a disappointing result the fact that we ran Villa so close is testament to the team’s hard work and potential. It’s also a reflection of the fact that Fulham are now the midtable Premier League club that we’ve spent 8 years wanting to be. We win some games, we draw some games and we lose some games. The losses - this one in particular - rankle but they’re not a disaster. And we’re always ready to go again.