Football: Caution stifles Fulham panache

Richard Williams sees a mundane contest brought to life with a touch of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation
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THERE WAS a lot of very ordinary English football on view at Craven Cottage on Saturday, interrupted by one event that may have been genuinely unique in the history of the Nationwide League. Andy Morrison, the Manchester City captain, was sent off for "sticking his tongue down Stan Collymore's throat".

That, at least, is what Joe Royle, claimed afterwards, and the City manager's own tongue did not seem to be in his cheek. His reactions were not exactly unmixed, however, since his anger at Morrison's dismissal was modified by his pleasure at seeing his side take a share of the points from a goalless draw, and by the knowledge that, after the captain's departure, his 10 men came very close to nicking a win against a team with whom they were promoted last season, and with whom they are bracketed as possible candidates for further progress.

Collymore's 68th-minute altercation with Morrison represented the on- loan striker's only notable contribution to the afternoon. His runs were made at meaningless times and into harmless spaces, a single shot from distance was comfortably saved, and he never looked like approaching the effectiveness at this level that produced the 25 goals with which he helped Nottingham Forest lift themselves into the Premier League a few years ago. But at least the Cottage is only a five-minute drive from the Priory.

By contrast, with Morrison's departure the game lost its most engaging performer. Red-faced, barrel-chested, quite possibly a stranger to the dietary theories espoused by the Continental regimes at places like Highbury and Stamford Bridge, the 29-year-old Scot has the permanently irascible air of a portly village bobby being taunted by a bunch of schoolkids. But as he busied himself at the heart of the City defence, ensuring that the good work performed by Geoff Horsfield and Rufus Brevett down Fulham's left wing came to nothing when the final ball reached the middle, he provided the game's focal point. Sadly, his bustling presence also drew the attention of the referee, Phil Rejer, who booked him after 12 minutes for an illusory touchline foul on Horsfield. "The player himself told the referee that he'd lost his balance and Andy hadn't touched him," Royle said.

Almost an hour later, Lee Clark on the Fulham right aimed a long diagonal cross into the penalty area. Morrison and Collymore went up together, arms flailing, and Mr Rejer was swiftly on the scene to caution both players. According to Royle, "he didn't even realise that he'd already booked Morrison." When the penny did drop, thanks to the prompting of the home fans, the City captain rounded on Collymore and gave him another piece of his tongue en route to the dressing- room.

Facing 10 men, Fulham lost their shape and their rhythm and were lucky to survive the last 20 minutes without conceding a goal. Royle plugged the hole in City's rearguard by sending on a defender, Tony Vaughan, to replace a winger, Mark Kennedy, hitherto his most dangerous attacker, and watched as his team created the two best chances of the match within a single minute. First Shaun Goater slid in to meet Paul Dickov's slanting right-wing cross, sending his point-blank volley over the bar. Moments later it was Dickov's turn to meet a cross from the right, but his close- range header drew a diving save from Nick Weaver.

Fulham responded with a slick move down the left that revived memories of the first half, Clark initiating an attack which encouraged the energetic Brevett to exchange passes with the admirably purposeful Horsfield before shooting into the side netting. But their embryonic revival was snuffed out when the teenaged midfielder Sean Davis, clearly overcome by hearing the announcement of his man-of-the-match award over the PA system, spent the final minutes of the match giving the ball away.

Davis, who appears to possess skill, strength and a football brain, largely over- shadowed the contributions of Clark and Stephen Hughes, his more experienced midfield colleagues, and his performance provided one of the few pluses to come out of Fulham's first home game since their arrival in the First Division. A crowd of 16,754 was entertained by the introduction of their new mascot, a ludicrously costumed figure named Sir Craven de Cottage, who received a benediction from the club's owner, Mohammed "One F In" Fayed. Wisely, perhaps, the Knightsbridge shopkeeper got his lap of honour in before the kick-off.

Paul Bracewell, promoted by Fayed to the manager's seat after the loss of Kevin Keegan during the summer, pronounced himself disappointed with a draw against a team who had failed to take so much as a point from their last three visits to the Cottage. "It was a hard-fought game," he said, "but we lost our discipline at the end. It was a lesson for us." One thing they will have to learn fast is how to cope with opponents who refuse to let them settle, which was City's tactic throughout, with the little Australian left-back Danny Tiatto a particularly efficient disruptive force. And his retention of a five-man defence against a 10-man opposition seemed unduly cautious, not to say a contradiction of Fulham's old carefree tradition.

As for Royle, he could only express despair at the prospect of an imminent suspension for his captain. "You try to be supportive of referees," he observed. "But I'd better not say any more. I'll save it up for my report." He also remarked that "It's a man's game," although quite where a girlish spat that ends up in a bout of French kissing might fit into that familiar definition is anybody's guess.

Fulham (5-3-2): Taylor; Finnan, Melville, Morgan, Coleman, Brevett; Davis, Clark, Hughes (Peschisolido, 71); Collymore, Horsfield. Substitutes not used: Hahnemann (gk), Hayward, Trollope, Symons.

Manchester City (4-4-2): Weaver; Crooks, Wiekens, Morrison, Tiatto; Whitley, Bishop, Horlock, Kennedy (Vaughan, 70); Dickov, Goater. Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Allsopp, Taylor, Cooke.

Referee: P Rejer (Tipton).

Bookings: Fulham: Collymore, Melville. Manchester City: Morrison, Whitley, Dickov. Sent off: Morrison.

Man of the match: Morrison.

Attendance: 16,754.