Football: Keegan at the nerve centre

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Fulham 1

Beardsley pen 45

Grimsby Town 1

Smith 53

Attendance: 13,954

KEVIN KEEGAN'S first game in sole charge of Fulham at Craven Cottage yesterday was enough to have him wondering whether he could again stand the stress that in the past made him question his need for football.

He saw his team reduced to 10 men, take a lead through a penalty, give away a careless equaliser and in the end cling to hope for promotion as Fulham now go to Grimsby for the second leg of this Second Division play- off semi-final. Morally, though, the marginal winners of a tough, exciting drama were Grimsby whose organisation was the better. But failing to beat 10 men could be costly.

By all accounts not even the Fulham players knew why it was that, suddenly last week, Ray Wilkins had been dismissed by the club's "Chief Operating Officer", Keegan, who took over as manager. Whether Wilkins had objected to being told to forget his principles and tell the team to "Get battling", who knows, though that seems the most likely theory.

Having such an upheaval on the eve of the club's biggest game of the season was, in effect, to offer Grimsby a helping hand. Mohamed Al Fayed has poured pounds 7m into the club, yet seen that nice, homely openness for which the Cottage is renowned begin to seep out. So an hour before the game yesterday, he was clasping any hand proffered in friendship. Afterwards, Keegan claimed that Wilkins parted "in the right way". "Ray stuck to his principles," he said. "He didn't want any input from me so it came to an impasse. It was obvious we couldn't work together. I want to help this club in its ambitions but if I have to get anyone else I will do so."

You had to feel for the Fulham players who had been left in the dark but were still expected to light up the club's immediate future. Peter Beardsley reckoned they would not let any of it rub off, and certainly he led by example particularly early on when stretching the Grimsby defence as he cleverly found Matthew Lawrence on the left edge of the area. Lawrence's cross left Paul Peschisolido with slightly too many inches to make up and he would have done better to leave it to Paul Trollope, though he was not to know. But there was nothing lacking in ambition.

The scare was sufficient to harness Grimsby's defensive resolve. Mark Lever pulled them together with strong words and deeds, but ahead of him the absence of Steve Livingstone left Lee Nogan and Jack Lester relying on Fulham's defensive errors, which, admittedly, were often glaring.

Lever was so much at the heart of Grimsby's solidity at the back that it was not surprising that he was in possession when Paul Moody rushed in on him with his foot up, which persuaded the referee to send him off. Lever, himself, eventually left the field because of his injury but was not replaced until after Fulham had taken the lead in first- half injury time.

A long ball had come into the Grimsby area and Paul Groves, trying to cover for the depleted defence, brought down Peschisolido. Beardsley placed in a typically accurate penalty. He will be badly missed if a hamstring injury keeps him out of Wednesday's match.

In spite of their numerical disadvantage, Fulham threw themselves into the second half but, after 53 minutes, they lost their lead through a half-struck back-pass by Wayne Collins. None of the Fulham defenders came to the rescue and David Smith slotted a teasing shot beyond the advancing Maik Taylor.

Fulham attempted to make up for the extra energy they were expending by bringing on Mark Blake and Tony Thorpe for Chris Coleman and Peschisolido, which allowed them to maintain plenty of forward movement. But Grimsby steadfastly interrupted them. Keegan had warned his players of their effectiveness and he was right.

Although tackles crashed in from every angle, by and large this was a game between sides attempting, if not always succeeding, to play their way forward to a more prosperous future. Indeed there was little to suggest that Wilkins' influence over Fulham was not still hovering over the scene as Beardsley probed and ran like a 20-year-old.

Even so, goalscoring chances became fewer. Grimsby settled for what they had achieved while Fulham grasped a result that in the circumstances was slightly more than they could have expected.