Football: Keegan remains in buoyant mood

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Fulham 1 Grimsby Town 1

SO does Kevin Keegan want the responsibility he again took on last week after concluding that it was a mistake to put Fulham's team in the hands of his pal Ray Wilkins?

After all, this is a man who aged perceptibly under stress at Newcastle and has questioned his need for football. "We'll look at things after the play-offs," he said. "I've got the right to bring someone in but it wouldn't be a problem to stay as manager. I began and played four years at this level [for Scunthorpe until Liverpool took a chance on him]. I'm comfortable with it."

It was about half an hour after Fulham were held to a 1-1 draw by Grimsby and Keegan was speaking in a corridor of the ancient, listed structure that once rang with applause for the efforts of such notables as Johnny Haynes, George Cohen, Alan Mullery, Bedford Jezzard and, in the evening of their careers, George Best and Bobby Moore.

Craven Cottage, the football ground Joe Mercer once described as a "tender trap". Down by the Thames, tree-lined tow path, skiffs on the water, friendly voices. "Then, when you least expected it, they were all over you," Mercer said.

After many years, strolling through Bishops Park on a glorious afternoon was to step back in time; children splashing in paddling pools, ball games on the grass, lovers hand in hand. But up ahead the modern reality of Fulham as Mohamed Al Fayed's plaything.

The implausibility of Fayed's ambition for Fulham figured prominently in Keegan's address to his troops before the kick-off. "I told them that there were plenty of people just waiting for all this to go wrong, that they had to go out and show what this club is capable of," he said. "We can't dictate what is written and said about us but we can influence opinion by our performances."

When considered in the light of his team's failure to enter next Wednesday's second leg at Blundell Park with an advantage and that the task will have to be undertaken without two, probably three key players (Peter Beardsley is injured, Paul Moody's sending-off means a three-match suspension and Chris Coleman is doubtful) Keegan was remarkably buoyant.

Deliberately, one suspects, references to Wembley kept cropping up in Keegan's assessment of difficult circumstances. Not if Fulham get to a final play-off against the winners between Bristol Rovers and Northampton Town, but when.

Keegan's optimism was not borne out by his team's performance even before Moody's wild lunge at Mark Lever led inevitably to expulsion. "I couldn't argue with that decision,' Keegan said, "but I felt we coped well with being a man short and did enough to win the game."

This was contrary to the view shared by some neutral observers. A heavily watered pitch suited Grimsby's superior passing game, their policy of containment and counter-attack, built around Wayne Burnett's intelligence in midfield in contrast to Fulham's more direct methods.

The reaction to Moody's banishment shortly before half-time and the departure of his victim on a stretcher was a commentary on how things have changed in football. Moody left to cheers, Lever to howls of derision where the home supporters would once have been sympathetic.

Grimsby's delay in replacing Lever cost them a goal when, in trying to shore up a depleted defence, Paul Groves brought down Peschisolido, enabling Beardsley to put Fulham ahead with a penalty. A renewed effort in the second half might have taken Fulham further, but Wayne Collins's careless pass after 53 minutes let David Smith in for an equaliser.

Through their diligence in possession, Grimsby began to sap Fulham's energy, forcing them to replace the struggling Coleman with Mark Blake and Peschisolido with Tony Thorpe.

The gap in quality between this level and the Premiership grows wider, supporting the view of a famous former international who stated last week that many in the lower divisions would not have been offered professional terms 30 years ago.

Fulham trooped off to chants of "We're going up". But even with Al Fayed's money what does the future hold for them?

Goals: Beardsley (pen 45) 1-0; Smith (53) 1-1.

Fulham (4-4-2): Taylor; Lawrence, Morgan, Coleman (Blake, 71), Brevett, Collins, Bracewell, Beardsley (Smith, 89), Trollope, Moody, Peschisolido (Thorpe,69).

Grimsby Town (4-4-2): Davison; McDermott, Lever (Jobling, 45), Handyside, Gallimore, Donovan, Burnett, Groves, Smith, Nogan (Clare, 80), Lester (Black, 84).

Bookings: Fulham: Trollope. Sending-off: Moody. Grimsby: Lester.

Referee: T Heilbron (Durham).

Man of the match: Burnett.

Attendance: 13,954.