Football: Symons strike helps Keegan on two fronts

Stoke City 0 Fulham 1
ENGLAND'S CARETAKER coach will turn his thoughts to team selection duties today with a warm glow of contentment after watching his club side extend their lead in the Second Division of the Nationwide League to 12 points at the Britannia Stadium last night.

Although not at their best against a Stoke side who threw everything into trying to keep their play-off hopes alive, a first-half goal by the defender Kit Symons provided Kevin Keegan with a victory to reflect on as he goes about choosing the England side he will put out in the Euro 2000 qualifier against Poland on 27 March.

Fulham gained the decisive advantage in just under 19 minutes with a goal that had been flagged by a series of threatening attacks. Neil Smith and Geoff Horsfield had both registered attempts on goal and Horsfield was denied another crack only by an intercepting header by the defender Larus Sigurdsson.

The corner that followed proved costly for Stoke. Paul Trollope, on the left, floated a cross to the right-hand post to be met by Symons, who directed a header across the face of goal and in off the far upright.

After learning of his brother, Alan's dismissal as manager of York City earlier in the day, this was not the kind of start Brian Little wanted to witness as he tries to strengthen his team's now tenuous hold on a promotion chance. Stoke made themselves favourites for the title before Christmas but have slumped alarmingly since and last Saturday's win at Luton followed a run of seven defeats.

Stoke made a concerted effort to get back on terms in the second half but found Fulham's well-organised defence difficult to break down. "We battled but to be honest I always felt they would be strong enough to hold on," Little said.

By the final quarter, the match had become a frustrating experience for Fulham, too, craving the security of a second goal. There was a touch of anxiety, perhaps, in the challenge that brought Horsfield a yellow card, joining Steve Finnan and Rufus Brevett in the book.

Keegan, who will join his England players 24 hours after Fulham's home match with Blackpool on Saturday, refused to acknowledge that the Second Division title race is now all but over. "We are playing with the confidence that Stoke, for example, do not have but I still think Preston and Walsall are capable of catching us," he said.

Fulham almost claimed a second goal 14 minutes from the end when only a brilliant, one-handed save by Gavin Ward kept out a downward header by Smith.

Stoke City (4-4-2): Ward; J Kavanagh, Sigurdsson, Mohan, Woods; Short, Oldfield, Robinson (Wallace, 84), Keen; Lightbourne (Crowe, 56), G Kavanagh. Substitute not used: Small.

Fulham (3-5-2): Taylor; Symons, Morgan, Coleman; Finnan, Hayward, Smith, Trollope, Brevett; Hayles, Horsfield. Substitutes not used: Uhlenbeek, Peschosolido, Lehmann.

Referee: P Danson (Leicester).