Cole's fisticuffs spoil Fulham's progress

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The Independent Football

West Bromwich Albion 1 Fulham 1

With hindsight, it was a brawl waiting to happen: two managers under pressure and two teams desperate for points, plus one festering sense of injustice. It added up to The Hawthorns resembling the House of Commons when the fox-hunting fraternity came to town. All that was missing was the men in tights.

Instead of medieval security officers and public-school pugilists, the card featured such bouts as Darren Purse against Papa Bouba Diop and Neil Clement versus Andy Cole. The first was "handbags", to use the vernacular. But in the second, haymakers were thrown and extras came in flailing from both corners. All this after a banner proclaiming Fifa Fair Play Day had been unfurled and the crowd were informed that it was the United Nations International Day of Peace.

Kofi Annan would have struggled to find common ground between the managers. Fulham's Chris Coleman did not explain his players' indiscipline by harking back to Arsenal's success in persuading another referee, Mark Halsey, to overturn a penalty award in Cole's favour, eight days earlier. Yet there was clearly a feeling of "here we go again" in the visitors' ranks whenever decisions went against them.

Coleman claimed the rumpus actually had its roots in a lunge by Purse, the Albion captain, on Bouba Diop midway through the first half. "Footballers know when a tackle is a bad one, a coward's challenge, a leg-breaker," he said. "That was definitely one. The same guy stamped on Bouba Diop later. That's why he reacted as he did."

Albion's Gary Megson was sceptical. "Darren certainly isn't a coward. He went diving in, mistimed it and got booked. That was after 20-odd minutes and the first sending-off was after an hour, so there was a fair bit of time between them. As far as I was aware, there was no need to cool anyone down at half-time and no bad blood between the teams."

Coleman's ire should have been directed towards his own players. Their loss of control almost certainly cost Fulham two points when Kanu's free header from a late corner negated Cole's superbly worked goal. It will also deprive him of the former Manchester United striker and Bouba Diop, who both face a three-match suspension.

Nevertheless, Coleman will not fine either player. "Most Premiership footballers now earn a lot of money, and I'm not sure whether fining them one or two weeks' wages is going to hurt them anyway," he explained. "I'm not condoning what they did, but we had to role up our sleeves and fight, which we did. We had two bad reactions and two red cards. If my players made nasty, career-threatening challenges, then I'd react badly. But not when they put in a performance like that."

However, by engaging Clement in fisticuffs - seconds after the sides were evened up by the Albion player's dismissal for a "professional foul" on Luis Boa Morte - surely Cole had cost Fulham dear? "If he'd stayed on, I think we'd have won - definitely, absolutely," Coleman agreed. Wasn't he being over-protective? "I will protect my players. I ask them to go out and give 100 per cent. Once they do something wrong, I can't just jump on the bandwagon and punish them."

Back at the football, the first half produced encouragement for Albion. Despite what Megson called "the circumstances surrounding the game" - namely the stand-off with his chairman, Jeremy Peace, and the lack of any contract offer - the promoted side forced two world-class saves from Edwin van der Sar. The goalkeeper was lucky though, that the officials failed to spot that he was two yards off his line when Robbie Earnshaw's penalty followed a trajectory akin to a conversion in rugby union.

The spot-kick award was a harsh one, given that Earnshaw's header struck Moritz Volz's hand. Still sore over the Arsenal episode, Fulham spent two and a half minutes besieging Dean. "Every time I gave a decision they seemed to surround me and harass me," he said, with a tone of surprise that was itself surprising after the precedent set at Craven Cottage.

Fulham controlled the second half and looked the better bet for survival. Coleman spoke of "turning a small corner" and swallowed his frustration long enough to express solidarity with the embattled Megson, who is still without a win. "You're never more than five or six bad results from the sack," he said. "My chairman said I'd got a job for life but I know it would be different if we had one of those runs.

"Look at West Brom," he added. "When Gary took over they were an average First Division team but he has got them into the Premiership twice. It's amazing he's under pressure. But football's crazy, isn't it?"

Goals: Cole (72) 0-1; Kanu (88) 1-1.

West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Scimeca, Purse, Gaardsoe, Robinson (Albrechtsen, 25, Gera, 73); Greening, Johnson (Dyer, 66), Koumas, Clement; Earnshaw, Kanu. Substitutes not used: Murphy (gk), Horsfield.

Fulham (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Volz, Knight, Pearce, Green; Legwinski, Bouba Diop, Pembridge, Boa Morte; Cole, John (Radzinski, 57). Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Malbranque, McBride, Goma.

Referee: M Dean (The Wirral).

Booked: West Brom: Purse. Fulham: John, Van der Sar, Green, Legwinski.

Sent-off: West Brom: Clement. Fulham: Bouba Diop, Cole.

Man of the match: Van der Sar.

Attendance: 24,182.