Fulham 1 Newcastle United 0: Breakaway winner leaves Souness railing at conspiring fates

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The Independent Football

Early in the second half of this gruelling match - gruelling for the spectator, that is - a wayward clearance was sliced high towards the touchline. Dean Saunders, the former Liverpool striker now on Newcastle United's coaching staff, went to catch it. The ball went through his hands to smack him in the face.

The incident appeared to sum up Newcastle's ineptitude. With veterans Alan Shearer and Lee Clark manifestly off the pace, the £9m signing Albert Luque putting crosses into the stands, one full-back invalided off and the other lucky not to be sent off, the injury-smitten Magpies were a mess. Only Fulham's own inadequacies had kept them in the game.

Unexpectedly United rallied. Evidence of quality remained sporadic but had fortune been with them Graeme Souness might have celebrated victory. Instead he was again asked, in the post-match post-mortem, to explore his despair. It was, Souness admitted, the most difficult period of his 20-year management career. But he was asking for understanding rather than sympathy.

"It's the hardest period because I've never experienced injuries like this," he said. "This is a club with enormous expectations and right now we can't fulfil those because we've got 11 players injured who would be a big part of our team. And Arsenal supporters have been saying they are not the same team without one player [Patrick Vieira].

"The margins you operate in in the Premiership are so fine. Any one of Kieron Dyer, Emre, Scott Parker or Michael Owen might have made a difference. Do the fans understand? No. But that's the price on the ticket. I'm a big boy. When it's not going well you have to dig deep into yourself. There's always somebody worse off. It doesn't stop me sleeping or enjoying my life."

Souness's belief that fate was against his team gained further currency in the 75th minute. Within a minute of Niclas Jensen clearing Jean Alain Boumsong's header off the line Fulham broke away and Steed Malbranque scored. "This can be a very cruel game at times," added Souness.

It should, though, have been worse. Heider Helguson hit the bar late on while both Shearer and Clark escaped punishment for elbowing opponents when jumping for the ball.

The referee Alan Wiley also failed to censure Celestine Babayaro for raking his studs into Tomasz Radzinski's shins. Chris Coleman, the Fulham manager, appealed to the Football Association to use video evidence to penalise Babayaro. "It was a very, very bad challenge," he said, "over the top, nasty and down the shin." Coleman was otherwise pleased and relieved.

With Antti Niemi making an assured debut, highlighted by a superb double save from Michael Chopra and Lee Bowyer, and Malbranque returned to fitness, his luck appears to have changed. Now he needs to persuade Malbranque to extend a contract which has less than 18 months to run.

Goal: Malbranque (75) 1-0.

Fulham (4-3-1-2): Niemi; Rosenior, Knight, Pearce, Jensen; Legwinski (John, 73), Elliott, Boa Morte; Radzinski (Malbranque, 62); Helguson, McBride. Substitutes not used: Warner (gk), Volz, Goma.

Newcastle United (4-5-1): Given; Carr (Elliott, 45), Boumsong, Ramage, Babayaro; Solano, Bowyer, Clark, N'Zogbia (Chopra, 77), Luque (O'Brien, 80); Shearer. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Brittain.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: Fulham Legwinski; Newcastle United Clark, Carr.

Man of the match: Niemi.

Attendance: 21,974.