If this result proves to be the turning point in Fulham’s bid to avoid relegation, then their rivals may look back in anger on the decision of referee Howard Webb not to award a penalty with the last kick of the match.
Fulham were hanging on to the lead given them by the substitute Ashkan Dejagah when Newcastle United goalkeeper Tim Krul, up for a corner kick, hit a shot that struck the outstretched arm of the Fulham defender John Heitinga. But Webb waved away appeals, blew the final whistle, and Fulham had their first League win since New Year’s Day and – perhaps no coincidence – their first clean sheet since 8 December.
The home supporters, who had whistled for time and chanted the them tune from The Great Escape, cheered in relief. Fulham remain at the foot of the Premier League table, but they merited the points on their overall performance and have closed the gap on Cardiff City and Sunderland to a single point. Felix Magath, the manager, had his first victory since taking over from Rene Meulensteen four games ago, and had seen his team rise to the first leg of the challenge he had set them of winning their five remaining home games.
“I am relieved,” Magath said. “It is a good feeling to have a win at the end of the game. If you don’t get a win the players aren’t confident, they don’t have trust. So it was necessary for everyone. I’m convinced that we can stay in the league and after this I’m more confident. Not only the result today, but we were the better team.”
If Webb’s big call at the end was important, then so was the one made by Magath before the game to bench Maarten Stekelenburg, the Holland goalkeeper, in favour of David Stockdale, who made excellent saves in each half. “The idea is that Maarten is a quiet keeper and David is louder,” Magath said. “Fortunately it worked. He was very good and we can thank him for his performance.”
They were helped by a passive performance from Newcastle United, who missed not only the injured Loïc Rémy, without whom they have yet to win a league game this season, but also the passion that is usually brought to the sidelines by Alan Pardew. The Newcastle manager, of course, was serving the first game of a three-match stadium ban for letting his emotions run away with him in the match at Hull City on March 1. He watched the match on a live feed at the team hotel and cannot have been overjoyed with his team’s display until they had gone behind.
“I spoke to him as we came off at half-time and again towards the end of the game,” John Carver, his assistant, said. “It was very brief. He was really calm at half-time, People find it hard to believe but he is actually quite a calm guy. But he was gutted not to be here and we missed him.”
In the first half Krul had to save from Lewis Holtby and the 19-year-old forward Cauley Woodrow, while Stockdale rescued his team after 36 minutes by palming Papiss Cissé’s volley around the post. Fulham thought they had taken the lead after the break when Heitinga’s deflected shot looped over Krul and down off the crossbar. The goal decision system revealed that the ball had not quite crossed the goalline, which seemed academic when Woodrow collected the rebound and put it in, but he was denied a goal by a flag.
Cissé, though, was gifted another chance when William Kvist’s wayward pass allowed him a run on goal but Stockdale saved again, and within seconds the Iran midfielder Dejagah, an injury doubt before the match, cut inside Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and shot ferociously from 25 yards. The ball dipped under the body of Krul – possibly unsighted by Holtby, who looked yards offside – and into the far corner.
Now it was up to the Fulham defence to preserve the lead – not a prospect that filled Craven Cottage with confidence – but they did so thanks to Webb. Carver managed to control his emotions when seeking an explanation for the decision. “I certainly counted to ten,” he said. “You have to – after what has gone on we had to be on our best behaviour. He said from the position he was in he couldn’t see the ball hit his [Heitinga’s] arm. A difficult day.”
Fulham (4-2-3-1): Stockdale; Heitinga, Hangeland, Amorebieta; Richardson; Sidwell, Kvist; Kasami (Dejagah, 61; Burn, 87), Holtby (Riether, 81), Kacaniklic; Woodrow.
Newcastle Utd (4-2-3-1): Krul: Yanga-Mbiwa, Coloccini, Williamson, Dummett; Anita (Marveaux, 81), Tiote; Sissoko, De Jong (Armstrong, 86), Gouffran; Cisse (Shola Ameobi, 71).
Referee: Howard Webb.
Man of the match: Stockdale (Fulham)
Match rating: 5/10