At last, victory for Martin Jol, but also an element of vindication. Fulham secured their first win since the opening day of the season thanks to a last roll of the dice by the manager. Darren Bent came on as his third substitute to hit the game’s only goal and give Jol what he admitted was a “lucky” win of “unbelievable importance”.
“We are in the same position now as seven other teams,” the Fulham manager said. “It gives you relief and confidence.”
It also means the manager keeps his job, but both the game and Jol’s words revealed why his future has been in the balance. With Fulham known to be reluctant to make a final decision on his future, Stoke were arguably appropriate opponents. Their own manager, Mark Hughes, left Craven Cottage in 2011 because he felt the club lacked ambition, and was appointed at the Britannia as Stoke finally sought to move away from the reductive football that initially anchored them in the Premier League.
This is the recurring problem with teams in that middle band of the table. Without the innovation of a club such as Swansea, the most they can realistically aim for in the long term is upper mid-table and the good football security should allow. At this stage last season Jol’s team found that balance, producing some riveting play. But unless there is potential for growth, a sense of stagnation is inevitable.
That is part of the dilemma at Fulham. It was revealed in some dismal football in this game, and provided at least one reason why the arguments backing a change of manager are not all borne of panic – even if Bent ultimately alleviated it. The impression remains that they will be fine with Jol, but that he will struggle to recreate impressive displays without investment.
At the same time, Stoke are now attempting to emulate what Fulham initially achieved. This match repeatedly illustrated that contrast – if also how much work Hughes still has to do.
For long patches Stoke confidently outpassed Jol’s side. That in itself did reveal further issues at Fulham. Some within the club are known to be worried about a lack of balance in the team, although Jol himself has not been helped by their lack of capability in the transfer market. This was a midfield far removed from the fizz of Mousa Dembélé, even if Steve Sidwell and Giorgos Karagounis both offered abrasive challenges as they attempted to interrupt Stoke’s rhythm.
Fulham were still fortunate that somewhat anxious aggression did not spill over into something more costly, as both Steven Ireland and Jonathan Walters should have been awarded penalties for fouls around the box. Hughes railed against those decisions and also insisted that Pajtim Kasami “should have been sent off for raising his hands” at Erik Pieters” though the defender did appear to exaggerate the contact.
The Stoke manager did acknowledge that his team’s loss was not solely down to refereeing decisions, and lamented a lack of “end product” in a performance he was otherwise pleased with.
Because just as Stoke seemed set to push on Fulham regained a foothold and saw Bryan Ruiz felled by Marc Wilson, prompting a penalty call of their own. Again, the referee, Roger East, shook his head.
That failure to finish what they started would cost Stoke. For in the 20 minutes leading up to the goal, they seemed the more likely to score. Steven N’Zonzi shot just wide, Ireland went close and Robert Huth had a header cleared off the line by Sascha Riether.
The full-back then stormed the full length of the pitch to force a save from Asmir Begovic. It was not the only bounce of the ball the home side enjoyed. Dimitar Berbatov was injured, with Jol admitting he probably would not have introduced Bent had the Bulgarian stayed fit. In the event, the substitute striker side-stepped Begovic to fire the ball into the centre of the net.
Suddenly, Fulham are much closer to the centre of the table. Yet that has been part of the problem.
Fulham (4-4-1-1): Stockdale; Riether, Hangeland (Richardson, h-t), Senderos, Amorebieta; Kasami, Sidwell, Karagounis (Boateng, 60), Duff; Ruiz; Berbatov (Bent, 66).
Stoke (4-5-1): Begovic; Pieters, Huth, Shawcross, Wilson (Whelan, 59); Walters (Crouch, 84), Cameron, N’Zonzi, Ireland, Etherington (Assaidi, 63); Arnautovic.
Referee: Roger East.
Man of the match: Riether (Fulham)
Match rating: 5/10