Fulham gave home debuts to two Norwegians and a Dane last night, but it was a Londoner, Jimmy Bullard, who made all the difference for them as they earned their first win in 15 matches and moved to within touching distance of safety at the wrong end of the Premier League table.
Bullard may have been signed from Wigan Athletic last summer, but the career-threatening knee injury he suffered just four games into last season has kept him out of action for 16 months, and in what was only his second start since coming back, the irrepressible, shaggy-haired midfielder had all the impact of a brilliant new signing as he set up Fulham's 72nd-minute equaliser and then scored the winner from a free-kick five minutes from time.
Bullard's performance was mirrored by a new energy and optimism throughout the team, with Brede Hangeland, Leon Andreasen and Erik Nevland showing touch and assurance through the centre of a team which is being re-fashioned by new manager Roy Hodgson.
After witnessing what was his side's first win in their seventh match under his charge, Hodgson admitted that while he would be happy with what he had seen, it would not be long before he got his "miserable head" back on.
"Getting four points from today and our match at Bolton means at last we have started to step in the right direction and narrow the gap between ourselves and the others. We have been flirting with the first rung of the ladder for a long time without putting our foot on it, and I think we did that today. I said to the boys in the dressing room afterwards 'it's a start, but there's an awful long way to go'. I do know it's heart attack time for Fulham supporters at the moment."
If the Fulham fans in the Johnny Haynes Stand were anything to go by, the prognosis is distinctly more cheerful now. They offered their players a standing ovation as they left, and chanted their praise of the obvious man of the match: "Super Jimmy Bullard."
The man himself seemed dazed by the experience in the aftermath. "I'm still buzzing," he said. "After all the time I've been out just to be out there kicking the ball feels great let alone scoring. It's just fantastic. I can't believe it. I was on my last legs for the last 10 minutes. There are still a lot of points to play for. We know we are still in a fight, but if we show that spirit every week we will be fine."
"We came into the dressing room at halt-time and we still thought we could go out and win the game and we've done that. There was real belief even though we went a goal down. We really dug deep and the boys at the back were fantastic."
Clearly, the much publicised training ground bust-up on Friday between Bullard and full-back Chris Baird, which left the former with a healing scar on his nose, had not been allowed to detract from team spirit.
Hodgson accepted that it had been a "regrettable incident", but added: "Both the players were very aware of the trouble they caused to me and the team. Chris very quickly took all the blame and Jimmy was big enough to accept his apology."
While Fulham had no prospect of improving their placing yesterday, Villa could have done themselves a power of good with a victory that would have lifted them into fourth place above Everton. Given what was at stake, they seemed curiously inert in a dire and scrappy first half where Fulham's eager newcomers struggled hard for mutual understanding.
To add to the visitor's sense of gloom, they finished the match with injuries to two of their recently called up England players. Curtis Davies, who did not make the cut for Fabio Capello's final squad of 23, limped off near the end. More concerningly for the Italian, however, was the hamstring injury which Gabriel Agbonlahor sustained in a heavy tackle by Simon Davies just before half time which prevented him coming out for the second half.
Despite their sluggish start, Villa looked as if they had taken full control of the match in the 68th minute when Davies flicked on Shaun Maloney's corner from the right and Fulham skipper Aaron Hughes diverted the ball into his own net with a flailing leg. Within two minutes, Villa's prolific centre-half Martin Laursen had an excellent chance to add to his tally of six goals this season following another corner but glazed the ball wide.
As so often happens in football, there was immediate punishment at the other end as Bullard curled a beautifully weighted pass into the near post for Davies to flick home.
Fulham, and their fans, seemed happy enough with a point, but five minutes from time Bullard hit the jackpot after substitute Diomansy Kamara had been fouled on the edge of the box, curving the free-kick over the wall and past the despairing lunge of keeper Scott Carson.
Fulham (4-5-1): Niemi; Baird, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Dempsey (Kamara, 79), Andreasen, Bullard, Murphy, Davies; Nevland (McBride, 69). Subs not used: Keller (GK), Volz, Bocanegra.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Carson; Mellberg, Davies (Osbourne, 90), Laursen, Bouma (Gardner, 86); Petrov, Barry, Reo-Coker, Maloney; Carew, Agbonlahor (Harewood, h-t). Subs not used: Taylor (GK), Knight.
Referee: C Foy.
Man of the match: Bullard.
Attendance: 24,760.Reuse content