April is usually a time when a Fulham supporter's thoughts turn to the possibility of away trips to Barnsley or Blackpool in the following season, but the Craven Cottage faithful are starting to dream of more glamorous destinations next year.
Yesterday's victory, the fourth in their last six games, took Roy Hodgson's team above West Ham and into seventh position in the Premier League, the final qualifying place for next season's Europa League, the successor to the Uefa Cup. It is a remarkable turnaround for a club which 12 months ago had to win their last three matches to avoid relegation on goal difference.
The win was thoroughly deserved. There is an admirable simplicity about Fulham, who are superbly organised, do not over-complicate and believe in passing as the best form of attack. Dickson Etuhu was a tireless worker in midfield, while Danny Murphy's vision always threatened to open up the Stoke defence.
Fulham lost Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson to back and knee injuries respectively inside the first 35 minutes, but by then Hodgson's team had already scored what proved the match winner thanks to a classic breakaway.
The goal owed everything to the speed, movement and smooth passing of Johnson and Erik Nevland, Zamora's replacement. After Stoke had committed men forward for a Rory Delap long throw, the ball broke to John Pantsil, who immediately fed Johnson. The former Everton striker in turn found Nevland (below), who sped through the middle before returning the pass. Johnson's cross from the right-hand edge of the penalty area enabled Nevland to sidefoot home from eight yards.
Fulham could have been three up by the break. A clever free kick routine involving Murphy and Paul Konchesky ended with Etuhu shooting over from six yards and when Konchesky found himself in almost exactly the same position his aim was just as bad.
The home team were less of a threat after the break, but although Stoke enjoyed plenty of possession Tony Pulis' side never looked likely to play their way through the Fulham back line. As has so often been the case this season, corners and Delap's long throws provided their main threat, though Brede Hangeland dominated the Fulham penalty area.
Liam Lawrence struck a 25-yarder just wide in the first half, while Ryan Shawcross and Ricardo Fuller went close with headers after the break. Stoke should already have enough points to survive thanks to their recent form – this was only their second defeat in nine matches – though Pulis, who runs in today's London Marathon, knows the importance of staying the distance. His Fulham counterpart also appreciates that the season is far from over. "We have four matches left, against tough opposition, and a lot can happen," Hodgson said. "That's why this result was so important for us."
Referee: Lee Mason.
Man of the match: Murphy
Match rating: 5/10