Saha's late strike denies Cheltenham just reward

Fulham 2 Cheltenham Town 1
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The Independent Football

Chris Coleman, the Fulham manager, is on a steeping learning curve. So far it has been ever upwards but yesterday it took a nasty detour. Things almost went pear-shaped against a Cheltenham Town side who sit just one off the relegation places in the Third Division.

Fulham were simply not at the races. They won by a short head - or rather a short-range header in injury-time by Louis Saha, which crept over the line. It was almost apologetic. "If we sell him now I'd be cutting my own throat," said Coleman of the continued speculation surrounding the man who has scored Fulham's last six goals. The imagery was apt as Coleman had just watched his players impale themselves on their own complacency.

The goal came from a cruel error from Cheltenham's most seasoned player, Bob Taylor, who miscued a clearance to concede a corner. "It was not an earned corner," the Cheltenham manager, John Ward, said dolefully. It was definitely not an earned goal. Even then Edwin van der Sar was forced into a spectacular save - his third - as Taylor desperately tried to redeem himself with an even later volley.

Little wonder Fulham's players scurried quickly from the pitch. They had been booed off at half-time and probably did not want a repeat of the experience. Cheltenham loitered amid the adulation of their 3,100 fans. "I felt sorry for them," said Coleman, who also noted the ranks of empty home seats. "They were hungrier than us."

"I would rather be a lucky manager," said Ward. Luck didn't come into it - Cheltenham worked tirelessly and full-bloodedly to impose a greater tempo. The Premiership thoroughbreds wanted to canter. Instead they were forced into a panicky gallop.

The opening moments set that pace. Stand-in captain Sylvain Legwinski dwelt and was robbed by the forceful Grant McCann. The former West Ham player struck an immediate shot that whistled past Van der Sar from 20 yards. Fortunately for Fulham it went to Cheltenham heads. A simple through ball from Legwinski found Saha behind the defence and as the goalkeeper Shane Higgs rushed forward - and then stalled - he made the task easy for the striker who dinked his shot over him.

Still Fulham did not settle. Alain Goma sold Van der Sar short with a backpass and the muscular Damien Spencer was met bravely by the goalkeeper. The Dutch international then made a full length save to turn away a Michael Duff header after poor marking at a free-kick. That had been earned by Martin Devaney, the game's most dynamic player. In contrast Fulham's talisman, Steed Malbranque, operated on the margins although one clever angled ball found Saha who headed over with Higgs again stranded.

The second half drifted. Barry Hayles was introduced to provide some impetus - and headed against the outside of the post. But Fulham continued to struggle with debutant Bobby Petta peripheral. The full-backs - Martin Djetou and Adam Green - were vulnerable. Distribution in the absence of Moritz Volz (contract wrangle) and Jerome Bonnissel (injured) was woeful and two shots from distance reminded Fulham of the threat.

However Cheltenham, understandably, began to retreat. Minds were drifting towards a replay and the pace became more frenetic than forceful. "The desire to work hard was evident," said Ward.

Taylor, who had worked as hard as anyone, again tracked back to clear. Except this time he sliced into the stand to give the Premiership side the match-winning moment.

For Coleman it is all part of that learning experience. He knows his side are not playing well - three defeats from their four previous games - and yet they won. "God knows how," he said in relief.

Goals: 0-1 (McCann 5); 1-1 (Saha 13); 2-1 (Saha 90).

Fulham (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Djetou, Knight, Goma (Melville, h-t), Green; Malbranque, Legwinski, Davis, Inamoto (Hayles, 57), Petta; Saha. Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Pratley, Sava.

Cheltenham Town (4-5-1): Higgs; Wilson, Brough, Duff, Victory; Devaney, Forsyth, Finnigan, McCann, Taylor; Spencer (Odejayi, 83). Substitutes not used: Book (gk), Yates, Bird, Duff.

Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).

Bookings: Cheltenham: Forsyth, Devaney.

Attendance: 10,303.

Man of the match: Martin Devaney.