IT was scrappy, disjointed, tight and tedious. It was, for anyone who stumbled across it as a neutral, an ugly and unattractive spectacle with all the appeal of EastEnders’ Pat Butcher wearing nothing more than fishnet stockings.
But for Sam Allardyce and Newcastle United there was beauty in the ugliness, pride in the clean sheet and, above all else, immense satisfaction at a result which gave the Magpies back-to-back home and away wins for the first time this season.
While the lack of flowing football may have had some at home reaching for the television remote control and Setanta Sport bosses questioning the wisdom of their decision to screen this game on a prime time Saturday evening slot, for Newcastle’s players and manager, and the supporters who danced and sang their way into a frosty west London night, this was as well received as snowfall on Christmas morning.
This was the sort of game Big Sam was supposed to make a big impact in as Newcastle manager, the sort of game that United teams through the years have made a nasty habit of losing; the tight cagey away affairs against spirited, battling opponents, when one goal is always likely to be enough to take all three points.
It has taken him longer than he – and particularly his fiercest critics – would have liked to achieve. Newcastle’s away form has, to put it bluntly, been as bad as ever under the new manager since an opening day victory over his former club Bolton Wanderers.
The defence has looked about as secure as Northern Rock’s share price, confidence on the road has looked shattered and results have been disastrous. This victory over struggling Fulham could prove to be a pivotal moment for Allardyce’s regime.
You suspect, given everything that has preceded it this season, that Allardyce would have been content with a point and a first clean sheet since August 18 – and Newcastle’s first away from home since a goal-less draw against Manchester City 14 months ago. Newcastle carved out the better opportunities over the 90 minutes, but Fulham also had their moments, albeit rare. The Cottagers have won just twice at home in the Premier League and their lack of confidence in front of their own supporters was clear.
In fact, there will be some United supporters who will feel the Magpies should have won more comfortably than by relying on Joey Barton’s last-minute penalty. Fulham were poor opposition ripe for the taking, but Newcastle’s own problems away from home should not be under-estimated and, by the time bottom-of-the-table Derby County arrive at St James’s Park next weekend, all that will matter is the victory which lifted the team up to 10th in the table and within striking distance of the European qualification places.
Barton might have given his side the lead in the first half, failing to make contact with Geremi’s corner and then putting another header straight at Antti Niemi following good work on the left by James Milner.
Fulham’s David Healy forced a decent save from Shay Given – the only one the Irishman had to make because of the efforts of his defenders – before the break, but that was it for goalmouth action in the first 45 minutes and it was the home side which exerted the early pressure in the second.
Most of their good work came from Hameur Bouazza, but the Algerian’s efforts could not get a final touch from a Fulham player, with Habib Beye and Claudio Caçapa both making vital interventions to keep the ball away from danger in the six-yard box.
Clint Dempsey was left unmarked at one set piece, but his header went over and Newcastle’s defence generally did well to contain the home side’s threat as the visitors begun to pose more of a threat at the other end.
Nicky Butt missed two good chances, heading weakly at Niemi from Emre’s free-kick and then putting the ball back across goal from Milner’s cross.
Both sides might have settled for the draw, but when Elliot Omozusi made a desperate tackle on Alan Smith in the area as Newcastle continued to push forward, referee Howard Webb marked the full-back’s 19th birthday by awarding the spot kick which Barton coolly converted.