SOMETIMES life has a habit of kicking you when you are down, but in the case of Newcastle United last night it clumsily elbowed them out of the way.
The Magpies travelled to Craven Cottage unbeaten in the league this year (okay, it is only the first week of February), but plenty of those watching in the stands and on television did so expecting to see a drama develop into a crisis.
Their morale battered by Andy Carroll’s controversial departure, a trip to in-form Fulham arguably took on “must-not-lose” proportions. Not only did Newcastle do that, they lost the man expected to shoulder the burden until the Magpies can buy a replacement for the £35m man. And just to round it off, it was another former United player, Damien Duff, who delivered the winning goal.
A lone banner in the away end read “Judas Carroll” as the teams ran out but the disparaging chants were aimed at Newcastle’s owner rather than Liverpool’s number nine. The only time the 22-year-old was when the cocky home fans felt confident enough of three points to taunt their visitors.
Having lost their top-scorer so controversially on Monday, it was perhaps inevitable the next man in the striking pecking order would be quick to follow him. Shola Ameobi’s body has never sat easily within his big frame, but it was a flailing elbow which caused his latest injury. With just 13 minutes gone, Steve Sidwell’s arm was a little too high when it connected with Ameobi’s cheekbone. The dazed forward was unable to continue, yet his team never got as much as a free-kick in compensation.
With or without Ameobi, goalscoring chances were hard to come by, though Fulham had the better of them.
Reinvigorated rather than demoralised by their January business and on the back of a thumping FA Cup win, Fulham were always on top in the first half, and Clint Dempsey their chief weapon.
The American – his place under threat from loan signing Gael Kakuta – was nearly on the scoresheet within 10 minutes, a fraction away from Andrew Johnson’s fizzed cross. Only quick thinking from Steve Harper stopped him getting to a throughball cleverly threaded by Danny Murphy.
The goalkeeper would have to be quick off his line again in first-half added time, heading away a long ball with Mike Williamson and Johnson bearing down on him.
As the man detailed to mark Dempsey, Danny Simpson was in for a difficult night and it got harder on the half hour when he was booked for being all over the winger having been dragged out of his comfort zone into the middle. But United escaped another such incident quickly after.
Williamson is a solid old school defender but his no-nonsense approach extends to a habit for trying to swap shirts before the final whistle. He was perhaps fortunate that nobody spotted the large chunk of Brede Hangeland’s shirt he had in the penalty area. The giant defender had earlier stopped Ameobi’s replacement, Nile Ranger, getting his head on a Joey Barton free-kick.
Dempsey was soon threatening again, when Simpson failed to deal with a Murphy set piece, but he could only hit the side netting.
In the second half Fulham ramped up the pressure and while the besieged Magpies were able to rely on some resolute defending, Jose Enrique proved an unlikely weak spot. His signaled as much early in the second half when Damien Duff beat him with east, only for Williamson to come across and spare his blushes. Another good tackle denied Dempsey as he shaped to volley.
Simpson was also alert to rob Johnson at the end of a good run, but United could do little but pray when the ball dropped to Duff. Someone was listening.
Harper saved Dempsey’s shot with his feet but it ping-ponged around before presenting Duff with a tap-in he put the wrong side of the post.
A leaping Harper denied Dempsey, but he was helpless when caught out chasing Murphy’s long pass. Duff accelerated past his ex-team-mate and slotted home.
By then Newcastle had at last had a decent chance, Leon Best heading over Danny Guthrie but, starved off service, the Republic of Ireland striker did little to suggest he can fill Carroll’s big boots. Like Ameobi, he did not last the 90 minutes.
It was Fulham who ought to have scored next, Duff’s pass springing the offside trap and Mousa Dembele picking out substitute Kakuta for a debut goal.
As with Duff earlier, the chance was almost too easy, and the Chelsea youngster steered the ball at Harper. That said, the returning Mark Schwarzer had to get down quickly to deny Ranger a maiden Premier League goal seconds later.
Kakuta fluffed his lines again when a left-wing cross somehow reached him, only for his shot to hit the back of Enrique.
While Fulham had been wasteful, Newcastle produced next to nothing. A weak earlier it would have been concerning. Yesterday it was much more than that.