Strange sensation the day after this game – parts relief, exhaustion and exhilaration. The river was beautiful, the sky serene, the pitch immaculate and, for most, the beers plentiful at one of the best away games of the season regardless of result, although not least due to fond memories of last season’s unexpected, Jonah-led post-Christmas triumph. Big Uwe started at centre-back in place of Dunk, but had almost nowt to do beyond familiarising himself with his teammates during the first half, when Albion kept the ball so cleverly and calmly that it was reminiscent of the times when they embarrassed Peterborough and Charlton at away games during the championship-winning season under Gus.
Tomer set the tone by sending a shot against the bar from just outside the box following a deft Bruno pass, and then everyone’s second-favourite Spanish right-back repeated the trick after half an hour with a precision cross which narrowly deceived the backpeddling centre-back and allowed Baldock to bury it in front of Fulham’s finest.
A lot of Albion fans were relaxed enough to have joined a beer queue which never got served by the time Fulham scored an entirely surprising equaliser, although it wasn’t undeserved: given a second to shoot, Tom Cairney’s curler gave Dave ‘Banter’ Stockdale about as much chance as a wounded fox running for Tory leadership, showing the kind of class Hughton had warned Fulham’s squad possessed.
Therein lay the trouble that was ahead: Hughton gave Fulham too much respect, and Albion, gratingly, went on the back foot against a team who had been there for the taking. What should have been at least a two-goal win saw a correctable swing in momentum obvious to everyone except, apparently, the Albion coaching staff. Fulham hit the post with a header before Matt Smith – who Hughton had spoken about with quiet nervousness before the game – was denied only by Stockdale’s wonderful tip-over at eyeballing range.
Frustration with the ailing ship was growing in the stands by now. Baldock, Stephens, Kayal and Hemed, who had helped run the show during the first half, couldn’t keep up the energetic harrying which allowed Albion to exert sustained pressure and win the ball back so many times, and March was completely knackered. Hughton, a manager renowned for late substitutions, waited until ten minutes before the end - at least 15 minutes overdue - to refresh the comically tired middle platoon. Albion’s ascendancy could have been restored with greater energy against an uninspired Fulham, but Hughton showed his cards by swapping Baldock and March for a defensive midfielder and a defender (Incenator and Rosenior).
Settling for a draw, on the strength of the first half, seemed wasteful. Then, against the run of play, a JFC pass sent LuaLua towards the edge of the area, tapping it past a clumsy defender for a foul which the referee took his sweet time to confirm as a penalty. The end was unwatchable to most in the away end, in contrast to Hemed, who knocked it in with the ease of a lifelong pitch-and-putt champion sinking a gimme or a sunbather on a Tel Aviv beach ordering a falafel. Betting on a striker who seems immune to the Championship’s pressures to score a few penalties this season could be wise.
It’s hard to distance yourself from a game which had more emotions in 50 minutes than the entirety of last season. The style in which it was done seemed excessively cautious and is certain to shred nerves for the next nine months. Hughton might end up being a victim of setting us up so well if he continues to settle for a point in the way he most pointedly did on Saturday. For the stoic, though, we seem to have sneaked under the radar in terms of having a manager who is an old hand at winning promotion, losing four times all season when he did it with Newcastle. It took Albion until November to get their third win last season. This time it’ll probably happen before the end of August.