ACTION AT THE COTTAGE: Fulham's Sone Aluko (centre) in the Rovers' penalty box
TONY MOWBRAY arrived at Blackburn Rovers three weeks ago with the intention of presiding their escape from the relegation zone and although there was a degree of trepidation following his appointment, his team has ardently showed signs of being able to pull away from the relegation quicksands.
In a week where short-termism has seen the likes of Steve McClaren and Warren Joyce jettisoned from their jobs at Newcastle and Wigan respectively, despite lasting nines months at the helm between them, rarely has an appointment beyond the second half of the season made a discernible difference such as the one Mowbray has made since arriving at the club.
He is already au fait of securing a team’s safety having done so at Coventry City on the final day of the 2014-15 season, and it came as no surprise that the visiting hordes chorused, “we are staying up” when their 2-2 draw with Fulham saw them propel out of the relegation zone.
Sone Aluko broke the deadlock on the stroke of half-time when he converted from close range, but the scoreline should have been more pleasing for the home side considering they had enough of the ball to inflict further punishment. But as the contest lurched into the final ten minutes, an equaliser from Craig Conway further emboldened Rovers’ chances of securing a vital win. Fulham swarmed forward in search of restoring the lead and it seemed like Gohi Cyriac was going to be the match winner, only for Lucas Joao to extract a deserved point late in added time.
“We were disappointed on Saturday not to get three points at Norwich, but tonight we did enough to get a point,” said Mowbray. “It was our sixth game in 18 days and it’s been tough for us, but I thought we got the result we deserved in the end, our substitutions had a big impact and Lucas Joao did it again tonight.”
Fulham arrived on home soil harbouring hopes of attaining a top six spot for the first time since mid-September and following their 3-1 win over Newcastle at the weekend, it would be ridiculously precipitous to rule them out of cementing a play-off position come the end of the season.
Blackburn’s woeful record of playing at Craven Cottage hardly augured well with their aspirations of extending their unbeaten record under Mowbray, but they frustrated the home side for large parts of the first-half often disrupting the rhythm of their play. A rare sortie from Slavisa Jokanovic’s men came from a short corner where Stefan Johansen floated in a cross towards the back-post with Tim Ream heading back towards the six-yard box where Aluko’s shot from close range was blocked by a Blackburn shirt.
Since Mowbray’s appointment in late February, Blackburn have gleaned ten points from a possible 18 as they aim to consolidate their status in the Championship. Rovers’ first chance at goal came from a sweeping counter attack stemming from the right side via Elliott Bennett who whipped in a brilliantly weighted cross to Conway who sent a volley hurtling towards David Button, who managed to steer it around the far post.
Fulham had greater joy of possession but their profligacy in the final third proved their undoing. But finally the hosts’ incessant pressure towards Rovers’ goal lead to a breakthrough on the cusp of half-time when Aluko nonchalantly slotted the ball, with Johansen providing the assist, past a static Jason Steele.
As the second half unfolded chances were at a premium for Mowbray’s side but the introduction of Joao for the ineffectual Danny Graham in the 60th minute markedly improved their performance as they posed a greater threat going forward.
There were appeals for a penalty following Ryan Fredericks’ foul on Conway. But as the midfielder looked plaintively at referee Andy Davies in hope he would point to the spot the referee was unmoved.
Despite luck not being on their side, when Tomas Kalas made a clumsy challenge on Marvin Emnes it was there for all to see that the referee had no choice but to award a penalty as Conway nervelessly slotted it away.
Fulham were on course to achieve their target of overhauling Sheffield Wednesday into the play-offs when second-half substitute Cyriac brought them back in front. But despite failing to connect with an out stretched leg moments earlier from a corner, Joao was the hero when he scored a tap-in in the death throes of added time to extend the optimism that Blackburn can pull off what was once considered the unthinkable.
“I think we can definitely say that after 94 minutes our team gave it everything they had,” Mowbray said. “700 travelled all the way from Blackburn and it’s great for them that the team got a richly deserved point.”