As quietly as a mouse, spring has sprung. The FA Cup quarter-final between Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur this afternoon is a 5.20 kick-off, but the sun is still glittering on the River Thames behind Craven Cottage as the teams kick off and the football season, which, throughout the winter months, starts to take on the feel of being endless, is starting to feel considerably more finite now. We’re on the downhill slope of the season now, and the winners of this match will be playing at Wembley – for better, for worse – in the FA Cup semi-finals. Portsmouth are already through and remain on course for the (admittedly slight) possibility of their final match being an FA Cup final.
The first half is mostly Spurs, but is punctuated by flashes of the sort of Fulham invention that has scared the living daylights out of better teams than Spurs this season. Roy Hodgson’s team is direct yet still entertaining, seeking every opportunity to push the ball forward to Bobby Zamora as quickly as possible. It may be a sign of the times that Spurs have to – and indeed do – show a considerable amount of defensive wherewithal to prevent Zamora wriggling free on the edge of their penalty area. When the ball is pushed forward, the noise of the Craven Cottage crowd swells like a fighter jet roaring overhead but, for the first forty-five minutes, their exhortations are largely fruitless.
Spurs, meanwhile, remain somewhat enigmatic. Watching them play, you get the feeling that you are not quite seeing the full sum of their capabilities. They are strong and full of pace, yet occasionally seem so brittle that they could shatter before your very eyes. They always seem every inch a team that could beat Liverpool one week and lose to Wolverhampton Wanderers the next. In the first half of this match, though, they have the better of the chances as well as the possession and the Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer has to be on his toes to save from a lively looking Peter Crouch on two occasions. Half-time comes, however, with the scores goalless and little to choose between the two teams.
Meanwhile, one of the more noticeable difference between the two teams during the first half is in the quality of black arm bands being worn by the two teams in memory of the late Macclesfield Town manager, Keith Alexander. Fulham’s look as if they are bespoke, possibly ordered in from Harrods by Mohammed Al-Fayed. Spurs, by contrast, are wearing what looks distinctly like black gaffa tape wrapped round their biceps. Perhaps they left their first choice armbands at home but, still, it’s a small garnish of decency for the players of two Premier League clubs to remember the death of a football man from the other side of the game’s divide.
Fulham waste no time getting in amongst their visitors at the start of the second half and within a minute craft the best opening of the match, when a close range header from Zoltan Gera is brilliantly saved by Spurs’ appropriately two-sided goalkeeper, Heurelho Gomes. Over the next ten minutes or so, though, Fulham are pushed back again, though Spurs are unable to fashion anything particularly clear cut. This seems to be the difference between the two teams. With Jermaine Defoe on the bench, Spurs lack a degree of cutting edge when push comes to shove in the penalty area. As the territorial dominance ebbs and flows between the two sides, Fulham also create a couple of half-chances – both comfortably saved by Gomes, who is having what may be described as “a good day at the office” – and Roman Pavlyuchenko misses a golden chance for Spurs, overhead-kicking wildly over the crossbar from six yards out.
The introduction of Jermaine Defoe for Pavlyuchenko with ten minutes to play introduces a little more effervescence sinto what had been starting to look like an increasing tired Spurs attack and, within a couple of minutes he has a tenth of a penalty appeal turned away after what looks like a slip inside the Fulham penalty area. The clearest chance of the final stages of the match, however, falls to Fulham, albeit in the somewhat unlikely scenario of the Spurs defender Vedran Ćorluka, whose attempt to clear a diagonal cross into the penalty area pings off his foot at an improbable angle and a foot or so wide of the post.
This was very much day for the defenders and goalkeepers. Both Schwarzer and Gomes had outstanding games, and both defences stood firm with a degree of comfort against forward lines that often looked ponderous. The teams will return to White Hart Lane for the replay the week after next, and both teams will come away with a degree of confidence that they can progress to the semi-finals of a competition that is valuable to both clubs. Spurs haven’t won the FA Cup for nineteen years now and Fulham haven’t ever won it, and memories of their only appearance in an FA Cup Final (when they lost to West Ham United in 1975) are now solely the preserve of the middle-aged and older.
It says much for the solid progress that Fulham have made under Roy Hodgson that Spurs will come away from Craven Cottage relatively pleased to be taking them back to N17 for a second bite of the cherry. The team that required something like the sporting equivalent of five “Get Out Of Jail Free” cards to stay in the Premier League and received it thanks to Hodgson’s careful tutelage seems like a very, very long time ago, and this is even more pleasing to see when we consider that Hodgson himself is such a fundamentally likeable manager. He has remoulded the club very much in his own image. Spurs, meanwhile, will continue to be torn between the ongoing war of attrition for a place in the Champions League and the possibility of a day in the sun in May and bringing a much-needed piece of silverware back to White Hart Lane. We will await their team selection for the replay with interest.