PL25: When Fulham pulled off a late, great escape at Eastlands

To celebrate 25 years of the Premier League each week in Football Fancast we’re going to be looking back at a memorable game that took place on the corresponding date. This time out we revisit the opening charge of a forgotten great escape.

Think of the great Premier League relegation rescue acts and Coventry and West Brom spring to mind; Middlesbrough too, but for whatever reason Fulham’s twin salvations less so.

The Cottagers’ 2006/07 late escape from the dreaded trap door required a nervy win over Liverpool on the penultimate game of the season and the man they had drafted in to oversee it – Northern Ireland boss Lawrie Sanchez – was suitably rewarded with a full-time gig for the subsequent year and beyond.

Only Sanchez swiftly proved himself to be limited in the role, bringing in a huge influx of new players that struggled to gel and by Christmas his side of strangers had triumphed just twice. Fulham would have unquestionably been rock bottom had it not been for Derby County enduring the worst campaign in recent history.

In crisis the club turned to a post-Blackburn, pre-Liverpool Roy Hodgson to steady the sinking ship and unsurprisingly results improved but surprisingly not by a great extent. With just three games to go Fulham travelled to Eastlands, Manchester five points adrift of safety and knowing that defeat could send them down.

Manchester City fans at Eastlands in 2008

Their hosts and possible executioners that day were experiencing a somewhat surreal season of their own. The previous summer City had been bought out by former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and before he went into exile using six different passports to evade a cornucopia of charges ranging from money laundering to human rights violations ‘Frank’ was regarded as a rich saviour for a club in terminal decline.

His first act on taking the reins was to lure Sven-Goran Eriksson out of the doldrums following his England sacking and true to form the high-profile Swede did what he did best and spent lots of money. City ultimately finished ninth that year and were never less than entertaining but a failure to secure European football meant that managerial alternatives were being bandied around as early as March. If Fulham were probably doomed then Sven certainly was.

From here on in the Blues will fade to the supporting cast in this story because this is all about Fulham save to say that on the final day of the campaign City haemorrhaged eight against Middlesbrough, essentially downing tools. At the time it felt like the latest low ebb for a club accustomed to disappointment. They were five months away from being forever transformed in the most remarkable way imaginable.

21 minutes into this game, Benjani drilled home a low cross to make it 2-0 to the home side after a splendid curled effort from Stephen Ireland had broken the deadlock. With Bolton and Reading both drawing that meant a loss here would mean Fulham were all but mathematically down.

The score-line remained two-nil to City and ruination for the visitors until 20 minutes remained, when Diomansy Kamara gave them hope. It really was a goal from nothing: a long ball putting the Senegalese striker one-on-one with Vedran Corluka and unable to beat his marker he simply punted a patty-cake shot goal-bound that hit a young Joe Hart on his instep and ricocheted into the roof of the net. On such things the narrative of games can change and also in this instance the direction of a season.

Ten minutes later Sun Jihai wrestled Nevland to the ground inside of the box and a penalty was duly awarded. Danny Murphy’s effort was saved which would have given the two thousand away fans brief palpitations behind the goal but the midfielder kept his cool to convert the rebound.

Now it was game on and Fulham had all of the belief and momentum if scant time to capitalise on it. The ninety minutes were now up and at least a draw would have postponed their fate for one more week. At least that was something.

Kamara however wasn’t done yet. In the 92nd minute a routine through-ball from Murphy would have been taken out wide by most front men but desperation drove the forward central. Two touches and a burst of pace was all it took to shrug off Brazilian Elano who was weirdly playing right-back that afternoon and with the whites of Hart’s eyes now visible Fulham’s joint leading goal-scorer that year blasted an unstoppable rocket into the near corner.

“I never lost hope, but to win it was extraordinary,” a gob-smacked Hodgson said afterwards. “We’ve given ourselves a chance now”.

At the start of play that was the very best they could have hoped for. The great escape was on.

What happened next?

Victories over Birmingham and Portsmouth ensured that Craven Cottage would be hosting Premier League football for another year, a survival achieved on goal difference and by the skin of their teeth.

Sven-Goran Eriksson was sacked by Manchester City a fortnight later and replaced by Mark Hughes. That September news broke of their second takeover within 18 months. This time they really did have a rich saviour.