Respite for Mark Hughes was secured not only impressively but also improbably.
Both Stoke City and logic were defied as Fulham, without an away win in the Premier League for 16 months, triumphed through two goals from Chris Baird, who ended a personal drought that stretched back to March 2007.
The pressure on their manager has been alleviated, although Hughes said there was no danger of an unwanted end-of-year repeat of his sacking by Manchester City last December. "I've got great support from [the chief executive] Alistair Mackintosh. I spoke to the chairman [Mohamed Al Fayed] and he's very supportive," he said. "When we play as well as we did today, we'll have no problems this season."
Normally timid travellers, Fulham were forthright and forceful. A result Hughes branded "season-defining" came in the most productive game of Baird's career. The utility player has filled many a role but he had a new job description: scorer. His prowess from distance had been concealed in a 45-month, 101-game run that did not produce a single goal. But, within the space of seven surreal minutes he had two, scored from similar positions.
The makeshift left-back connected sweetly with a 25-yard shot after Danny Collins had partially cleared Simon Davies's cross. It clipped the near post on its way beyond Asmir Begovic. "Arguably our goal of the season, I would suggest," said Hughes. "He's one of the best strikers of the ball we have at the club."
That was illustrated again with his second goal, Baird drilling in a daisy-cutter after Danny Murphy and Andrew Johnson combined over a free-kick to set him up. "Asmir will look at the goals and think he could have done better with both of them," said his manager, Tony Pulis. "Even [for] the first one, he's going to be a top, top goalkeeper and he can make saves like that."
To cap an eventful afternoon Baird also collected the game's first caution. His all‑action display eased the mood among the travelling supporters. The Fulham fans who called for Hughes's dismissal 48 hours earlier settled for celebrating their unlikely match-winner. "We've got Bairdinho" came the chant, although, the nickname notwithstanding, Baird's CV includes Ballymena United, rather than Brazil.
To the irritation of the majority at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke's chances of a comeback were snuffed out by Murphy, their bête noire. When Ryan Shawcross met Matthew Etherington's corner with a firm header, Murphy cleared off the line. Booed by the Stoke supporters for his October comments suggesting the Potters' abrasive approach resulted in too many injuries, he responded by bruising their pride. It is now back-to-back defeats at the Britannia Stadium for Pulis's side.
"The start was very, very poor from us," said the manager. Although his team improved, Mark Schwarzer was really required to parry only a drive from Robert Huth as Fulham produced a resolute display in defence. It was a team effort; Aaron Hughes, emulating Murphy, tidied up when Ricardo Fuller beat the offside trap and wrong-footed Schwarzer, and Brede Hangeland blocked Jermaine Pennant's goal-bound effort.
"I felt we were immense," Mark Hughes said. "Everyone on the field of play was exceptional. There were big performances in every part of the team. Maybe that's been lacking in away games, that real resolute mind-set and it could be a season-defining win."
The Britannia Stadium, scene of his first defeat as Fulham manager, witnessed his first win. In a role reversal from September's Carling Cup tie, Pulis refused to shake hands with his fellow Welshman today. The Stoke manager's analysis was nevertheless supportive. "I expect Fulham to have a better second half of the season. [Aston] Villa, Everton and Fulham shouldn't be where they are."
The Europa League finalists remain in the relegation battle but, to Hughes' relief, he has ceded his lead in the sack race. "This week it seems to have been me; next week it's someone else. That's the nature of the job." It is a post he now appears likelier to retain.
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