Hodgson spies his pot of gold

ROY HODGSON claimed not to have seen the rainbow which briefly glittered over the Madejski stadium after an apocalyptic April shower had given way to brilliantly bright sunshine. “I'm one of those old-fashioned managers who watches every kick of the ball,” he said, with a weary tone.

Relegation battles are no place for romantics - they are worth rather more than the proverbial pot of gold - but when Fulham's hoary old manager reflects on this peculiar campaign, he might yet view this as the day the sun came out on his season. The storm clouds which generally amass over the Cottagers when they venture away from south-west London were banished in the sort of imperious fashion which makes a mockery of their position in the bottom two and now survival is just about visible on the horizon.

Hodgson's team may have the most ground to make up of any of the division's endangered species but they also have a fixture list which errs towards the gentle.

Two of their four remaining opponents will have their minds befuddled by cup commitments - Liverpool in the Champions League next week, Portsmouth in the FA Cup on the final afternoon - while a visit to mid-table Manchester City should hold no fears now the 34-game winless run away from home has been curtailed. In the midst of all those is a visit from Birmingham, also up to their necks in trouble. Even Hodgson is beginning to feel emboldened.

“There will be a few teams looking over their shoulders now,” he said. “You have to judge things over a longer period of time. I don't think we've been very lucky and the way that we've played has merited better results. But we're still in the race and that's the most important thing.” On this form, Fulham would be missed. The days of dour long balls under Lawrie Sanchez are long forgotten, replaced by a neat, incisive passing game which relies on the fundamentals: intelligent running, making space for team-mates and treasuring possession rather than panicking over it.

The visitors did all that and more on Saturday, forging ahead through a well-constructed strike from the superb Brian McBride and then laying siege to Reading's goal in the second half.

They clattered the crossbar three times - once through McBride's magnificent volley, again with a Brede Hangeland header and once more by Jimmy Bullard's free-kick - but even then Fulham's nerves refused to jangle. Instead, they sealed victory in stoppage time when Erik Nevland crowned a sweeping move with a regal finish.

“This showed we are a decent side when we play to our potential but we have to do that more often,” Danny Murphy, the midfielder, said. “The fact is we feel we have enough quality to stay in this division but the points on the board and our league position suggest otherwise.”

Murphy is right to be circumspect. Fulham have failed to win consecutive games all season and they will not meet opposition as feeble as Reading during the run-in. Steve Coppell's side were unforgivably wretched, given a win here would have all but rubber-stamped safety, and Marcus Hahnemann's admission that his side had “taken the game too lightly” was startling. They now travel to Arsenal on Saturday knowing they could be in the relegation zone by the end of the afternoon.

Graeme Murty, the club captain who watched this game from the sidelines due to a knee injury, admitted the home dressing room was “an angry, subdued, confused” place but they need to clear their heads, and fast.

“We all have to look at ourselves,” Ivar Ingimarsson, the defender, said. “We have our backs against the wall and we have to see what we can do to get out of this mess. I am still confident but we have to lift ourselves.”

READING (4-4-2): Hahnemann 7, Rosenior 5, Ingimarsson 5, Bikey 5, Shorey 6, Oster 4 (Little 60, 5), Harper 5, Matejovsky 6 (Cisse 77, 5), Hunt 5, Doyle 5, Long 4 (Kitson 60, 5).

Subs Not Used: Federici, Sonko.

FULHAM (4-4-2): Keller 5, Stalteri 6, Hangeland 7, Hughes 7, Konchesky 6, Davies 7, Bullard 6, Murphy 7 (Andreasen 90, 5), Dempsey 7 (Bocanegra 85, 5), Healy 6 (Nevland 83, 7), McBride 9.

Subs Not Used: Warner, Kamara.

REFEREE: Chris Foy (Merseyside) 6: Slightly fussy on occasion but kept control reasonably well.

MATCH RATING: *** Fulham were excellent: energetic and classy in equal measure. Reading were abysmal.

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