Play like you mean it, declared a handwritten banner among the away fans at Craven Cottage, and for more than 90 minutes Manchester United tried their best to ease the pressure on Erik ten Hag without success.
The problem with these United players isn’t that they don’t care. They haven’t downed tools. They’re just not very good – at least not at the moment.
They contributed to a spectacle of such mind-numbing mediocrity here that you began to think that all the will in the world wouldn’t be enough to save Ten Hag.
But this was a day when the result mattered so much more than the performance, and in the first minute of added time Bruno Fernandes conjured up a winning goal to give his manager some respite at the end of an abysmal week.
No-one copped for it more than Fernandes in the wake of a humbling Manchester derby defeat that preceded an equally embarrassing Carabao Cup exit at the hands of Newcastle reserves in midweek.
Bruno Fernandes celebrates scoring a late winner for Erik ten Hag’s side at Fulham after a nervy game at Craven Cottage
United’s players celebrated wildly after Bruno’s huge goal gave them all three points – bouncing back from straight 3-0 losses
But when Ten Hag needed his skipper most, the man who fired a brilliant winner at Burnley to end a run of three straight defeats in September came up with the goods again.
This goal wasn’t nearly as sweet as Fernandes’ volley from Jonny Evans’ pass at Turf Moor. In fact it was a bit of a shambles, and United had substitute Facundo Pellistri to thank for that.
The young Uruguayan showed admirable tenacity to chase down Antonee Robinson close to the byeline. The ball ran loose to Tim Ream who smacked it into Pellistri. Joao Palhinha panicked too, hacking a clearance to Fernandes on the edge of the box.
The ball still bobbed around between Fernandes, Scott McTominay and Pellistri before the United skipper decided it was time to apply a little polish, sending two defenders the wrong with a dummy before firing inside Bernd Leno’s left-hand post. The Fulham keeper got a hand to the ball but just couldn’t keep it out.
Ten Hag threw his arms in the air in celebration, although he must know that United can’t keep relying on last-ditch heroics.
Fernandes led his teammates over to the fans behind the goal where the banner had disappeared.
‘We saw it before the game,’ said McTominay. ‘The fans pay good money to come watch every week, and we want to repay them the best we can.
‘When everything’s going against you, you have to do it your own way and you’ve got to come together and fight like dogs sometimes.’
This was one of those days. No-one epitomised it more than a groggy Harry Maguire who recovered from an accidental blow to the head from Rodrigo Muniz in the opening seconds to lead the defensive effort.
Should he have continued? Ten Hag’s claim that Maguire’s problems in the second half were due to a hand injury only clouded the issue.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka also made a huge improvement on his first start since mid-September.
But when the defenders are your best performers, you know it’s not going very well. United created lots of pretty patterns with their passing again, but there is a chronic shortage of ideas and penetration in this team.
United had a goal disallowed in the first half after Harry Maguire was caught offside and deemed to be interfering with play
Scott McTominay thought he’d scored from Alejandro Garnacho’s cross but after a four-minute VAR review the goal was chalked off
Maguire also received medical attention twice for a head injury but was able to play the full 90 minutes and performed well
There was little quality on show during a dull game, as Fulham’s Alex Iwobi (centre) fired over when well placed
Andre Onana made a couple of important saves in the second half as United came under pressure at times from the hosts
Until the likes of Marcus Rashford, Rasmus Hojlund, Antony and Alejandro Garnacho start to contribute goals, United are going to struggle.
Rashford was absent here, Ten Hag putting it down to a leg injury sustained in United’s final training session on Friday rather than any fallout from the player’s post-derby birthday celebrations in a city centre nightclub, for which he apologised.
He hasn’t done enough this season to be missed. Afterwards, the talk was of turning points and catalysts, but Fernandes was having none of it.
‘No, it’s about the team, it’s about what everyone does on the pitch,’ he said. ‘It has to build the confidence, but at the same time we have to understand we can still do better, we can deliver, we can do much more.’
It might have been a little easier had McTominay’s goal as early as the seventh minute been allowed to stand, but VAR spotted Maguire in an offside position stopping Muniz from challenging Garnacho before he provided the assist, and referee John Brooks agreed.
The two teams took it in turns to whack the ball high into the stands as if we were down the road at Twickenham. Alex Iwobi (twice) and Harry Wilson for Fulham, Diogo Dalot for United.
The lack of quality was best summed up by the woeful attempts at back-heels by Antony and Garnacho.
Andre Onana made back-to-back saves from Wilson and Palhinha as United wobbled after half-time. Fernandes finally forced Leno into a save of note with a free kick seven minutes from time.
When the United captain took aim again, though, he made no mistake.
Alejandro Garnacho looked dangerous, but lacked end product and also got booked in the second half for a late tackle
Antony struggled on the opposite flank and was taken off just after the hour mark for youngster Facundo Pellistri
The result gives Erik ten Hag some breathing space after back-to-back defeats at home to Manchester City and Newcastle