Several players were ineffective but one was indefensible.
Now Steve Clarke knows all about defeat as a boss – and about an enduring conundrum for Albion gaffers.
How to solve a problem like Peter is a riddle that occupied the minds of Roberto Di Matteo and Roy Hodgson during their time at The Hawthorns.
After Peter Odemwingie’s moment of idiocy left his Baggies side powerless to stem the Fulham tide, Clarke will be in no doubt that, for all the striker’s intelligent charm and match-winning potency, he can be a high-maintenance character to manage. For a man so bright, likable and exciting, Odemwingie possesses a capacity for daftness that is difficult to fathom.
As he reflected on a vexed afternoon at Craven Cottage, Clarke was the latest man left to ponder how to best utilise a man capable of thrilling and frustrating in almost equal measure.
While Saturday’s indiscretion was the first offence of violence on his Albion record, Odemwingie’s fragile state of mind often caused Di Matteo and Hodgson to scratch their heads just as Clarke was doubtless doing at the weekend.
His vicious kick at Sascha Riether six minutes before half-time gave referee Roger East with no alternative but to brandish a red card.
And it left his team-mates and boss to contemplate not just the match that they lost in the West London sunshine, but also the game that might have unfolded had Albion’s most prolific goalscorer of the Premier League era retained his cool.
A Fulham side inspired by the sublime coaxing of home debutant Dimitar Berbatov might well have proved an irresistible force even for an Albion side with a full complement of players.
The frustration for Clarke and his players is that they never got the opportunity to find out with Odemwingie’s dismissal proving to be the moment that turned the game decisively the Cottagers’ way.
By the time the Baggies striker reacted to Riether nipping at his ankles by hacking at the German’s nether regions, Clarke’s side were already 1-0 down thanks to a goal from the best player on view with Berbatov bending home a 15-yard shot after a tricky run from impressive winger Alexander Kacaniklic.
And with that dangerous duo a constant thorn in Albion’s side along with the eye-catching right-flank duo of Riether and Damien Duff, Clarke’s men were clearly second favourites by the time Odemwingie took the long, lonely walk back to the tunnel.
The Baggies were flat compared to their previous three Premier League games. They had surrendered too much ground to Martin Jol’s fired-up team.
Yet they were still in touch with enough moments of promise to suggest that, given a fair wind, they could trouble their hosts and claim some reward from the game.
James Morrison had stung the hands of home keeper Mark Schwarzer with a fine 10th-minute shot and only a key interception by Brede Hangeland had denied Shane Long a tap-in before Kacaniklic and Berbatov combined for the opener. Hangeland blocked again to thwart Jonas Olsson in a goalmouth scramble, but a nightmare end to the first half destroyed Albion’s hopes of turning the tide.
Odemwingie pressed the self-destruct button when he lashed out inexplicably at Riether and Billy Jones was caught in the blast as he fouled Kacaniklic clumsily in stoppage-time with Berbatov converting the penalty to all but end the game as a contest.
All that remained for Clarke to hope for was a response of spirit and character from his squad and, typically, it came as they refused to cave in during the second half despite the knowledge that their cause was pretty hopeless.
They struggled to land a meaningful blow on their hosts after the interval but they refused to stay on the canvas with Ben Foster especially impressive, making a string of smart saves to prevent more serious damage to his side’s goal difference.
Only after 89 minutes and a couple of half-chances for an Albion consolation did Fulham breach the Baggies’ defences for a third time as they struck on the break with Pajtim Kasami’s cross-shot parried by Foster and Rodallega’s header striking the post before Steve Sidwell swivelled to blast home the final goal.
It left Clarke to experience a new set of emotions as his unbeaten start to life at the helm was brought to an end in his fifth game.
And it gave the Albion boss a dual challenge for the days ahead – rallying his troops, and dealing with the Baggies’ biggest enigma.
By Steve Madeley
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