Lukas Jutkiewicz’s 75th minute goal gave Gianfranco Zola his first victory as Blues boss – and it was thoroughly deserved.
Zola’s charges created a host of chances against Play-Off hopefuls Fulham in a game that the home side dominated for long stages.
Only the woodwork denied Jutkiewicz in the first-half, but the Blues top marksman was not to be denied an 11th goal of the season as he converted a cross from the impressive Cheick Keita, who picked up the Foster’s Man of the Match award on his first appearance for the Club.
The way that every single outfield player joined in the celebrations symbolised the unity of the squad and the determination amongst the players to turn some promising performances into points on the board for the new manager.
The dismissal of Fulham defender Ryan Fredericks for a bad foul on Craig Gardner midway through the second-half helped Blues' cause, but it was by no means an overriding factor in the result.
Blues, though, did take full advantage of the numerical advantage, with determined football brimming with intent. And they got the just rewards as Fulham were forced into a period of disarray.
Keita and Jerome Sinclair both came into the side for their Blues debuts and fellow January signing Emilio Nsue was also recalled for his first outing in front of the home fans. With Gardner and Jutkiewicz keeping their places, five of Zola’s new-look squad started the game, the two other recent recruits Kerim Frei and Krystian Bielik named on the bench.
The fourth change from the starting 11 that lost narrowly to Reading in midweek saw Maikel Kieftenbeld selected as part of a midfield diamond. Injuries to Ryan Shotton and Michael Morrison meant Jonathan Grounds moved into the centre of defence to partner Club Captain Paul Robinson, freeing up the left-back berth for Keita’s bow.
Fulham’s only change from their midweek victory at Burton Albion was the recall of 16-year-old defender Ryan Sessegnon, who took the place of Scott Malone, the former Wolves left-back dropped to the bench despite scoring one of the goals in the Cottagers' 2-0 success at the Pirelli Stadium. Ex-St. Andrew’s striker Sone Aluko started on his return to his old stomping ground.
Blues were on the front foot from the first whistle, Sinclair teeing up Jutkiewicz for a shooting opportunity in the opening minute, the top scorer firing in a low effort but it was always swerving away from the target. Soon after that the big striker rose well to meet a Grounds cross from the left but he wasn’t able to keep his header down.
Zola’s side maintained their up-tempo and attacking start and on nine minutes Gardner was inches away from connecting to Jutkiewicz’s flick-on, David Button rushing off his line to just get to the ball before him, despite the midfielder’s determined attempts.
Fulham’s first threatening moment came on 12 minutes when Fredericks’ dinked cross from the right found the unmarked Stefan Johansen only 10 yards out, but the Norwegian midfielder’s tame header was easily collected by Tomasz Kuszczak down to his right.
On 19 minutes, the hosts created their clearest opening of the first period when Gardner’s terrific cross from the left was met by a thumping close-range Jutkiewicz header, but the ball agonisingly crashed off the crossbar and down with no one following up in a blue shirt able to force it home.
The chances continued to fall to the former Burnley man, but on 24 minutes it was an opportunity all of his own making when Jutkiewicz turned nicely on the edge of the box and sent in an instinctive low shot but Button was equal to it.
Robinson put his body on the line, quite literally, when he felt the full force of a stinging shot from Tom Cairney, the Blues skipper laid out by his opposite number. Fortunately, the battle-hardened veteran was soon back on his feet and ready to soldier on for the royal blue cause.
Five minutes into the second-half and new boy Sinclair showed a glimpse of his undoubted ability when he twisted and turned on the edge of the box before firing in a low drive that Button could only parry. The Cottagers keeper was unable to stop the ball from rolling behind the goal line for a corner, which sadly came to nothing.
Blues continued to look dangerous going forward, but with so many men pushing up the home defence was, not surprisingly, left a little exposed at times, Keita and Stephen Gleeson both going into the referee’s notebook for last-ditch fouls as Fulham looked to launch counter-attacks.
Aluko set up a good chance for Slavisa Jokanovic’s side when his in-swinging cross from the right was met by a glancing Chris Martin header, but the ball bounced a couple of yards wide of the far post.
Meanwhile at the other end, Gardner’s set-piece expertise was proving a useful weapon in Blues’ armoury. The midfielder curled in a delicious free-kick that bounced dangerously towards the far post where Grounds stuck out a leg but couldn’t divert the ball towards goal.
There was certainly plenty of needle in this keenly-contested encounter and tempers boiled over when Gardner was sent crashing to the ground by Fredericks’ crunching lunge. The referee deemed it worthy of a straight red card.
Che Adams was introduced to proceedings shortly afterwards and the young striker was straight into the action, flicking the ball sweetly over his shoulder but unfortunately he couldn’t get as much purchase as he’d have wanted on his attempted half-volley.
The on-target shots kept on coming though as Jutkiewicz tried his luck from 25 yards on 70 minutes, but Button safely claimed.
The lively Adams was back on the ball moments later when he raced down the right and cut inside his man but his cross-shot was palmed away by Button, with Jutkiewicz waiting to pounce at the far post.
Blues’ forward pairing continued to trouble the Fulham backline, Adams getting the ball into the six-yard box where Jutkiewicz stuck out a leg but made only the slightest of touches and the ball rolled away to safety.
With 15 minutes left the breakthrough finally came, and the sense of relief inside the ground was palpable. Keita played a key role as his overlapping run down the left took him into the area and his low cross was side-footed firmly into the net by Jutkiewicz.
That was the cue for some delirious scenes of celebration, in the stands and on the pitch – all 10 outfield players running over to the corner flag to join in the acclaim for Keita’s contribution to the game’s decisive moment, with Gardner launching the flag pole skywards after hoiking it out of the ground!
Blues had chances to increase their lead, Gardner’s 86th minute free-kick bouncing off the wall and flying up into the air behind Jutkiewicz, the striker producing a brilliant, acrobatic overhead kick that Button parried up and over the bar.
From another quick breakaway, Adams charged down the left but frustratingly he didn’t look up to see Kieftenbeld careering unmarked through the centre, a simple in-field pass would have sent the Dutchman clear.
There was a collective groan around the stadium when the fourth official indicated five minutes of stoppage-time. And three minutes into that added time Blues had a mighty escape. Kevin McDonald laid the ball inside to Floyd Ayite but from only six yards out the Fulham sub sliced his shot horribly into the away fans behind the goal. It was a bit of fortune that Zola’s men certainly warranted.
The referee’s final blow of his whistle was the signal for some joyous celebrations around St. Andrew’s. The new Blues era under Zola is well and truly up and running.