Bruce building on solid foundation
Money talks. That would seem to be the conclusion to any history of the Premier League. Now with even more in the bank after a recession-busting television deal, the self-proclaimed world's best league is set to maintain its financial - and possibly footballing - superiority for several more years. Yet if the criteria for success are to be rich and famous, Wigan Athletic and Fulham would, as they did a decade ago, be meeting in the third flight.
Instead, they exist as an indictment of Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United and Manchester City, clubs with larger buys and loftier ambitions, but a more depressing reality. There is less drama, and much less melodrama, but careful planning and an awareness of the advantages the global game offers have benefited both.
Not that this is intended for a worldwide audience. The proposal for the 39th game wasn't devised with Wigan versus Fulham in mind, but the lowest-profile match of the day was also the only one to feature two sides in the top half of the table. Their stalemate helped demonstrate why both are outperforming some of the game's aristocrats.
They show, too, that while noisy underachievement can be more entertaining, quiet overachievement is still possible in the Premier League. The hype hasn't quite travelled as far as the JJB Stadium and Craven Cottage and Wigan and Fulham are all the better for it.
They have prospered out of the spotlight, making quiet progress with astute recruits. Without the pressure to pursue big names, or the budget to bring them in, Roy Hodgson and Steve Bruce have signed well abroad. Fulham and Wigan made sizeable profits in January - the latter were in the unusual position of rebutting an approach from Real Madrid - and the only British transfer record signings in evidence at the JJB were both in the crowd. Bryan Robson and Roy Keane have been granted greater resources than Hodgson and their former team-mate Bruce before, but now neither is in management.
That they witnessed a game without a breakthrough was sadly typical for Fulham, a team resilient enough to draw at Liverpool, Tottenham and Aston Villa, but unable to win anywhere outside Craven Cottage. A meagre total of three away goals was not augmented, largely because Bobby Zamora's drought continued. His unenviable record for Fulham stands at one goal in 30 hours of Premier League football. Chris Kirkland produced a terrific save to deny the striker a second with a curling shot, but Zamora was culpable when heading over from two yards. Zamora's workload was admirable, but his finishing was not.
"Bobby needs a goal, there's no question about that," said Roy Hodgson. "But I thought he played very, very well. His confidence today must have taken a boost from playing so well. We're happy at the moment because you're always happy when you don't lose away from home but I think on Monday we'll look back and say this was a golden opportunity to break our duck."
They are yet to win away, but their new-found robustness means Fulham have avoided defeat on half of their trips. That is testament to a fine defence. Of Hodgson's additions, John Pantsil, an unhappy reunion with West Ham aside, has been excellent and Mark Schwarzer is reliability personified. The dominant Brede Hangeland must rank among the most improved centre-backs in the division.
Fulham's latest clean sheet owed much to him, but also something to Mido. The Egyptian should have done better when heading Maynor Figueroa's cross wide. The left-back has started to maraud forward and, while Wilson Palacios, named Wigan's greatest ever buy in the programme, has left, producing a £13 million profit in a year, Bruce still possesses one Honduran with pace and physicality.
A second signing, Hugo Rodallega, is already looking another fine piece of business. The Colombian, making his first start for eight weeks, headed one chance wide. A wonderfully disguised ball for Mido and a few flicks indicated there is more to come. "He showed flashes," added Bruce. "That's what we've seen in training. He's clever, really clever and when he comes up to speed, you'll see why we bought him."
His dealings make Bruce a contender for manager of the season. His honesty is unusual, too. Mido, Michael Brown and Antonio Valencia all departed with injury or illness in the first half and Bruce admitted he erred in selecting a half-fit side.
He added: "I have to take a bit of the blame, but we got away with it. Arguably we've had the best two chances of the game, but if we'd taken the three points it would have been unjust."
Wigan's position enables him to make such admissions while, at clubs with distinctly larger squads, injury crises are routinely bemoaned. But then there are wealthier rivals who could learn much from Fulham and Wigan.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Titus Bramble - Often derided in the past, he has often excelled this season. Several challenges were particularly well-timed and Bruce said: "My back four, who I thought were terrific, kept us in it." Figueroa, little less impressive, was another candidate.
WIGAN VERDICT: A second side of the season is starting to take shape. Before Mido wandered off, the front six players included four newcomers. Charles N'Zogbia had a reasonable debut, but the quartet of Mario Melchiot, Paul Scharner, Bramble and Figueroa earned the point.
FULHAM VERDICT: An unchanged defence is showing the merits of continuity, but Fulham may miss the departed Jimmy Bullard's spark in midfield. With Dickson Etuhu another injured, Olivier Dacourt may be handed the chance to replace him.