A point was far from what Slavisa Jokanovic envisaged when he implored his Fulham side to turn around their woeful home form against bottom-of-the-table Bolton Wanderers. But the Whites gleefully grabbed a share of the spoils thanks to returning captain Tom Cairney, whose header after a fine run from Kevin McDonald in the fifth minute of stoppage time, prevented the visitors from ending their 25 year wait for a league win at Craven Cottage.
For long periods of this attritional contest, Fulham looked likely to suffer another devastating blow to their promotion aspirations after Phil Parkinson’s men defended heroically to hold onto a lead fashioned for them by a piece of fantastic finishing from Sammy Ameobi after another home defensive aberration. Parkinson was justified in pointing to the threat that Bolton posed on the break in the second half, when they could have put the game beyond doubt, and will rue the rare space his side afforded Cairney at the death that allowed Fulham’s talisman, making his first start since August, to nod home McDonald’s floated cross from close range.
For Cairney, who has had to endure a frustrating first three months of the season after he injured his knee at the end of Fulham’s summer tour, this was blessed relief. Fulham’s playmaker was largely nullified by Parkinson’s central midfield pairing of Karl Henry, whose industrial early challenge on the Scottish international earned him a yellow card, and Darren Pratley, whose professional career began at the west London club’s academy. Like most of his team-mates, Cairney struggled to thread a way through Wanderers well-drilled defence before he found himself in the right place to profit from McDonald’s late rush to the byline.
Fulham’s football never really recovered its early verve after Ameobi was allowed to saunter onto a long ball from Ben Alnwick once Gary Madine fell to the turf clutching his head. The former Newcastle forward punished Fulham’s failure to play to the whistle and the inability of Tim Ream, Tomas Kalas and Ryan Fredericks to close him down by finding the bottom left corner of David Button’s goal with a cool finish. McDonald’s anger at the ease with which Ameobi worked himself into a scoring position was fully justified.
This was a largely frustrating afternoon for Jokanovic, who again opted to play Aboubakar Kamara and Rui Fonte as part of his front three, but the fluidity and movement was lacking. Floyd Ayite largely flattered to deceive, only producing a decisive contribution in the final third when the flag was wrongly raised against him for offside in the first half and Ryan Sessegnon, bombing on from left back, saw his snapshot early held by Alnwick. Kamara spurned the half’s best opening – lifting a finish over the goalkeeper and the Putney End crossbar after being released by a searching Cairney pass – whilst Adam Armstrong whistled two curling efforts wide of the Fulham goal.
Fired up by a Jokanovic blast during the break, Fulham emerged with more of a spring in their step. Fredericks flashed a cross-cum-shot into the side netting and Sessegnon failed to get enough power behind a shot on the turn to unduly worry Alnwick, before Bolton went close to doubling their lead. The lively Armstrong linked up well with Pratley and curled an effort towards the top corner that Button did well to palm aside.
The visitors continued to defend manfully, as shown when Wheater threw himself in the path of the ball during a real scramble following an Ollie Norwood corner, and Kamara blazed wastefully over from close range after Fredericks’ low cut back appeared perfect for the Northern Ireland midfielder to run onto. Alnwick produced a fine reaction save to deny substitute Neeskens Kebano when he was sent clear by a beautifully weighted pass from Kalas and a succession of corners were repelled by Wanderers’ under-pressure defenders without much concern.
Parkinson’s side found it far too easy to shut down Fulham’s patient possession that lacked penetration until Fredericks and Sessegnon offered options out wide. Sessegnon was scythed down by a cynical challenge and Kebano was felled by Mark Little for a free-kick which Stefan Johansen, introduced as a substitute, crashed into the wall and it appeared that even Luca de la Torre’s clever touches around the eighteen yard box was count for little as Bolton continued to smother the hosts’ attacks. The visitors still had chances of their own with Armstrong twice almost profiting from comical defending, sidefooting wide after an atrocious Button clearance, and then nearly chipping the Fulham goalkeeper after robbing Kalas of possession.
The unlikely point arrived in the fifth minute of injury time when McDonald, who was earlier booked for remonstrating vigorously with referee Geoff Eltrincham, eventually decided to take matters into his own hands. The defensive midfielder carried the ball to the byline at pace and lifted his cross over Bolton’s tall rearguard for Cairney to head home his first goal of the season to the relief of the Craven Cottage faithful. Jokanovic might have not been pleased with the quality of Fulham’s performance, but he couldn’t fault his side’s spirit.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Button; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Kalas (de la Torre 89), Ream; McDonald, Norwood (Johansen 70), Cairney; Fonte (Kebano 57), Ayite, Kamara. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Odoi, Cisse, Edun.
GOAL: Cairney (90+4).
BOLTON WANDERERS (4-2-3-1): Alnwick; Little, A. Taylor (Robinson 49), Beevers, Wheater; Henry, Pratley; Ameobi (Morais 68), Armstrong, Vela (Le Fondre 82); Madine. Subs (not used): Howard, Darby, Noone, Osede.
BOOKED: Henry, Wheater, Alnwick, Little.
GOAL: Ameobi (28).
REFEREE: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham)