It was when I was walking through Bishop’s Park in the unseasonal sunshine yesterday afternoon that the nerves really got to me. Aston Villa – the divsion’s form side with a genuine claim on an automatic promotion place – lay in wait and the first test in a run of real make or break matches was only a couple of hours away. As one of those football fans who has made their journey to the game something of a ritual, I’m an early arriver at Craven Cottage as much to take in the magnificence of the ground as anything else.
There was almost a hush around the place as time ticked around to three o’clock. By the time I took my seat, my heart was almost leaping out of my chest – which was unusual as I don’t normally get nervous about the games we play these days. The early stages were tight – with both teams feeling each other out as if they were the boxers at the start of the evening’s main event in Manchester – and even Slavisa Jokanovic looked affected by at it, albeit briefly, waving his arms around and then leaving them apart in protest at a refereeing decision that attracted a reaction from Stephen Clemence on the Villa bench.
All that anxiety evaporated in the second half with young Ryan Sessegnon to the fore. We’ll soon be running of superlatives for the lad. With all the euphoria that has accompanied yesterday’s victory, nobody has really talked about the quality of his finish. After Mitrovic, who had an outstanding game leading the line, distracting the Villa defenders, Sessegnon ghosted into a dangerous area almost unnoticed and then improvised the vital touch – taking the ball into the only place that Sam Johnstone couldn’t reach.
The noise was phenomenal and Villa never looked like recovering the poise and organisation of the first half. For one thing, they had to try and plot a course back into the contest – and chasing the game didn’t fit the workmanlike gameplan Steve Bruce had constructed. Though he sent on Lewis Grabban and Keinan Davis in search of an equaliser, Villa struggled to stifle Fulham’s industry and after Floyd Ayite had punished the goalkeeper’s catastrophic error with a beautifully taken second from the centre circle, the hosts were rampant.
Mitrovic, who made John Terry looked like a washed up remnant of the man who once bestrode big games like this like a colossus, might have added a header and Kevin McDonald could have applied the finishing touch to a fine Fulham break. Aboubakar Kamara nearly found the net with his first touch again and, in the closing stages, it seemed as Villa were waiting to be put out of their misery. As Tom Cairney suggested afterwards, the manner of this victory was just as impressive as the three points themselves.
This result will have reverberated around the Championship. On its own, of course, these three points mean very little. As a result of Cardiff’s win over Middlesbrough, the dynamics of the table haven’t changed too much. But the way in which Fulham breezed past Villa was perhaps the most eloquent way the Whites could have found to tell the rest of the promotion contenders that their challenge is serious. Fulham’s trump card isn’t the consistency of their football, but the fact that Jokanovic – a perfectionist – won’t allow his team to either think too far ahead or slack off.
Such was the quality of Fulham’s display it was difficult to highlight many individual performances. Tomas Kalas and Tim Ream were so dominant it was almost an anomaly when Scott Hogan had enough space to connect with a through ball after Villa went behind. Both full backs were influential at either end of the pitch and Fulham thoroughly won the midfield battle. Cairney probed away at the heart of the midfield – leading Mile Jedinak a merry dance before the Australian was withdrawn – whilst Stefan Johansen appeared to cover every blade of grass.
Jokanovic’s team selections were completely vindicated. Ayite had a hand in both goals, beginning the lovely move that gave Fulham that vital opening and slotting home almost effortlessly from so far out, to effectively seal the contest. Sessegnon struggled initially to leave his mark on this match – but by the end, he was running riot – having escaped the attentions of the Villa defence for enough time to find that first finish. Up front, Mitrovic might not have scored a goal, but he won the physical battle against Terry and James Chester, winning plenty in the air and showing movement and no mean touch to give the Whites a focal point they have sometimes lacked this season.
In the relief afterwards, I had to wonder what all the worry was about. In mathematical terms, Fulham probably still only have an outside chance of making the top two and avoiding more pain in the play-offs. But, to adapt the words of that classic TOOFIF cartoon, we can dream, can’t we?