The Under 18’s capped a glorious season at Craven Cottage on Sunday after defeating Reading 3-0 to retain the Barclays Under 18 Premier League trophy.
Coming into the game, Reading were on a run of 11 straight wins with powerhouse striker Uche Ikpeazu in blistering form having already amassed 28 goals this season. Fulham on the other hand had taken their foot right off the gas with 3 wins in their last 5 games including a nail biting semi-final where a 4 goal lead was nearly lost.
The Fulham team was unchanged from that semi-final in midweek, with Rodak continuing in goal behind a back four of Passley, Donnelly, Arthurworrey and Richards. The central midfield was Hyndman and Sambou (as it had been for the majority of the season) flanked by Roberts and Tankovic who dropped into midfield to allow Dembele to partner Woodrow up front.
A strong bench was named: Oberschmidt, Burgess, Baba, Della Verde and Evans. Dan O’Reilly missed out, as did George Williams and Dean O’Halloran, both long term injured.
Fulham started the game brightly, especially down the right hand side where Passley was able to launch a few crosses in and Roberts in his usual fashion manoeuvred into the box but was eventually crowded out. There was real intent early on as Reading were put under pressure in possession, great work from Sambou in stealing the ball eventually leading to a Woodrow cross that flashed across goal.
Reading crafted their first threat down the left with Fosu’s skilful running though the long shot he eventually laid on was blocked well by the Fulham defence. Moments later it appeared that a more direct approach from the visitors would bring their first clear cut chance but for Arthurworrey who recovered well to close down Tanner and force a corner.
It was more direct play that brought about Fulham’s first chance, Woodrow heading on a Rodak clearance for Dembele to run onto, only for his left foot shot inside the area to be blocked for a corner.
A series of counters from either side ended with Roberts finding himself some space on the left. He cut it back to Dembele on the edge of the box who managed to work the ball onto his right foot and unleash a curling effort into the top corner of the Reading goal.
FULHAM 1 (Dembele) READING 0
That delightful effort appeared to kick Fulham on to a higher gear, Sambou firing a shot at goal from 25 yards before Passley fed in a couple of crosses, the latter being headed wide by Woodrow towards the far post.
Shortly after, an attack that was becoming frequent should have doubled Fulham’s lead. Dembele anticipated a flick-on from Woodrow’s aerial success to leave him running at goal with only the keeper to beat. The young Frenchman opted to round the keeper but took the ball just too far and had to double back before firing over the bar.
Whilst it looked like Fulham would be the next to score, Reading were still plugging away at the other end, a smart Rodak save denying Fosu an equaliser from distance, before Passley offered up possession and ended up having to give away a free kick a few yards outside the box, only for Tanner to place his effort over the bar, taking a touch on the way through. A bit of a scramble ensued from the corner with Rodak punching high into the air before danger was eventually eased.
It was straight down the other end, Roberts feeding Woodrow who chipped a delightful through ball for Dembele who took his chance this time, sliding the ball past the keeper for 2-0. The Reading defence had played for an offside call that never came and paid for it.
FULHAM 2 (Dembele) READING 0
Reading to their credit continued to push for a goal, Passley heading away a Reading cross before Kuhl had a shot blocked. There was still time in the first half for Arthurworrey, Dembele and Tankovic to fire efforts on goal, as well as Roberts to suffer an unfortunate bobble after beating 3 men and bursting into the box.
HALF TIME: FULHAM 2 READING 0
Reading, as expected came out all guns blazing and were looking to up the tempo whilst Steve Wigley was looking for his side to press high and stop any attacks at source. Hyndman nearly made it 3-0 after good play by Tankovic on the edge of the box before he released the ball into the path of the young American who was only stopped by Lincoln’s legs.
Up the other end, Craig Tanner was pushing forward closer to Ikpeazu and managed to get a shot off that Rodak saved well to his right. Tanner was increasingly getting a foothold in the game for the visitors but Sambou was working hard to stop him, as well as the rest of the defence who were doing well to crowd out any attacks, Arthurworrey particularly winning the battle of the giants as Ikpeazu struggled to assert any dominance.
Fulham managed to break down the left with Richards flying along the touchline; his cross managing to pick out the only player to keep up with him, but Dembele’s diving header was placed wide. Reading were on the attack again as it was all hands on deck for a few minutes, but the Fulham defence were admirably defiant in their work and after stopping the attack they managed to break superbly after keeping possession for a succession of passes ending in a Hyndman drive forward centrally before he coolly played in Woodrow one-on-one. Lincoln did well to shut off the space and Woodrow could only muster a shot at his legs.
With 70 minutes gone Reading were yet to create a real clear cut opening, be it through moving the ball around the box quickly, Fosu’s silky skills down the wing, or Ikpeazu pulling onto the smaller Richards which had failed to bear any fruit in the first half. There’s no doubt that there was pressure and tempo from the away side that on another day would have earned a victory, but this was a Fulham side that looked determined to hold onto their lead and their title.
As Reading did look to create they were forcing plenty of corners, which looked a good bet for a way back into the game, with the deliveries good and Rodak looking to punch at every opportunity. One particular corner was headed into the air and dropped agonisingly for Reading straight onto the bar before eventually being cleared.
Whilst Reading’s corners were keeping the whites on their toes, they themselves were having to stay vigilant at the back, Tankovic forcing another save out of Lincoln. Passley then drilled a shot wide before recovering to head out a dangerous cross for yet another Reading corner followed by a quick second, both of which were punched by Rodak.
Ikpeazu then won a controversial free kick for Tanner to have another chance at goal. This effort was better and was drilled towards the top corner, the crossbar yet again coming to Fulham’s aid, before the rebound was also cracked against the bar, eventually danger was averted with Reading heading over the top of the goal. Panic over for a short time at least, as Reading managed to carve somewhat of an opening before Rodak saved well with an outstretched hand.
A late challenge on Richards by the corner flag allowed some respite for Fulham who had just dropped the pace, though with barely 2 minutes left on the clock it looked as though they had just about come through the storm unscathed.
Another Fulham break, or rather a lone foray into the Reading half by Dembele allowed him to ensure he would at least be going home with the match ball, if by some miracle it wasn’t going to be joined by a winners medal. The striker faced 3 opponents, one who tripped him, but Dembele just about kept his footing and advantage was played. The defenders were backing off, and why not as they were still some distance from goal, though Dembele worked the ball to his right foot and drilled a low shot that crept past the keeper and in off the post.
FULHAM 3 (Dembele) READING 0
The 3 minutes of added time were subdued; a Reading corner was headed wide before hat-trick hero Dembele was replaced by Evans. A minute later the referee called an end to the game and confirmed Fulham as champions of the Barclays Under 18 Premier League.
FULL TIME: FULHAM 3 READING 0
FULHAM: Rodak; Passley, Donnelly, Arthurworrey, Richards; Roberts, Sambou, Hyndman, Tankovic; Woodrow, Dembele (Evans 90). Not used: Oberschmidt; Baba, Burgess, Della Verde
READING: Lincoln; Long, Griffin, Hyam, Cooper; Kuhl, Stacey, Kelly, Fosu; Tanner, Ikpeazu. Subs not used: Ward, Murombedzi, Taylor-Crossdale, Jefford, Owusu
And that was that, a year on and Fulham again reigned supreme. Though this Fulham and the Fulham that gained the title last year are few and far between. The line-up for last year’s final was as follows: Roberts; Brister, Grimmer, Pritchard, Kavanagh; Williams, Christensen, Minkwitz, Mesca; Altman, Woodrow. Looking at that line-up Fulham had a lot to do in replacing a core that we had come to admire. In fact only 3 players who players who were named in the squad were named in this year’s final, Woodrow starting up front yet again, with Sambou and Tankovic who were on the bench last year. There were also successful second chances for Passley (banned) and Arthurworrey (injured) who missed the final last year but made their mark this time around.
In terms of the 90 minutes, you can’t look any further than Moussa Dembele for man of the match, 3 goals in any final is rare let alone 3 goals that showed beautiful skill in the first, composure in the second, and pure determination in the third. Though in truth on the day there was very little between most players, Sambou breaking the play well, Arthurworrey and Donnelly shackling Ikpeazu and Tanner, both full backs bombing on and aiding attacks, the wingers for their guile in opening up space and creating chances, Woodrow for his strength and determination in the battle, Rodak for some fine saves and ability to cope under corners in their plentiful, Hyndman for his range of passing and ability to unlock the defence with one pass.
There must also be major credit to Steve Wigley, who carried on the youth philosophy in playing free flowing attacking football with a completely new side from the names we were used to hearing as well as allowing some of the younger players to step up and show what they had, Norman, Sheckleford, Smile, Redford, Leacock-McLeod.
Dembele’s final hat-trick (1 of 3 for him this season, 8 scored by Fulham players in total) left him 1 short of Tankovic’s 18 for the season (though Tankovic played 10 more games), with the Swede crowned top goal scorer.
Muamar Tankovic 18
Moussa Dembele 17
Cauley Woodrow 15