A hat-trick from French forward Moussa Dembele saw off a brave Reading side and secured Fulham’s passage to their first FA Youth Cup final on a wet evening at Craven Cottage.
Fulham, who fought back from 2-0 down to square matters on aggregate after a pulsating first leg at the Madjeski Stadium, began the brighter of the two sides with Dembele and highly-rated midfielder Patrick Roberts, playing just behind the loan striker, coming to the fore. Quick feet from Roberts provided Fulham’s first chance of the evening, but Reading goalkeeper Lewis Ward managed recover from an untimely slip to smother the ball on the goal-line.
The home side continued to apply pressure with Dembele heading wide from a promising position, but it was far from one way traffic. Centre back Dominic Hyam drove a shot over the bar after a set-piece was only half cleared before full-back Nana Owusu, who was impressive before being forced off with cramp in the second period, miscued an effort from long-range. Owusu was then upended for a free-kick and a powerful drive from distance by Aaron Kuhl was deflected wide.
The complexion of an extremely open contest changed dramatically when some mesmorising close control from Roberts took him around three players on the edge of the box only for his jinking run to come to an end when he was pulled back by Hyam. The referee pointed to the spot and then harshly produced a red card for the Reading centre back, before Dembele calmly dispatched the spot-kick to give Steve Wigley’s side the lead for the first time in the contest.
The visitors switched midfielder Sammi Fridjonsson back to the centre of the defence in a swift reorganisation and almost found an equaliser before the break. The lively Tarique Fosu’s mazy run culminated in a cross that almost caught out Fulham goalkeeper Marek Rodak, who backpeddled and just about clawed the ball away to safety.
Any thoughts that the second half would see Fulham press home their numerical advantage were quickly dispelled as Reading made a lively start to the second period. They grabbed a deserved equaliser from the penalty spot when Emerson Hyndman was adjudged to have brought down Liam Kelly from behind just seconds after what seemed a stronger shout for handball against Ryheem Sheckleford was turned down. The cool Fosu waited for Rodak to commit himself and calmly picked his spot to the goalkeeper’s right.
The ten men weren’t content with just an equaliser. There seemed little danger when the nippy Jack Stacey picked up possession wide out on the right on the halfway line, but he carried the ball towards the edge of the box with purpose as the Fulham defence backed off and then drove an unstoppable shot past a surprised Rodak from 25 yards out. It was a truly sensational goal – and Fulham now faced the prospect of breaking down a disciplined Royals defence to keep their Cup dream alive.
They seemed destined not to find a way past an inspired Ward in the Reading goal. He produced some instinctive saves to keep out a powerful strike from George Williams and then denied Dembele twice in quick succession. Just as it looked as thought it wasn’t going to be Fulham’s night, Dembele found himself in the right place to poke home the rebound after Hyndman’s deflected shot had come back off the crossbar.
Both sides then had chances to win the tie in the final ten minutes. First, Reading, who admirably continued to push men forward despite having played nearly an hour with ten, Tennai Watson produced a brave save from Rodak before Ward saved smartly from Williams and then tipped Dembele’s shot past the post when the former PSG striker was one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
With extra-time looming, the game was decided by a couple of unfortunate mistakes. First, Kelly was dispossessed by the energetic Roberts as he tried to turn deep inside his own territory having received a throw and then, in an attempt to clear the dangerous, the excellent Robert Dickie drove the ball against Dembele and the rebound ricocheted past a helpless Ward and in off the post. Roberts almost made it four in the final minute of stoppage time, but Fulham progress to face the winners of the second semi-final between Arsenal and Chelsea.
FULHAM U18s: Rodak; Sheckleford, Evans, Burgess, Donnelly; Sombou, Smile, Hyndman (O’Halloran 90); Roberts, Williams; Dembele. Subs (not used): Norman, Baba, Leacock-McLeod, Redford.
GOALS: Dembele (pen 36, 63, 89).
READING U18s: Ward; Watson, Owusu (McLellan 57), Dickie, Hyman; Kuhl, Fridjonsson, Stacey, Fosu, Kelly; Cardwell. Subs (not used): Gogic, Shaughnessy, Husin, Taylor-Crossdale.
SENT OFF: Hyam (35).
GOALS: Fosu (pen 51), Stacey (57).