We might never know just how pivotal the last forty minutes of this afternoon’s astonishing game against Reading proves in the context of Kit Symonds managerial career. With chairman Shahid Khan watching a second insipid display in four days from the director’s box – and the manager already feeling the pressure of life in a brutal Championship – it certainly felt as though Symons tenure was close to its conclusion when former Fulham striker Orlando Sa punished a catastrophic error from Tom Cairney and danced around Tim Ream to give Reading what looked like an unassailable two-goal lead at Craven Cottage.
What followed was nothing short of remarkable. The home side, who looked hesitant and were outplayed by their high-flying visitors in the first period, scored three goals in six second-half minutes to completely transform the contest. An instinctive moment of magic from skipper Ross McCormack set up them on their way, with the Scottish striker flicking up a pass from Ryan Tunnicliffe and finishing clinically on the half-volley. The Whites were determined to make the most of their lifeline and were level four minutes later, when the ever-dangerous Moussa Dembele slid in to turn Lasse Vigen Christensen’s low cross home from close range.
Reading looked shell-shocked – and worse was to follow. Cairney won possession in midfield courtesy of a strong challenge and a searching pass released Dembele, whose first time ball sent Alex Kacaniklic clear. The Swedish winger had plenty of time to think about the finish as he bore down on Ali Al-Habsi, but calmly slotted his effort inside the near post with a modicum of fuss. The fightback had been so sudden – and so simple – that Kacaniklic barely broke his stride to celebrate the turnaround.
The absorbing contest still had a couple more turns in store. An increasingly frustrated Sa, who had celebrated his goal with a few gesticulations to the Johnny Haynes Stand, became involved in a physical battle with Richard Stearman but failed to make the most of his best chance, which came when Joe Lewis misjudged a corner, and his header was scrambled to safety via the knees of Ryan Fredericks. Instead, it was Fulham who scored a decisive fourth – and Dembele certainly saved the best until last.
The French striker, who is close to agreeing a new four-year contract with Fulham, played a beautiful one-two with McCormack before collecting his strike partner’s sumptuous backheel and effortlessly caressing his finish into the far corner. He nearly made a fifth but McCormack’s delicious dink was nodded off the line by Chris Gunter with Al-Habsi beaten. Fulham were now rampant, a far cry from a first half where they looked largely lethargic and were beaten to most of the second balls.
A flowing Royals move in the twelfth minute produced their opening goal and hinted at the quality that has seen Steve Clarke’s side challenge the early pace-setters Brighton and Hove Albion at the top of the table. Breaking at speed after a Fulham move broke down, Reading strikers Sa and Matej Vydra linked up outside the box and the Czech weighted a perfect ball behind the home defence, which allowed Lucas Piazon to drive home his second goal for Reading. The visitors should have been more than a goal to the good at the break with Sa, Nick Blackman and Piazon all spurning good opportunities to extend their advantage – something they would later rue in light of that alarming second-half collapse.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Lewis; Richards (Kacaniklic 37), Husband, Stearman, Ream; Tunnicliffe, Cairney, Christensen, Fredericks; McCormack, Dembele. Subs (not used): Lonergan, Burn, Garbutt, Parker, Woodrow, Smith.
BOOKED: Christensen, Fredericks.
GOALS: McCormack (50), Dembele (54, 74), Kacaniklic (56).
READING (4-2-3-1): Al-Habsi; Gunter, Obita, McShane, Hector; D. Williams (Alex Fernandes 86), Norwood (Tshibola 70); Blackman, Lucas Piazon (John 70), Vydra; Sa. Subs (not used): Bond, Cooper, McCleary, Hurtado.
BOOKED: Blackman, Gunter, Obita.
GOALS: Lucas Piazon (12), Sa (49).
REFEREE: Fred Graham (Essex).