There’s a way to view this point as an encouraging one for Fulham. Derby, the form side in the division, had won their last seven matches, not conceded for six games, returned to west London full of confidence after snatching a late victory at QPR and were flying up the table under Steve McClaren. Despite conceding the opening goal, Fulham showed plenty of resilience to overturn the deficit and played some excellent football during the second half, putting the Rams under pressure. But, leaving Craven Cottage, the palpable feeling was that this represented a missed opportunity, with Alex Pearce’s header fifteen minutes from time reminding Slavisa Jokanovic’s side just how unforgiving the Championship can be.
Fulham’s cause wasn’t helped by an untimely injury to their most impressive centre back. Tomas Kalas, so imperious since moving along the King’s Road on loan, could be sidelined for more than two weeks with a hamstring strain and his partner in the first half, Ragnar Sigurdsson, was withdrawn at the break. The Icelandic international made a horrific mistake for Derby’s opening goal, mistiming his slide to intercept Johnny Russell’s through ball, allowing Tom Ince to race clear and slip a low finish past David Button. Fulham finished the match with Kevin McDonald as a makeshift centre back, which might have contributed to the defensive disorganisation that afforded Pearce a free header at the near post from a corner.
For much of the contest, a neutral observer might have thought the home side were the Championship’s form team. Fulham began with pace and purpose and Lucas Piazon, deployed puzzlingly on the left wing when his physical presence might have made him a more natural replacement for the missing Chris Martin, slammed a powerful shot straight into Pearce after a flowing more. Tom Cairney, who was quieter than in recent weeks at the heart of the Fulham midfield, sent two ambitious efforts over the bar from distance before the Rams began to grow into the game.
The returning Chris Baird, who had a solid afternoon at right back, almost picked out Johnny Russell with a dangerous cross before Ince slashed at a shot and send it wide. Fulham’s reprieve was merely temporary as the former Hull and Blackpool winger scored his seventh goal in as many games by clinically capitalising on Sigurdsson’s awful error. The goal only seemed to galvanise Fulham with Ryan Fredericks proving a potent threat down their right side. The full-back drove a shot straight at Scott Carson and sent a low cross scuttling across the face of goal before, in the first minute of stoppage time, he surged into the penalty area and threaded a cross into six yard box so inviting that Floyd Ayite had the simplest of tasks to convert from close range.
The home side began the second half on the front foot as well. Sone Aluko, whose pace and power might have posed more a problem to Baird in the wide left position, swerved an effort fractionally wide of the far post and Madl might have done better than to divert Stefan Johansen’s dangerous corner wide of goal. The Norwegian took things into his own hands just after the hour mark, stroking him his fourth goal in four matches after excellent approach play from Aluko, although Carson was left hapless by a deflection off Richard Keogh.
Derby upped the tempo in search of an equaliser as McClaren introduced former Fulham forward Darren Bent from the bench with Button, who had earlier almost single-handedly restored the Rams’ lead when he tried to feint his away around a Derby attacker and nearly sent the ball ricocheting into his own net, making a strong save to deny Russell at his near post. But the goalkeeper was at fault when the visitors did restore parity, failing to come and collect Ince’s inswinging corner – allowing the unmarked Pearce to power home a header at the near post.
Fulham had chances to regain the lead when Aluko drilled a shot too close to Carson after fine work from Scott Malone down the Fulham left and Lucas Piazon rattled the Hammersmith End crossbar with a venomous free-kick. There were a couple of encouraging touches for teenager Stevie Humphreys, who made his senior debut with an eye-catching cameo, but Derby could – and perhaps should – have clinched the points when Bradley Johnson appeared to go clean through despite being held back by Madl. Referee Andy Woolmer opted to stop the game and caution the Austrian and an intriguing contest ended all square.
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Button; Fredericks, Malone, Kalas (Madl 31), Sigurdsson (Parker 45); McDonald; Cairney, Johansen; Ayite, Piazon, Aluko (Humphreys 86). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Odoi, Kebano, Smith.
BOOKED: Fredericks, Johansen, Madl.
GOALS: Ayite (45+1), Johansen (61).
DERBY COUNTY (4-2-3-1): Carson; Baird, Olsson, Pearce, Keogh; Butterfield, Johnson, Bryson; Ince (Weiman 90), Russell (Camara 65), Vydra (Bent 65). Subs (not used): Mitchell, Shackell, Hanson, Hughes.
GOALS: Ince (34), Pearce (75).
REFEREE: Andy Woolmer (Northamptonshire).