Just as fortune appeared to be eluding Fulham, Tom Cairney produced a moment of individual magic to rescue a point and leave Slavisa Jokanovic’s side very much in the Championship promotion picture. The classy midfielder, released by Leeds at fourteen on account of him ‘being too small’ to make the grade, came back to haunt the Yorkshire side with a majestic curling strike in the fifth minute of stoppage time that left veteran goalkeeper Rob Green grasping at air. A point was the least Fulham deserved from a high-octane encounter, especially after Neeskens Kebano’s rasping drive was inexplicably judged not to have crossed the line having thundered against the crossbar in the first half.
Fulham showed great resilience to claw their way back into the contest against one of the division’s in-form side. That Leeds were ahead at all might have been something of a sore point – given how Gary Monk’s team gained their advantage. The visitors, without the services of key striker Chris Wood who was sidelined by a calf strain, went in front in the fifth minute when Tim Ream, under the slightest of pressure from Souleymane Doukara, sliced his attempted clearance of Kyle Bartley’s swiftly taken free-kick up into the air and past a stranded David Button into the unguarded net. It was the worst possible start to a vital encounter for the hosts, who took some time to come to terms with going behind in such a manner.
Leeds carved out opportunities to extend their lead. Stand-in right Gaeteno Berardi drove in a ferocious effort from the edge of the box after Scott Malone half cleared a corner, but Button proved equal to the shot. Monk’s charges also unsettled Fulham from the outset by pressing the home side high up the pitch and almost profited when Button miskicked an attempted clearance but Kalvin Phillips was closed down before he could get a shot away. The robust nature of Leeds’ approach disrupted Fulham’s usual rhythm and it wasn’t until Ryan Fredericks began surging down the right that Jokanovic’s side offered a potent threat.
The right back eventually surged clear of Charlie Taylor and whipped in an inviting cross but Kebano, stretching every sinew to divert the ball towards goal, only succeeded in turning it wide. Chris Martin met a cross from the opposite flank sent in by Scott Malone, but Leeds’ well-drilled defence mopped up the danger. Cairney lifted an effort wide of goal when a cleverly worked short free-kick arrived at his feet 20 yards out and, minutes later, a flowing move involving the Fulham skipper and Stefan Johansen culminated in Kebano, with a short backlift, beating Green from the edge of the area but the rebound that appeared to cross the line after cannoning off the crossbar was waved away by the officials.
Leeds had a couple of openings at the end of the first period to extend their lead. First, Kemar Roofe caught Ream in possession forty yards from goal and unselfishly sent the recalled Gaetano Pedraza in on goal, only for Button to measure his angles to perfection and repel his low shot at the near post. A swift break featuring Hadi Sakho saw Doukara threaten inside the Fulham box, but Tomas Kalas arrived in the nick of time to repel the danger.
The start of the second half proved rather cagey, but Fulham eventually found the verve and panache that has characterised their recent performances. Critical to their upturn in form has been the return of Kebano, something of a peripheral figure before his trip to the African Nations Cup, but the Congolese winger displayed the tricky combination of clever running and quick to fashion an opportunity on the left angle of the Leeds box – only for his early shot to rattle the side netting.
Teenage substitute Ryan Sessegnon, whose direct running made him much more of an asset in the final third than Scott Malone, drove a shot straight at a relieved Green and another flowing move saw Fredericks dig out a cross to the back post, where Stefan Johansen’s fierce drive was deflected behind by Bartley. Fulham were almost caught cold at the other end when a mesmerising run from Modou Barrow culminated in the Swansea loanee playing in Pedraza, who rattled the near post with a powerful strike.
Jokanovic throw on Scott Parker and Cyriac in search of a precious equaliser and the presence of the veteran midfielder, who drifted into the spaces left as Leeds tired, appeared to galvanise Fulham. The one-time England captain found himself in an advanced position and placed a speculative shot from 22 yards just wide of the far post and gradually Fulham’s patient football began to make an impression. Fredericks and Cairney fashioned an opening down the right flank but Cyriac’s stabbed attempt at a finish lacked the necessary power.
The home side almost found an equaliser ten minutes from time when Johansen nearly punished a crude challenge from Barrow with a curling free-kick that Green athletically turned aside. Fulham continued to push for an equaliser and, an almightly scramble from a set-play after a Sessegnon shot bounced around in front of goal, presented a decent chance for Parker, who failed to keep his volley down.
As the clock ticked down, Leeds lost their commendable composure. Philips was shown a second yellow card for a violent lunge at Parker just outside the box and, although Green tipped over another Johansen free-kick, Fulham’s injury-time assault was only just beginning. The Norwegian midfielder dug out a hanging cross from the right and Cyriac leapt impressively to guide a header towards the corner that Green did magnificently to parry clear. Sone Aluko sent a cross-cum-shot agonisingly across the face of goal, before Cairney broke Leeds’ resistance in the final minute of stoppage time.
With Aluko and Fredericks both in advanced positions on the right flank, Cairney cut inside onto his favoured left foot, making the most of the unusual amount of time and space he had been afforded to curl an unstoppable shot around Green and into the top corner. The frenzied celebrations saw Cairney clamber into the Hammersmith End to enjoy his equaliser with the home fans and Fredericks gleefully punching the air in his wake. The equaliser was the least Fulham’s spirited displayed deserved – and should send Jokanovic’s side to league leaders Newcastle on Saturday in good heart.
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Button; Fredericks, Malone (R. Sessegnon 61) Kalas, Ream; McDonald (Parker 74); Johansen, Cairney; Aluko, Kebano, Martin (Cyriac 75). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Odoi, Madl, Sigurdsson.
BOOKED: McDonald, Johansen, Cairney.
GOAL: Cairney (90+5).
LEEDS UNITED (4-2-3-1): Green; Berardi, Bartley, Jansson, Taylor; Bridcutt, Phillips; Sacko (Barrow 60), Roofe (Vieira 87), Alfonso (Dallas 82); Doukara. Subs (not used): Silvestri, Cooper, Pablo Hernández, Antonsson.
BOOKED: Sakho, Phillips, Barrow.
SENT OFF: Phillips (89).
GOAL: Ream (o.g. 5).
REFEREE: Lee Probert (South Gloucestershire).