If Slavisa Jokanovic was seeking a statement of intent from his Fulham side in the immediate aftermath of committing his future to the club, then this was it. The Whites swept aside one of their closest rivals in the race for a top six spot in the Championship with a performance that combined energy, verve and critically a cutting edge to fire a winner to those sides above them occupying the play-off places.
Fulham were on the front foot from the off as the occasion might have demanded. Preston, roared on by a raucous travelling support – numbering in excess of 3,000 on Gentry Day, were physical and well-drilled by their experienced manager Simon Grayson but the home side, emboldened by Jokanovic’s three changes that introduced the in-form Kebano alongside the returning Chris Martin and the precocious talent of teenage full-back Ryan Sessegnon, whose determined raids down the left posed real problems throughout the afternoon.
The home side played plenty of pretty passing football, encapsulated by the way in which Tom Cairney sent Ryan Fredericks surging clear down the Fulham right – only for no white shirt to be arriving in time to touch home the full-back’s low cross. North End signalled that they certainly weren’t interested in getting men behind the ball when Jordan Hugill mistimed a jump at the back post and propelled a Daryl Horgan cross over the bar. The latter man drew the first save of the afternoon when David Button gathered his speculative effort, but that only seemed to galvanise the home side.
Captain Tom Cairney was becoming increasingly influential but his first sight of goal was foiled by a block from Paul Huntingdon and a smart save from goalkeeper Chris Maxwell, but Preston’s reprieve didn’t last long. Fulham’s opening goal arrived midway through the first half. A fine flowing move from a left-wing throw in saw Neeskens Kebano reach the byline from a Sessegnon throw and the Congolese winger delivered a perfectly weighted cross that Sone Aluko powered into the bottom corner with aplomb.
Jokanovic’s charges could have doubled the lead when some tricky feet from Cairney carried him away from at least three yellow shirts and the midfielder, voted London’s Championship player of the year in midweek, had the presence of mind to play in the overlapping Sessegnon, who drove a right-footed effort towards goal but Maxwell smothered the shot. Cairney soon created another opening for the rampaging Kebano, who also stung Maxwell’s palms with a placed drive.
Some of Fulham’s football towards the close of the first period was sensational and the hosts squandered a couple of excellent opportunities. The lively Kebano skipped away from a few tacklers and Stefan Johansen located the forward run of Kevin McDonald, only for the Scot to miscue a drive from the edge of the box. Maxwell was called upon to push away a Tomas Kalas header from a corner, but North End served notice of their potency on the break when a swift-counter attack following the set-play culminated in Aiden McGeady’s low drive that brought a good save by Button.
Fulham began the second half in ambitious fashion when Kebano, whose confidence has shot up since his successful return from the African Cup of Nations, smashed in a shot from an incredibly tight angle that Maxwell did well to save. From the ensuing corner, Kalas appeared favourite to reach a Sessegnon set-play but Tom Clarke diverted the ball away from danger. Moments later, a lightening Fulham break saw Johansen work an opening from Cairney, only for Huntingdon to throw himself in front of the shot – and the ball rolled away to safety.
The two Preston centre backs had their hands full in dealing with the recalled Martin and had largely nullified the on-loan Derby striker – only to leave him horribly free in the 57th minute. The Scottish international finished his opportunity with consummate ease, tucking a measured finish into the bottom corner, but the goal owed much to Ryan Fredericks’ sense of afternoon. The Fulham full back surged forward and, taking encouragement from the fans, cut inside to drive towards the edge of the box before playing a wonderful through ball that doubled Fulham’s lead.
The visitors had already been enlivened by the arrival of Callum Robinson off the substitutes’ bench and they grabbed a route back into the contest. The peerless McGeady collected the ball down the right and ran at Fulham’s retreating back four, but the Irish international took his time and picked out substitute Tom Barkhuizen, who raced through on goal and shot clinically across a largely helpless Button. Grayson urged his side forward and they caused Fulham a few hairy moments, none more so than when Robinson jinxed his way towards the penalty area only to shoot high in the Putney End from fully 20 yards.
Just as things seemed set for a nervy finish, Fulham put the contest beyond Preston. The tricky triumvirate of Sessegnon, Aluko and Kebano worked their way through a tired North End defence with the Nigerian threading a ball down the left side of the box, before Kebano fired a third through Maxwell’s legs from a terribly acute angle to secure another precious three points to fire Fulham’s promotion push.
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Button; Fredericks, Kalas, Ream, Ryan Sessegnon; Cairney, McDonald, Johansen (Parker 80′); Sone Aluko (Odoi 88′), Kebano; Martin (Cyriac 84′). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Malone, Madl, Sigurdsson.
GOALS: Aluko (22), Martin (60), Kebano (77).
PRESTON NORTH END (4-4-1-1): Maxwell; Cunningham, Clarke, Huntington, Spurr; Tom Barkhuizen, Browne (Pearson 57), Johnson, Horgan (Robinson 57); McGeady; Hugill (May 81). Subs (not used): Lindegaard, Boyle, Gallagher, Makienok.
BOOKED: Pearson, Cunningham.
GOAL: Barkhuizen (68).
REFEREE: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire).