REPORT BY TOMMY LAWLESS
Sone Aluko’s scrambled second half strike proved enough to consign Rotherham to relegation from the Championship as Fulham finally took advantage of a Sheffield Wednesday slip-up to move into the play-off positions. Paul Warne’s side have long been beleaguered at the foot of the table so confirmation of their demotion was not a surprise – the finality of it will be tough to take for a proud man who was managing with a hand tied behind his back for much of season. Fulham were far from their best in Yorkshire, but Aluko’s predatory instincts lifted the Whites into the top six for the time since September.
Rotherham, whose 2,000th home league fixture won’t be looked upon with much fondness, began with a purpose after Warne opted to play a compact midfield four that initially befuddled Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen in the middle for Fulham. But the home side failed to take advantage of catching Slavisa Jokanovic’s side cold, with no greater culprit than Danny Ward, who should have found the net having got between Tomas Kalas and the recalled Michael Madl, to reach Joe Newell’s devilish cross – but headed wide.
David Button’s reflexes were tested by Lee Frecklington’s long-ranger curler that looked destined for the top corner before the Fulham goalkeeper clawed it away to safety. Fulham saw plenty of the ball and stroked it around patiently, but struggled to create clear-cut openings as they sought to capitalise on Wednesday’s failure to hold onto a narrow lead at Oakwell in the Yorkshire derby. Aluko skewed a hopeful effort wide from the edge of the box – and you could almost hear Jokanovic bellowing for more during the half-time team talk.
Fulham’s Serbian head coach should have got his wish shortly after the break. A quick counter attack saw Neeskens Kebano fly down the left and, Cairney, cleverly drew the last defender, to present Chris Martin with the simplest of finishes, but the striker, who kept his composure with a vital finish for Scotland in midweek, falling to find a telling touch with the goal gaping.
The Millers might have made Martin pay a heavy price merely seconds afterwards when Jon Taylor stabbed his shot straight at a grateful Button after Newell had cut the ball back to the six-yard line. The game was becoming far more stretched – something that you felt would suit Fulham’s penchant for lightening breaks under Jokanovic and so it proved.
The goal was a good old-fashioned scramble though – owing much more to sheer persistence than style. Scott Malone burst into the box but Stefan Johansen’s shot was bravely blocked by Darnell Fisher and a Cairney effort ballooned up to Chris Martin, who flicked a header down. Substitute Floyd Ayite swung a boot at the loose ball only for his shot to bounce off goalkeeper Lewis Price, but Aluko did finally force home from barely two yards out. It was a horribly untidy goal – but that mattered little to the delirious 1,200 Fulham fans behind the goal
It was after Aluko’s intervention that Fulham’s comfort in possession came into its own, largely blunting the bottom side’s spirited attempt to rescue something from the afternoon. Rotherham’s revival bid was derailed by untimely injuries to Fisher and skipper Frecklington and when Ward appeared favourite to atone for his early miss, Ryan Fredericks arrived to block the shot on the stretch. The clearest chance came in stoppage time but it dropped to the wrong man in centre half Aymen Belaid as the Tunisian defender shot wildly over the bar.
This was from the sort of convincing performance Fulham might have wanted to turn in against a side that has long been marooned to the foot of the table, but in many ways the graft to grind out a narrow victory was impressive. It could indicate that Jokanovic’s side are peaking at the right time – and Jokanovic and company will head to Derby on Tuesday in very good heart.
ROTHERHAM UNITED (4-4-2): Price, Vaulks, Fisher (Purrington 76), Ajayi, Belaid; Frecklington (Forde 76), Smallwood, Taylor, Newell; Ward, Morris. Subs (not used): O’Donnell, Kelly, Wood, Bray.
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Button; Fredericks, Malone (Ream 90+4), Kalas, Madl; McDonald; Johansen, Cairney; Kebano (Ayite 63), Aluko (R. Sessegnon 90+2), Martin. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Sigurdsson, Petsos, Cyriac.
GOAL: Aluko (66).
REFEREE: Tim Robinson (Sussex).