Slavisa Jokanovic told his Fulham players to be brave and trust in their ability ahead of the Easter weekend and the Whites furthered their promotion push with a display full of flair, intelligence and grit as they made light work of both Norwich City and adversity at Carrow Road this afternoon. The visitors, leading by Stefan Johansen’s terrific strike, were dealt what appeared to a match-turning blow when, just before the half-time whistle, Chris Martin was sent off for what an alleged elbow on Mitchell Dijks. But, in a measure of the resilience and belief Jokanovic has instilled in his charges, Fulham didn’t fold – and instead increased their lead through a Tom Cairney penalty. Even when Cameron Jerome halved Norwich’s arrears with a bullet header and the Canaries piled on the pressure, Fulham failed to panic and made the game safe at the death through the excellent Floyd Ayite.
This was a commanding away from performance – underlining why the Cottagers have the third best record on their travels in the Championship. The visitors were progressive from the off, firmly intent on imposing their style on Alan Irvine’s side after Norwich had demolished another of the play-off contenders, Reading, last weekend. They took the lead from their very first attack after an intricate move engineered a chance for Martin, whose effort was blocked, and Stefan Johansen drilled a sweet strike into the bottom corner from 20 yards out. It was nearly two three minutes later when a lightning break saw Ayite cleverly work in Cairney, whose shot was smothered by John Ruddy.
Norwich huffed and puffed in front of a restless Carrow Road crowd but struggled to play their way through a Fulham defence expertly marshalled by Tomas Kalas and Tim Ream. The returning American did superbly to flick an Alex Pritchard cross away from danger – and the visiting rearguard protected Marcus Bettinelli, who distributed the ball excellently, until the final minute of the first half, when the academy graduate produced a brilliant reaction stop to claw away Timm Klose’s header.
Then came Martin’s sending off, which enraged Jokanovic and the Fulham coaching staff. Martin and the physical Dijks had fought a battle for much of the first period and the big Dutch defender went tumbling to the ground after the pair contested a goalkick in the air as Martin backed into him. Referee Andy Madley immediately produced a red card despite being fifteen yards away from the incident – and the dismissal for violent conduct could rob Fulham of their focal forward point for the remainder of the Championship run in, save the final-day showdown with Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.
If there was a tone of resignation amongst the travelling support at half-time, it didn’t take long for that to give way to ecstasy. Madley quickly seized upon an opportunity to level up his questionable decisions – awarding a spot-kick for Ryan Bennett’s challenge on Kalas at a free-kick and, perhaps more remarkably, after a long wait, Cairney sent Ruddy the wrong way with the modicum of fuss from twelve yards. Suddenly, the ten men had a two-goal advantage to hang onto – although Fulham spurned glorious chances to put the game to bed, with Johansen and Cairney losing their composure in the penalty area. At the other end, Kalas and Ream headed away a succession of Norwich crosses to keep things under control until Irvine summoned Cameron Jerome from the bench.
The former Cardiff striker, a frequent scorer against Fulham, served notice of his threat by twice drifting in behind Ream and getting shots away before he powered home a free header from a floated Pritchard cross to set up a nervous final fifteen minutes. The visitors withstood a succession of Canaries corners, with Russell Martin stabbing a shot goalwards that blocked at source, and Bettinelli then did well to beat away Pritchard’s speculative drive from distance before the former Brentford midfielder saw a free-kick deflected just wide.
Just as the tension was becoming unbearable and Jokanovic had appeared to invite further home attacks by introducing Ragnar Sigurdsson as a third centre half, Fulham killed off the contest with a beautiful move that saw Ayite work a glorious one-two with Lucas Piazon, before ghosting in behind the Norwich defence, befuddling Ruddy with some nifty footwork and running the ball into the empty net before sparking delirious scenes in front of the South Stand. Jokanovic was moved to come and salute the travelling fans alongside his players at the final whistle – no doubt recognising that the desire and diligence displayed this afternoon will be invaluable in the last four fixtures.
NORWICH CITY (4-2-3-1): Ruddy; Dijks, Pinto, Klose (R. Bennett 45) , R. Martin; Tettey, Howson; Hoolahan (Jerome 57), Jacob Murphy (Josh Murphy 64); Oliveira. Subs (not used): McGovern, Whitaker, Wildschut, Naismith.
BOOKED: Hoolahan, Howson, Jerome, Pinto.
GOAL: Jerome (75).
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Malone, Kalas, Ream; McDonald; Johansen (Sigurdssson 81), Cairney; Aluko (Piazon 70), Ayite (Kebano 90+6), C. Martin. Subs (not used): Button, R. Sessegnon, Parker, Cyriac.
BOOKED: Malone, Bettinelli, Piazon.
SENT OFF: C. Martin (45).
GOALS: Johansen (5), Cairney (pen 48), Ayite (90).
REFEREE: Andy Madley (Yorkshire).