That rarest of things – a Tom Cairney header – kept Fulham’s Wembley dream alive after a tempestuous Championship play-off semi-final first leg ended with the Whites and Reading level pegging. For a while, it appeared as if the Cottagers’ play-off hoodoo would strike again, especially once Jordan Obita had rocketed the Royals in front with their first shot on target of the contest, but Fulham are far from the fragile side Slavisa Jokanovic inherited back in December 2015. Their feisty response to going behind demonstrated the character that carried them into the top six and it was fitting that Cairney, who has blossomed in the league’s leading creative force since being handed the Fulham captaincy, both started and finished the move that drew the home side level.
Jokanovic would have felt that his side should have gone on to establish an advantage ahead of Tuesday’s return leg at the Madjeski Stadium, especially when Reading skipper Paul McShane was shown a straight red for a horrid lunge at Kevin McDonald, but parity sets the stage for an intriguing denouement in Berkshire. Jaap Stam’s side have only lost two home league games all season, whereas Fulham often appear far more suited to the counter-attack and have been one of the division’s strongest performers on the road.
Reading eschewed the open and expansive approach that had seen them ripped apart at Craven Cottage in December, instead appearing to opt for a combination of cynicism and physicality designed to disrupt Fulham’s flow. That it worked so successfully was in part down to the laissez-faire approach of Stuart Attwell, who declined to book four Royals offenders for robust challenges inside the first fifteen minutes, including Danny Williams, who had been dismissed on his last visit. When the official did eventually caution John Swift it was for egregious time-wasting ahead of a Reading corner, something that Attwell had allowed to occur from the fifth minute.
Fulham began cagily, something encapsulated by an almost calamitous collision between Tim Ream and Tomas Kalas that almost let Lewis Grabban sprint through on goal, and there were only fleeting flashes of the fluent football that had earned a play-off spot. The recalled Floyd Ayite and Scott Malone linked up down the left to fashion a glorious chance that Sone Aluko stubbed wide and Malone then lifted his own effort over the Putney End crossbar. Cairney, who lingered on the periphery of proceedings for much of the first period, curled an early sighter wide of Ali Al-Habsi’s far post.
Jokanovic opted for Chris Martin as his lone forward and the Scottish international fought a running battle with Reading’s three centre halves, with his lay-offs and link-up delivering crucial territory but little penetration. Ayite scampered away down the left in first half stoppage time but snatched at his shot and Fulham’s profligacy in front of goal would be punished after the interval.
The home side were incensed that Attwell ignored both a clattering challenge on Stefan Johansen and a clear handball by Williams, but Fulham’s defence was still far too easily parted by McShane’s determination to carry the ball deep into enemy territory and when the centre back threaded a threatening pass into the path of the overlapping Obita, the wing-back rifled an unstoppable finish across Marcus Bettinelli and into the net via the inside of the far post. Suddenly, the Royals were buoyant and Yann Kermogant, the sort of striker from whom a moment of brilliance is not far away, almost doubled the lead with an ambitious dipping volley that barely cleared the crossbar.
Fulham’s riposte was rousing. Martin pounced on a Reading defensive lapse and found the marauding Stefan Johansen, whose venomous shot was fielded by Al-Habsi. Jokanovic then threw on Neeskens Kebano, whose eager running immediately unsettled the Royals defence, and Cairney began to dictate matters from a more advanced midfield position. He sprayed a sensational one-touch pass out to Malone down the left and kept on running, becoming the beneficiary when Al-Habsi couldn’t hold the left back’s ferocious drive – heading past the goalkeeper from close. Reading had led for less than eight minutes.
Fulham couldn’t fashion a second in an absorbing finale that was sparked by McShane’s senselessly high tackle on McDonald. Ayite ballooned a drive into the Hammersmith End and, in the final minute of added time, Ryan Fredericks sent the most inviting of crosses across the face of goal – and no-one in a white shirt had gambled to be able to apply the finishing touch.
FULHAM (4-1-2-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Malone, Kalas, Ream; McDonald; Johansen, Cairney; Aluko (Cyriac 87), Ayite, Martin (Kebano 61). Subs (not used): Button, Odoi, R. Sessegnon, Parker, Piazon.
BOOKED: Malone, McDonald.
GOAL: Cairney (65).
READING (5-3-2): Al-Habsi; Gunter, Obita, McShane, Moore, Blackett; D. Williams, Evans, Swift (van der Berg 74); Kermogant, Grabban (Mendes 68; Illori 82). Subs (not used): Jaakola, Beerens, Popa, McCleary.
BOOKED: Swift, Kermogant.
SENT OFF: McShane (82).
REFEREE: Stuart Attwell (Nuneaton).