So, the big day is finally here. If you are anything like me, the hours since Stuart Attwell’s final whistle sounded on Saturday – setting up a delicately poised play-off semi final second leg at the Madjeski Stadium having absolutely crawled by. Fulham’s improbable tilt for a place at Wembley and the prospect of promotion to the Premier League will be settled in Berkshire this evening, with Slavisa Jokanovic’s side facing opponents who have proven almost nigh on impregnable at home this season.
To draw inspiration given the task at hand, Fulham fans could cast their mind back nine years to recall their last win at Reading – in what was also something of a do-or-die scenario. Roy Hodgson’s side travelled to the Madjeski Stadium in desperate need of a victory, sitting seven points behind third-from-bottom Birmingham City with five games to play. The Whites were on one of the top flight’s longest sequences without an away win – having not won a game on the road since December 2006 – and the Royals were seeking to consolidate their position seemingly clear of the trouble. What happened next and the incredible escape act it inspired went down in Fulham folklore.
Hodgson had switched his system to a fluid 4-4-2 in the lead-up to this fixture, urging his team to be more adventurous with the ball, having, in the words of Simon Davies, ‘bored the players rigid’ with his meticulous Motspur Park drills on defensive shape. The recalled David Healy made an early impression with willing running into the channels, but it was a splendid passing move began by the outstanding Davies that crafted a crucial opening goal. The Welsh winger had seamlessly switched flanks and popped up to work a clever one-two with Paul Konchesky before sending over an inviting cross, which Brian McBride gleefully guided into the net.
The Royals barely mustered a shot in the first 45 minutes with Kasey Keller not extended in the visiting goal and Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes expertly marshalling the Fulham defence. The pattern continued after the break, with the visitors exceptionally unlucky not to extend their lead when Healy floated an inviting ball across the box for the onrushing McBride – only for the American’s fierce strike from the edge of the box to thunder back off the crossbar.
The Madjeski Stadium woodwork was to foil Fulham twice more in the next twenty minutes. First, a powerful header from Hangeland at a Jimmy Bullard corner rattled the frame of goal and, then after Healy had won a promising free-kick 30 yards out a couple of minutes later, the shaggy-haired midfielder’s curling effort also shook the crossbar. It led to a collective groan of disbelief in the away end, the famous ‘that f****** crossbar, we hit it three times’ chant and a good mate of mine nearly getting slung out of the ground for repeatedly smashing the corrugated iron at the back of the stand in frustration repeatedly as he started further vociferous songs.
With five minutes to play, Carlos Bocanegra replaced his compatriot Clint Dempsey as Hodgson sought to protect Fulham’s narrow lead. Reading went more direct – with Steve Coppell throwing on forwards in search of an equaliser – but it was the visitors who continued to attack. McBride saw a 25-yarder deflected away, and nerves jangled as we went into four minutes of added time. Then came a lovely move on the break.
That man Davies worked a clever one-two with substitute Erik Nevland, sprinting into space inside the Reading half, before slipping a sumptuous through ball behind the retreating Royals’ defence for the Norwegian to run onto. Nevland showed ice-cool composure as he raced through on goal, taking one touch to set himself just outside the box and guiding an unerring finish on the run past former Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann to spark scenes of wild jubilation in the away end.
Fulham had ended a 33-game wait for an away win in clinical fashion with two beautifully worked goals and a performance that had Hodgson speaking of the prospect of ‘miraculous escape’. It was a vital victory that fostered a real belief amongst a tight-knight group of players and set in train the foundations for the most successful period in the club’s history. Oh, how we’d long for a repeat tonight …