Fulham warmed up for a first taste of the play-offs in nearly two decades with a first win at Hillsborough since December 1973. Viv Busby, John Conway and Les Barrett were on target the last time the Whites had taken three points away from a trip to Sheffield Wednesday and Slade topped the Christmas charts – and this timely result was all the more impressive given that Slavisa Jokanovic’s side had surrendered the lead following a precise Sam Winnall strike. The visitors took an awful long time to get going, but Neeskens Kebano drove home a first-time shot after good work from Denis Odoi and, after Marcas Matias had seen red for a spiteful lunge at Sone Aluko, the Tologese winger headed home Lucas Piazon’s free-kick with eleven minutes remaining.
There was the slimmest of chances that the away side might not have made the top six, but any hopes of a seismic goal swing in Leeds’ favour, evaporated when Fulham midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe put Wigan in front against Garry Monk’s side. Tunnicliffe’s parent club looked like the side who had made a host of changes in the early stages in south Yorkshire as Carlos Carvahal’s heavily-rotated Wednesday made a bright start, with strike pairing Jordan Rhodes and Winnall making an early impression against the Fulham side. By contrast, Jokanovic’s side were uncharacteristically sluggish – perhaps missing the midfield energy of the rested Stefan Johansen – and horribly sloppy in possession.
The Owls got the goal their lively start merited after nine minutes, although referee Graham Scott gave them a helping hand by intercepting a pass from Fulham centre back Tomas Kalas, who had began a promising excursion up field. Wednesday broke quickly, with Kieran Lee releasing Winnall, who surged into the penalty area and squared up Tim Ream, before shooting clinically across Marcus Bettinelli to notch his third goal since joining from Barnsley in January. A splendid ball over from the top from Liam Palmer sent Rhodes haring down on goal moments later, but Bettinelli was quickly off his line to scoop up the danger.
Fulham’s passing lacked its usual precision but, with Kevin McDonald to the fore, the visitors become recovering some of the rhythm to their football and built up a fair bit of pressure. Returning right back Odoi had struggled to beat the first man with a number of low crosses from the right, but when he did, Kebano was perfectly placed to power an excellent finish beyond Joe Wildsmith. The Wednesday goalkeeper, making a rare start in place of the Owls’ player-of-the-season Kieran Westwood, was entitled to feel aggrieved as he hadn’t been tested prior to picking the ball out of the net.
The visitors should have got in front just before the half-hour mark. Tom Cairney’s inswinging corner befuddled the Wednesday defence only for Chris Martin, making his return after his sending off at Carrow Road on Good Friday, to guide his header wide of goal from six yards out. The context of the contest had completely changed and Fulham’s crisp passing was creating plenty of openings, with a sweet move involving Cairney, Kebano and Aluko culminating in a first-time effort that Piazon pulled wide.
Wednesday certainly weren’t out of it and might have felt disappointed not to be back in front before the break. Rhodes pulled away into the left wing position, outfoxing Odoi and sending a cross towards the back post where Winall’s effort was blocked at source, before McDonald managed to produce a goal-saving intervention to deflect Lee’s follow-up fractionally wide of the far post. The game turned decisively in first-half stoppage when Matias, in what might be his final act as a Wednesday player, reacted to Aluko stripping him of possession by recklessly taking his retribution on the Nigerian winger with a two-footed tackle from behind and earning his marching orders. It was a particularly brainless tackle as Aluko was under pressure bringing the ball away from his own box.
Martin should have put Fulham ahead before the half-time whistle when he brought down a high ball majestically only to be denied by an excellent reaction save from Wildsmith and the Scottish striker was also repelled early in the second period by the Wednesday keeper before Scott Malone smashed an effort against the crossbar from five yards out after his own cross had been deflected back towards him. Fulham were suddenly rampant with the goalkeeper excelling himself again to turn away Piazon’s curling effort and Lee superbly blocking a shot from the recently introduced substitute, Floyd Ayite, before Malone somehow failed to put the finishing touch to another flowing Fulham move.
Against all the odds, the ten men of Wednesday built up a real head of steam midway through the second period. Winnall and Rhodes were a real focal point against a rejigged Fulham back five and the hosts could have restored their lead when Sam Hutchinson surged into the space down the left and delivered an inch-perfect cut back for Vincent Sasso, only for the defender to shoot straight at Marcus Bettinelli.
Both managers made further changes, with Jokanovic’s decision to replace Cairney after Kebano had won an attacking free-kick infuriating Malone and Piazon, who had earmarked the Fulham captain as the target for a special routine on the edge of the box. The Serbian head coach had the last laugh, though, as when Piazon whipped the ball in, Kebano climbed to flick a header over the advancing Wildsmith that was diverted over his own goal-line by David Jones.
Piazon should have added a Fulham third a minute later after substitute Ryan Fredericks powered his way down the right to produce a great cross which the Brazilian volleyed wide. The visitors, with Scott Parker dictating the slower pace of proceedings now from the middle of the park, were content to utilise their numerical advantage on the vast Hillsborough pitch, stroking the ball around at will before McDonald sent an ambitious 25-yard drive over the bar. Fulham could have wrapped things up in stoppage time after Kebano ran fully seventy yards to reach a fine through ball from Ayite, sprinting into the penalty area – only for Wildsmith to pull off a stupendous fingertip save to deny him a hat-trick, although both Martin and Piazon wanted the ball worked square where they were in oceans of space.
Fredericks and Parker both gave away silly free-kicks in a finale that was tenser than it should have been – but Ream and McDonald won important headers to clear their lines and Fulham held on to record Wednesday’s first defeat in seven matches. Jokanovic insisted Fulham were ready to take on all-comers afterwards and, given their sensational end to the season that has seen them overturn an eleven-point deficit on Leeds, few would argue with him.
SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY (4-4-2): Wildsmith; Palmer, Fox, Sasso, Semedo; Hutchinson (Emanuelson 74), Jones, Matias, Lee (Buckley 61); Winnall, Rhodes (Nuhiu 77). Subs (not used): Dawson, Hunt, Bannan, Reach.
SENT OFF: Matias (45).
GOAL: Winnall (9).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Bettinelli; Odoi, Malone, Kalas (Fredericks 69), Ream; McDonald, Cairney (Parker 78); Aluko (Ayite 61), Kebano, Piazon; Martin. Subs (not used): Button, R. Sessegnon, Johansen, Cyriac.
GOALS: Kebano (25, 79).
REFEREE: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire).