Having striven for so long to reach the Championship’s top six, you would have thought finishing there was hard enough. But Fulham’s focus now switches to some of the most high-intensity and high-pressure football known to man with barely a few days recovery time. But as Slavisa Jokanovic plots a potential to Wembley, you can forget about the credentials of Reading, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town, Fulham’s toughest opponent will be history.
A Get West London article this afternoon outlines that the stats aren’t on Fulham’s side when you consult the recent Championship history. Based on final finishing places alone, twice as many sides have won the play-offs when finishing in third and fourth than those who ended up in fifth and sixth. Nine of the 24 sides to reach the top flight via the play-offs since 1992 having finished the regular season in third, including West Ham, Swansea and Bolton. Just four made it to the promised land from sixth – Crystal Palace (twice), West Ham and Blackpool.
But, of course, the picture is far bleaker than that if you consult Fulham’s own dreadful play-off record. It might have been nearly twenty years since the Whites have played their part in this particular end of year drama, but the omens aren’t good. In 1989, Fulham faced Bristol Rovers in the Division Three play-off semi-final and performed pretty well in the first leg at Twerton Park – only to be sunk by Gary Penrice’s second half strike. There was devastation in the second leg as Fulham were swept adrift by four goals without reply, with Penrice, Devon White and Ian Holloway running riot after Michael Cole had missed a glorious chance to put Fulham back in it. On their big night, a promising Fulham side totally froze.
The drama of the 1997/98 play-off semi-final against Grimsby Town was just as absorbing – and ultimately heart-wrenching. Fulham had stumbled into the Division Two top six despite spending some of Mohamed Al-Fayed’s millions in an attempt to achieve back-to-back promotions, finishing the season with three consecutive defeats. Al-Fayed immediately pulled the trigger on the unloved Ray Wilkins, whose penchant for sideways passing football bordered on the soporific, installing chief operating officer Kevin Keegan as manager for the play-off campaign. A Fulham side featuring the evergreen Peter Beardsley flattered to deceive again, with Paul Moody sent off as the Whites managed only a 1-1 draw in the first leg, and, after Paul Peschisolido was dismissed early in the second leg for an atrocious tackle, the Whites were beaten by a late goal from Kevin Donovan. Your teenage correspondent with inconsolable.
It is often said that the play-offs are the closest thing to Cup football that a sometimes formulaic league campaign offers. The games come thick and fast and, with so many riding on the outcome and the pressure – especially with the Premier League as the final prize – these fixtures often replicate the tension of a local derby. The reward often goes to the side who can keep their head, as Fulham’s previous painful play-off experience demonstrates.
Fulham’s current players and staff will tell you that these records are there to broken and what happened in another century is ancient history. That may well be so, but the sense of foreboding stays with the fans. Momentum does count for a fair bit in the play-off lottery, though, and the Fulham faithful can only hope that the confidence and belief generated during the Whites’ incredible run in the second half of the season can carry them towards Wembley on a surfeit of adrenaline. Or, as Thomas Ford so memorably claimed, there’s no better way to prove that all history is bunk anyway.