Any aspirations that Fulham held of figuring in the Championship promotion picture were dealt a hefty reality check this afternoon as Slavisa Jokanovic’s side were beaten at Burton Albion in one of the Brewers’ best ever victories, according to a delighted Nigel Clough. A predatory strike from skipper Stephen Warnock and a disputed second-half penalty were enough to secure Burton’s first ever win over Fulham, who flattered to deceive, even after Oliver Norwood’s excellent equaliser and will have had plenty to ponder on the trip back to London.
Warnock’s first goal in more than three and a half years was a fitting reward for the hosts’ enterprising start to the fixture, which seemed to catch Fulham cold. The former Liverpool left back, operating as a wing-back in Clough’s defensively disciplined 5-3-2 system, punished some diabolical defending to stab home into unguarded net after Sean Scanell had scampered onto Jake Burton’s searching pass down the right. How the former Crystal Palace forward managed to gain enough time and space to advance inside Tim Ream was questionable, but the ricochet from Norwood’s sliding tackle took the loose ball out of the reach of David Button and allowed Burton the tonic of early lead.
Fulham’s possession football was far too patient at times, but the visitors probed with regularity outside the Burton box. Sheyi Ojo had already spooned an early effort over Stephen Bywater’s bar, but Norwood was guilty of lifting a much more presentable opening high into the home fans from close range after Stefan Johansen’s smart cut-back. Bywater was then called into action to repel Floyd Ayite’s low drive at his near post following fine interplay between the Togolese international, again operating as a false nine, and Neeskens Kebano.
The visitors did eventually fashion an equaliser just after the half hour although it owed a bit to good fortune and much to Norwood’s ambition. The pass into the Northern Ireland midfielder’s path by Johansen benefited from a looping deflection but Norwood’s low drive from 25 yards was a thing of real beauty, arrowing into the bottom corner beyond a beaten Bywater. Jokanovic would have expected his charges – so dominant in possession – to kick on from this point but they failed to make their press home their advantage when on top, which has been the story of a frustrating campaign to date.
Indeed, it was the home side who went closest to reestablishing their lead before the break. Lucas Akins curled an effort from range into Button’s arms but the former Brentford goalkeeper was well beaten by a low drive from the industrious Jamie Allen that came back off the far post. Fulham fashioned openings for Kebano, who sent a header on the strech wide, and Ayite nearly intercepted a meek backheader from Ben Turner – but the game was evenly poised at the interval.
Burton began the second period at a high tempo – once again pushing their visitors onto the back foot. They forced a succession of corners and Scanell had a dangerous shot deflected behind, before referee Stephen Martin, who had let a number of robust challenges go unpunished previously, adjudged that Ryan Sessegnon had brought down Kyle McFadzean. It looked a soft spot-kick and insult was added to injury when Akins’ scuffed effort squeezed past Button, who might have felt he could have kept it out.
Jokanovic admitted afterwards he felt the award was ‘strange,’ especially when Martin waved away vociferous Fulham appeals after Turner’s challenge on Ayite immediately afterwards at the other end, but his side failed to take the chances that came their way. Sessegnon did brilliantly to cut a low ball back from the by-line but Ojo struck the crossbar from seven yards out when it seemed easier to find the net. Fulham sent on Rui Fonte in search of an equaliser but, despite the Portuguese forward’s intelligent runs, the best chance fell to Johansen, who drove a volley high into the away fans, after Ayite had sauntered down the left.
Jokanovic then introduced Jordan Graham for Norwood – which might have unbalanced a midfield that was gradually getting on top – and, although white shirts continued to flood forward, they struggled to carve out clear openings in the closing quarter of an hour. The assistant referee’s flag ruled out Ojo’s clever run and finish for offside and the best opening fell to teenager Sessegnon who climbed well to connect with Graham’s deep corner, but guided his header off target.
This was an important reminder of the competitive nature of the Championship for a Fulham side who are still to find their feet this season. Burton battled manfully and their defensive discipline was commendable, largely meriting the precious three points they earned after four minutes of injury-time – but Jokanovic will need to reflect on why Fulham couldn’t translate 70 per cent of the ball into more than two efforts on target.
BURTON ALBION (5-3-2): Bywater; Brayford, Warnock, Buxton, McFadzean, Turner; Allen, Murphy, Akins; Scannell (Lund 77), Sordell (Varney 88). Subs (not used): Ripley, Flanagan, Naylor, Dyer, Mason.
GOALS: Warnock (12), Akins (pen 51).
FULHAM (4-3-3): Button; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Norwood (Graham 79), Johansen; Kebano (Fonte 70), Ojo, Ayite. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Djalo, Odoi, Cisse, Mollo.
GOAL: Norwood (31).
REFEREE: Stephen Martin (Staffordshire).