It is difficult to concisely summarise all the carnage contained within around a hundred minutes of football at Bramall Lane last night. Slavisa Jokanovic has always subscribed to an attacking footballing philosophy designed to challenge both his on skillful footballers as well as the weaknesses of Fulham’s opponents, but this almost kamikaze football that resembled the Kevin Keegan approach supplemented by steroids. The Whites hadn’t won at Sheffield United, who were aiming to return to the top of the Championship last night, since Leroy Rosenior snatched all three points in April 1985 but their wrote several pieces of history in a display full of desire, verve and panache – all whilst starting without a recognised striker.
Young Ryan Sessegnon gained all the plaudits in the morning papers – and the seventeen year old’s feat of scoring a senior hat-trick, comprising of two sensational finishes and a more prosaic one, on his 50th Fulham appearance certainly should be celebrated. BBC Sport’s social media accounts last night proclaimed Phil Foden, who stepped off the bench for Manchester City in Holland, the best English 17 year-old having seemingly forgotten Sessegon’s still mindblowing rise from highly-rated academy graduate to one of the first names on the Fulham teamsheet. He became the second youngest scorer of a domestic treble in professional football and became the first Fulham player to register a league treble away from home since Paul Moody nearly twenty years ago.
There’s no doubting Sessegnon’s talent, but it was funny seeing the national press boys fall over themselves to question how long the Roehampton boy, who rebuffed interest from across England and Europe, to sign a three-year deal with the club who gave him and his twin brother the pathway all the way through to the first team, would deign to stay at Craven Cottage. There was more than a hint of irritation in Jokanovic’s responses to the flurry of questions along this line that followed the final whistle. ‘It is always the same question – Ryan, Ryan, Ryan,’ smiled the Serbian. ‘Ryan is growing up in the right direction, he is a young player with a clear head,m he wants to improve and learn. He wants to be better in the future. We will try and support him, but he had the support of his team-mates tonight’.
The Times’ Mike Whalley, whose surname proved particularly appropriate constructed his whole match report around a narrative that Donald Trump – were he remotely concerned about such things – would instantaneously have condemned as fake news. The report suggested that the meticulous Chris Wilder hadn’t realised Sessegnon had scored a hat-trick until he was asked about it in the post-match press conference and claimed that the Fulham youngster had left Bramall Lane without the traditional memento of a match ball. That would be news to the delirious visiting supporters who waited around to acclaim their heroes after a pulsating contest that had left half the team flat on their back when David Linington finally ended the agony – and saw Sessegnon gripping his prized possession tightly. Never let the truth get in the way of an attractive angle, eh, Whalley?
Sessegnon is probably the most composed teenager I’ve ever made – and he hasn’t let his already phenomenal career go to his head. He’d be the first to admit that his outstanding individual achievement owed much to the endeavour of his team-mates, especially the returning Liverpool loanee Sheyi Ojo, who was virtually unplayable during a virtuoso display that totally vindicated Jokanovic’s decision to field England’s Under 20 World Cup winner as part of a fluid front three that didn’t include Rui Fonte or Aboubakar Kamara. Ojo, easily recognisable from the garish go-faster blonde streaks in his hair, ghosted behind the Blades back-line on numerous occasions and gleefully seized upon catastrophic mistakes from Cameron Carter-Vickers to give Fulham a firm foothold in the contest.
By the second half, Ojo was running riot and, when he had been joined by Kamara after the hour, Fulham looked like they could score on every single counter-attack. The pair combined for a fourth goal that deflected past the on-loan Chelsea keeper Jamal Blackman, but owed much to Ojo’s decision to pull the trigger early rather than pause in front of goal. The 20 year-old definitely benefited from a decisive break with Jokanovic’s previous tactics as the Whites went more direct to exploit the space behind the Blades’ well-drilled backline – and Fulham reaped the rewards all night long.
Barring the early aberration that afforded John Flack too much time to advance on goal – and ultimately handed Leon Clarke the first of three strikes – Fulham’s midfield functioned well. Kevin McDonald added both ballast and his usual prompting from the base of the centre three on his return to one of his former clubs, Ollie Norwood was quietly efficient at spreading the play and Tom Cairney, who revealed afterwards that his troublesome knee ‘was almost there,’ sprinted into oceans of space regularly – something that was greatly appreciated by the Whites’ overworked back four during the six minutes of stoppage time. The captain’s most priceless intervention, however, when substitute James Hanson headed for goal as the Blades piled forward – it looked destined for the net, until Cairney somehow hooked the ball off the line.
There are plenty of things for Jokanovic to work on in the days ahead but Fulham should reflect on what a positive statement it was to prove their mettle in the city of steel. Only seven sides have scored at Bramall Lane so far this season – and United had only let in four goals at home prior to last night – but Fulham ran them ragged. This was the first time a Fulham side had scored five away from home since 1988 and not since Exeter in 1993 had the Whites been involved in a league game where more than eight goals had been scored. It is no exaggeration to say the visitors could have scored more, as unbelievable as it sounds.
Jokanovic had joked before that watching Fulham in the final few minutes was not a healthy activity. The last ten minutes of this already heart-bothering battle sent pulse rates and blood pressure racing to alarming levels amongst the 600 travelling away supporters. Just when you thought following Fulham away was settling back into the mundane pattern of meek surrender, Jokanovic’s men morphed into the great entertainers and produced one of the all-time classics. It might just be the turning point in Fulham’s season. We can dream.