It might not have been the home win Slavisa Jokanovic craved, but this was Fulham’s most complete display at Craven Cottage this season and, after more than matching a well-drilled Derby County outfit on the cusp of the top six, there was plenty of evidence to encourage the Serbian head coach that there’s light at the end of the tunnel after the Whites barren run. The home side could have clinched all three points – even after Jokanovic’s former Watford forward Matej Vydra cancelled out a peach of a free-kick from Ollie Norwood – had Fulham found the predatory instinct to match their patient probing or if referee Darren Bond given one of two strong penalty shouts.
Perhaps the pleasing element of this entertaining draw came from the manner in which two of the latest highly-rated Motspur Park youngsters took to senior football. Academy graduates Tayo Edun, who looked very assured on his first league start, and Luca de la Torre, such a livewire off the bench in the final half an hour, offered energy and creativity in equal measure. Neither were overawed by the prospect of facing the experienced Derby duo of Tom Huddlestone and Joe Ledley in the centre of the park. Edun was full of running and contributed to the fact that the Rams failed to muster a shot of any description in the first 45 minutes, whilst de la Torre – in his second striking substitute appearance of the season – provided the dynamism that put the Whites back on the front foot after Vydra’s equaliser had threatened to spark a Derby comeback.
Fulham had much the better of the first period, playing at a higher tempo that visibly rattled Gary Rowett’s men. Ryan Sessegnon, released from left back to roam from further forward, burst into the box only to denied by a timely clearance from the excellent Ledley before Norwood, who used the space afforded to him in a deep-lying playmaker role to great effect, delivered a dangerous cross that Floyd Ayite appeared to have headed into the far corner only for Scott Carson to spring to his right and claw the ball to safety.
Derby threatened intermittently, with David Nugent very nearly embarrassing David Button and a surging run from the back by the fit-again Richard Keogh hinting at their ambition, but Rowett’s side struggled to get their passing game going. The Rams boss was furious at the way the visitors went behind just before the half-hour, after referee Bond ignored an incorrect offside flag against Rui Fonte to penalise Curtis Davies for a wild challenge. Nugent that used his hand to repel Norwood’s set-piece and the Northern Ireland international made light of the ball being moved ten yards closer, sending a swerving strike through the wall and past Carson.
The visitors did have opportunities to go in at the break level. Vydra nipped in to nick the ball from a dawdling Tim Ream but the covering Denis Odoi, who was superb at left back, bailed out his centre half with a timely tackle before the American reassuring headed clear an inviting Chris Baird cross with Bradley Johnson setting himself for the finish. After the interval, Craig Forsyth produced a splendid tackle to halt Ryan Fredericks’ raid down the right – and the visitors were level moments later after Lawrence and Vydra punished some sloppy Fulham decision making.
A quick throw from Button was intended to release Sessegnon into space but yellow shirts swarmed around the teenager who surrendered the ball in a dangerous area, allowing Welsh international Lawrence to drive dangerously towards the eighteen yard-box. The former Leicester midfielder found the perfect pass to play Vydra through on goal and the Czech forward slipped his eighth goal of the season beyond the advancing Button to the delight of the travelling fans.
Suddenly, the momentum was all with the visitors. The Rams should have gone ahead five minutes after the goal when Odoi stood on the ball, presenting a glorious opening to Huddlestone. His through ball sent Nugent haring through but Button did well to narrow the angle and parry the striker’s shot to safety. It was the introduction of de la Torre that provided more Fulham penetration with the American youngster almost immediately combining with fellow substitute Aboubakar Kamara as he started and finished a flowing move with a header that looped over Carson’s bar.
The home side had the better chances in the closing stages, even once pantomime villain Chris Martin made another appearance at Craven Cottage, but couldn’t force a winner. Floyd Ayite was furious with himself for lifting Fulham’s clearest opening high in the Hammersmith End and either side of strong penalty claims, when Sessegnon was tripped by Lawrence and Baird appeared to handle against his old side, Tom Cairney – who was free enough from his troublesome knee injury to complete the full ninety minutes – curled a late left-footed drive over the crossbar.
Whilst Jokanovic might have rued another defensive mistake that cost Fulham three points, his side – without the experience of Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen in midfield – pushed Derby back for long periods and delivered a display of real promise. The Whites face a testing trip to league leaders Sheffield United on Tuesday, but at least they’ll have their former Blade back from suspension at the base of the midfield.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Button; Fredericks, Odoi, Kalas, Ream; Edun (de la Torre 64), Norwood, Cairney; Ayite, R. Sessegnon, Fonte (Kamara 60). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Soares, S. Sessegnon, Cisse, Kait.
DERBY COUNTY (4-2-3-1): Carson; Baird, Forsyth, Keogh, C. Davies; Ledley, Huddlestone; Lawrence (Russell 79), Johnson (Weimann 72), Vydra (Martin 72); Nugent. Subs (not used): Mitchell, Pearce, Hanson, Winnall.
REFEREE: Darren Bond