A combination of a superb strike from the returning Floyd Ayite and a more fortuitous finish from Sheyi Ojo secured a precious three points for Fulham against battling Barnsley at Craven Cottage this afternoon.
Slavisa Jokanovic’s side controlled much of the contest but failed to take their chances until Ayite, who returned to the starting eleven after a month out with a hamstring injury, fired home from 25 yards nine minutes after the interval. The Whites looked set for more home frustration when Tom Bradshaw headed in Barnsley’s first goal from open play since November 18 after Marcus Bettinelli failed to reach Andy Yiadom’s cross, but lady luck smiled on the hosts. The industrious Ojo couldn’t have been going for goal when he floated over a right-wing cross with the eighteen minutes to play but the delivery totally wrongfooted Adam Davies, looping over the Tykes keeper and into the top corner.
The Barnsley goalkeeper enjoyed a jittery afternoon, which began on five minutes when he spilled a speculative free-kick from Stefan Johansen, recovering swiftly enough to repel Tim Ream’s follow-up at close range. Fulham, enlivened by the presence of the busy Aboubakar Kamara up front, started at quite a tempo and might have had an early reward were it not for Davies displaying great agility to turn Ojo’s rising drive over the crossbar.
Barnsley, buoyed both by the this week’s takeover by a Chinese consortium that also includes the Oakland A’s statistical guru Billy Beane and an impressive point at Brentford that ended a five match winless run, gradually found their feet. Harvey Barnes, who had earlier had a penalty shout waved away by the clueless James Linington, had two shots blocked in quick succession before a hurried throw from Marcus Bettinelli dropped straight at the Leicester loanee’s feet. The Fulham goalkeeper, only recently restored to the number one jersey in place of David Button, managed to smother Barnes’ shot and paw the ball away from Mahamadou Thiam, who was waiting to pounce.
Thiam, like Kamara at the other end of the pitch, was proving a real nuisance to the centre halves. He fashioned a wonderful opportunity for George Moncur, majestically bringing down a long punt forward, and slipping in the son of John with a clever pass but the former Colchester midfielder blazed wildly into the Hammersmith End. Fulham finished the half strongly, with Ayite sending a free-kick wide, and then passing up the game’s clearest opportunity on the stroke of half-time – outjumping Ethan Pinnock but heading Ryan Sessegnon’s inch-perfect delivery wide from five yards out.
Ayite was eager to make an impact on his long-awaited return but it seemed as if fate was conspiring against him. He was ready to celebrate the opener five minutes after the break having slid in to send another Sessegnon centre over the line after it had missed Kamara and Ojo, but Yiadom did superbly to readjust his body and desperately hook the ball clear underneath his own crossbar. It would need something special to break the deadlock – and the Togolese winger delivered a couple of minutes later. Little looked on when Ayite darted onto Tom Cairney’s lay-off, but his shot, struck with surprising power fro such a short back-lift, arrowed into the bottom corner with unerring accuracy. There was relief around the Cottage, but especially for Ayite after a frustrating month on the sidelines following his untimely injury at Bramall Lane.
Paul Heckingbottom, who has been assured by new chairman Chien Lee that his position is not under threat, acted swiftly to alter the momentum of the contest by introducing Adam Hammill and Lloyd Isgrove. The lively wingers took just eight minutes to work their magic, having already served notice of their ability to unsettle the Fulham full-backs. Hammill was used as a decoy by Yiadom, who surged down the left after Cairney had been outmuscled in midfield, and sent over a cross that Bettinelli began to come for before stopping and Bradshaw, so unfortunate not to make the Welsh Euro 2016 squad last summer, headed home his eleventh goal of the season. The pouch of penguins amongst the Barnsley support in the Putney End particularly enjoyed the equaliser.
Jokanovic sent on Neeskens Kebano immediately and Fulham kept pushing forward. Their winner was something of a fluke, with Ojo almost embarrassed to celebrate after Davies – who had flapped at a couple of deep cross earlier in the half – totally misjudged the flight of his latest centre, but owed much to the home side’s determination to retain possession and Tim Ream’s searching ball out wide. Barnsley continued to press for a second leveller to mark Heckingbottom’s hundredth game of a transformative spell in charge of the south Yorkshire side with Bradshaw seeing a shot blocked and Gary Gardner spooning an effort into the visiting supporters after space opened up for him, but Fulham held firm for a deserved – if unconvincing – victory.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Kalas, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Ojo (Norwood 87), Ayite (Kebano 70), Kamara (Fonte 81). Subs (not used): Button, Djalo, de la Torre, Piazon.
GOALS: Ayite (54), Ojo (72).
BARNSLEY (4-4-2): Davies; McCarthy, Yiadom, Pennock, Lindsay; G. Gardner, Williams, Moncur (Hammill 61), Barnes (Ugbo 78); Thiam (Isgrove 61), Bradshaw. Subs (not used): Townsend, Fryers, Cavare, Bird.
BOOKED: Yiadom, G. Gardner.
GOAL: Bradshaw (68).
REFEREE: James Linington (Isle of Wight).