If the makers of a footballing dictionary needed to define the sucker punch, they’d probably include a picture of Ollie Norwood’s late penalty at the Riverside Stadium this afternoon. The Brighton loanee’s spot-kick in the fifth minute of stoppage time handed Fulham, who had been pushed onto the back foot by Tony Pulis’ sense of adventure from the first whistle, a barely believable first victory at Middlesbrough in 33 years after the home side had made all the running.
While Pulis will rue costly misses from Rudy Gestede and Britt Assombalonga, Slavisa Jokanovic can salute the spirit of his players after a backs-to-the-wall effort reminiscent of the one that earned Fulham a scoreless draw here in 2015 helped to put their promotion ambitions back on track. The visitors offered more of a threat on the break the longer the game went on and ruthlessly punished Assombalonga for striking the crossbar when he seemed certain to score in stoppage time. Boro were ultimately undone by the fact that failed to register a single shot on target despite promising much in the final third.
Norwood, who was only featuring in the starting line-up because captain Tom Cairney had been only fit enough to take a place on the bench, had a difficult afternoon in Fulham’s swamped midfield but found himself in the Boro box deep into added time. He induced an untimely tackle from the otherwise impeccable Grant Leadbitter and then proved himself Fulham’s most reliable penalty taker by sending Darren Randolph the wrong way to secure an improbable victory. It all seemed so unlikely when Boro began the game on the front foot eager to make the most of the feelgood factor that had accompanied five wins from their last five fixtures.
The home side flew out of the traps eager to make up ground on the top six. They were almost handed the dream start when Norwood underhit a backpass but Rudy Gestede – surprisingly preferred to Britt Assombalonga up front – failed to round Marcus Bettinelli, who had raced to met the Boro forward on the edge of the box.
Middlesbrough’s best moments came from the former Barcelona winger Adama Traore, whose electric pace down the right flank gave Ryan Sessegnon his toughest test in senior football. The swift Spaniard had offered an early warning of his threat when he surged into the penalty area and nearly created a chance for Stewart Downing before seeing his own effort deflect wide off Denis Odoi. Perhaps his best moment came when he outfought Aboubakar Kamara for possession and burst away from three Fulham tacklers on his way to sending in a dangerous cross that was turned behind by the retreating Odoi.
Jonny Howson sent a speculative effort wide from distance before turning provider for the game’s best chance. A glorious through ball split the Fulham centre halves sending Gestede clear on goal, but the former Aston Villa forward again fluffed his lines as Bettinelli advanced – dragging his finish wide as he tried to dink it over the Fulham goalkeeper. Middlesbrough should have been a couple of goals up at the break, but much to the home crowd’s exasperation, Pulis’s side had nothing to show for their dominance.
Slavisa Jokanovic’s side played their ususal passing football – but the Serbian looked furious on the touchline as the first period went by with little penetration. The visitors only found their feet towards the end of the half when, after Stefan Johansen and Kevin McDonald had sent long-range efforts high over the crossbar, Fulham’s best move saw Lucas Piazon release Sessegnon and the full back’s floated cross was headed straight at Randolph by Sheyi Ojo.
With Middlesbrough continuing to enjoy the ascendancy in the second period, Jokanovic’s first change was designed to shore up his side’s position. The Serbian brought on former Middlesbrough defender Tomas Kalas to replace Sheyi Ojo, switching Odoi to left back and allowing Sessegnon to move up to the left wing. The move immediately gave Fulham a new impetus with the seventeen year old beating two Boro defenders and sending over a cross that narrowly eluded Lucas Piazon.
Then came a moment for real fortune for the Londoners. Kalas appeared to have bundled over Martin Braithwaite as both players tussled in pursuit of a cross – but referee Geoff Eltringham waved away Middlesbrough’s vociferous appeals for a penalty. Pulis then threw on Assombalonga, who memorably ended Felix Magath’s Fulham reign with a poacher’s hat-trick whilst he was at Nottingham Forest, in search of a breakthrough and the pacey forward quickly unsettled the reshaped Fulham back four with a couple of intelligent runs.
Fulham were becoming more of a threat on the break. A short corner found Kalas in space at the near post but the centre half lashed a good chance into the side netting – and then the speedy Sessegnon skipped into the Boro box only for the excellent Ben Gibson to produce a goal-saving challenge as he was preparing to pull the trigger. The hosts still enjoyed the lion’s share of the ball and Assombalonga spurned two chances to clinch a vital win in the closing stages. He was crowded out by a combination of Kalas and Bettinelli as he squeezed a shot into the side netting from close range and then, having sprinted away from Tim Ream, chipped the Fulham keeper only for his shot to come back off the crossbar. Assombalonga reached the rebound first, but scuffed his follow-up wide.
By this point, Jokanovic’s men would have been forgiven for clinging on for a point they scarcely merited. Instead, Fulham clinched three precious points that left them just one point outside the top six when Norwood kept his cool to convert the spot-kick he won in the fifth minute of added time. Middlesbrough paid the harshest penalty for Grant Leadbitter’s ill-advised lunge on the Northern Irish midfielder and Norwood picked himself up to fire into the bottom corner from twelve yards.
MIDDLESBROUGH (4-2-3-1): Randolph; Shotton, Friend, Ayala, Gibson; Leadbitter, Howson, Downing, Traore (Johnson 82), Braithwaite (Clayton 81); Gestede (Assombalonga 63). Subs (not used): Konstantopoulos, Christie, Bamford, Fletcher.
BOOKED: Friend, Howson.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, R. Sessegnon, Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Norwood, Johansen; Ojo (Kalas 52), Piazon (Kebano 86), Kamara (Fonte 57). Subs: Button, S. Sessegnon, Edun, Cairney.
BOOKED: Johansen, Fredericks, Odoi.
REFEREE: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).