It occurred to me during the drive back from Sheffield last night that there might not be a better time to be a Fulham fan. We can all look back fondly on the Tigana promotion season, that magical run to the Europa League final or – if you’re lucky enough – the joy of seeing Johnny Haynes pull on that famous number 10 shirt, but Slavisa Jokanovic’s side’s majestic unbeaten run will take some beating. The spellbinding quality of the football, the belief that is apparent among the squad and the desire to win were all on display at Hillsborough yesterday as the Whites moved just two points behind second-placed Cardiff.
Fulham aren’t supposed to do things like this. It wasn’t so long ago that they were notoriously poor travellers, a soft touch away from home and – even at times last season, likely to be roughed up by physical opposition. Jokanovic’s team have put an end to much of that. It was telling that the Serbian saluted his side’s game management after breaking the deadlock at Wednesday, as the Whites have added more of a steel about them when ahead during this incredible run (perhaps another legacy of competing for four seasons in such a cynical league as the Championship). The Owls kept going until the death but were largely restricted to long range efforts that didn’t unduly trouble Marcus Bettinelli.
For a while, it seemed like Fulham would fall agonisingly short of taking advantage of Cardiff’s crazy finish to their top of the table clash with Wolves on Friday night. The Whites had plenty of the play but a disciplined Wednesday defence kept them at bay. Not that this seemed to unduly perturb Jokanovic’s players. They kept probing away, pushing the home back and passing the ball around, hoping to work an opening. Such confidence in their style of play is probably to be expected when you’ve not been beaten in the league since December 16th, but the pretty possession football also wears down opponents. Aleksandar Mitrovic’s ruthlessly taken winner was the nineteenth goal Fulham have scored in the final fifteen minutes this term – the best record in the division.
The goal had its origins down the left flank in that devastating partnership between Matt Targett and Ryan Sessegnon. Those who just see the scorelines in the paper might remark on the difference Mitrovic has made up front – and boy, hasn’t he just – but the key to Fulham’s very real push for automatic promotion has been Targett’s arrival from the south coast. Not only has the left back freed up Sessegnon to cause trouble further up the field, but his own attacking ability is staggering. Targett has an almost balletic running style and a beautiful first touch. He threaded through a number of brilliant balls in the second half – the easiest of which released Sessegnon down the left for Mitrovic’s winner – and is such an asset to this Fulham side.
Targett’s best pass sent substitute Neeskens Kebano clear on goal in the last ten minutes. The Congolese winger might have sent his shot wide, but his impact on proceedings after replacing the unfortunate Floyd Ayite – whose own substitute appearance was limited to ten minutes by injury – was unmistakable. Within eight minutes of coming on, he’d fashioned a fine chance for Stefan Johansen, linked up with Targett in the build-up to the winner and spurned a couple of openings himself. Quite why Kebano has been missing since the end of January, where he came off the bench to help the Whites come from behind to beat Barnsley, is anyone’s guess but, like last season, his energy as an impact player could prove vital against tiring defences during the run-in.
Jokanovic was insistent after the final whistle that Fulham couldn’t afford to get carried away, even with second spot now within touching distance. Professionalism will now be paramount for the players, who know that the Whites haven’t achieved anything yet. But for the fans, recognising the class of this Fulham side is important. Whatever happens in the final weeks of the season – and, in this crazy league there are bound to be a few twists and turns, this has been a magical few months. It might not get better than this and we should savour the sumptuous football that this fearless team are producing.