Fulham will have to settle for the Championship play-offs after blowing their chances of automatic promotion falling to a disappointing defeat at Birmingham, who stayed up on the final day of the season.
A win would have secured a top flight return for Fulham after Cardiff could manage a goalless draw at home to Reading. But goals from Lukas Jutkiewicz, Harlee Dean and Che Adams ensured the hosts beat relegation on the final day and denied the visitors second place.
Tom Cairney briefly made it 2-1 but the Blues went down the other end to seal three points through Adams, as the Whites defence parted like the Red Sea. It means Slavisa Jokanovic’s men will have to rely on their play-offs – still smarting from last season’s defeat by Reading – where they will first have to overcome a dangerous Derby County side to make their return to the top flight after a four year absence. Given that Fulham have never won a single play-off fixture, we could have done without such season-extending agony.
Credit must go to Birmingham who finally clinched their place in the Championship with a nerveless showing on their own D-day that saw them survive comfortably after nine months of utter agony. They finished five points clear of the drop, which feels astonishingly when you remember quite how much was riding on this fixture, and thoroughly deserved to. The Blues were better in every department – seeing off Fulham’s early threat when Aleksandar Mitrovic missed out on converting Matt Targett’s cross. The left back faded badly in tropical second city heat, rather like the Cottagers’ own promotion push.
Jutkiewicz, so often the man to come up with a goal when Blues badly needed it, gave the hosts the lift they required after a quarter of an hour. The Polish forward showed Mitrovic just how to finish when he turned home a low ball in from Wes Harding to spark delirious celebrations. The surprise was that Fulham largely failed to test their former goalkeeper David Stockdale in response. Cairney sent a sighter wide from 25 yards and Stockdale was only required to make a smothering save from Stefan Johansen, but Birmingham scored a vital second right on half time.
Fulham’s soft underbelly at set pieces was exposed again as shocking marking allowed ex-Brentford defender Dean to creep around the back of a crowd of players to head home Jota’s free-kick. Stockdale saved again from Cairney in injury time and Birmingham – once again – had the better of a frenetic second half. Sam Gallagher and Jacques Maghoma forced fine reaction saves out of Marcus Bettinelli, but the match burst into life just as it appeared to be meandering towards a tame conclusion.
Cairney gave Fulham hope of a turnaround when he headed home from six yards out with five minutes to play and, when Stockdale tipped over a dipping Mitrovic header a minute later, the scene seemed set for an all-out assault on the Birmingham goal. The Whites threw numbers forward in search of an equaliser but were caught out in the last minute as substitute Adams escaped along the left flank. He advanced into the penalty area, with Denis Odoi backing off bizarrely, and beat Bettinelli with a strike that felt like it had lifted the roof off a buoyant St. Andrew’s.
BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-4-2): Stockdale; Harding, Colin, Morrison, Dean; Kieftenbeld, Davis, Jota, Maghoma (Robinson 90+1); Jutkiewicz (Adams 62), Gallagher (Gardner 71). Subs (not used): Kuszczak, Roberts, Dacres-Cogley, N’Doye.
BOOKED: Davis, Colin.
GOALS: Jutkiewicz (15), Dean (43), Adams (89).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Bettinelli; Fredericks (Christie 72), Targett (Kamara 45), Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Johansen; Piazon (Ayite 64), R. Sessegnon, Cairney; Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Button, Kalas, Norwood, Fonte.
BOOKED: Kamara, Odoi, McDonald.
GOAL: Cairney (85).
REFEREE: Stuart Attwell (Nuneaton).