If Fulham are to reached the promised land of the Premier League, they’ll have to make history. The Whites have never won a play-off fixture and haven’t been back to Wembley since the 1975 FA Cup final heartbreak at the hands of West Ham – and a frustrating evening at Pride Park suggested that Slavisa Jokanovic’s side hadn’t fully recovered from the shock of their 23 match unbeaten run ending at the same time as their automatic promotion hopes against Birmingham City last weekend.
Fulham began this tie against Gary Rowett’s men as the bookmakers favourites to return to the top flight, despite their unenviable record in the play-offs. They were similarly fancied last season – and a bitty tie bore a certain resemblance to the night at the Madjeski Stadium last May when the Whites’ hopes were extinguished by a workmanlike Reading side. Derby were well-drilled and efficient, becoming the first Championship side since Sunderland in December to stop Fulham from scoring, with Cameron Jerome’s bullet first half header giving the Rams the slenderest of leads to take into the second leg at Craven Cottage on Monday.
Despite Jerome’s header being Derby’s single shot on target, they were good value for a victory that based around blunting Fulham’s fluent football as well as Jokanovic’s key performances. Curtis Davies was inspired at the heart of the home defence, chaperoning Aleksandar Mitrovic throughout, with Tom Huddlestone spraying the ball around superbly in midfield. The veteran’s perceptive pass freed Craig Forsyth down the left and the defender’s lofted cross was perfect for Jerome to attack at the far post, where Matt Targett stood little chance of competing. The striker, a rumoured summer transfer target for Jokanovic, headed emphatically past a beaten Marcus Bettinelli to score his fifth goal in four games since being brought back into the side by Rowett.
The goal sent the Pride Park faithful into overdrive and Jerome and the lively Tom Lawrence posed real problems for a strangely lethargic Fulham, who struggled for a foothold in the contest. With Mitrovic effectively marked out of most of the proceedings, the visitors lacked a focal point in attack. Ryan Sessegnon struggled to get on the ball, smashing two shots wide of goal off his weaker foot either side of half time, whilst the recalled Floyd Ayite flattered to deceive on the opposing flank.
Jokanovic’s side gradually cranked up the pressure after the break. Kevin McDonald almost produced another peach of a long-range effort from nowhere, smacking a shot against the crossbar with Scott Carson well beaten after surging onto a clever Mitrovic lay-off. Ayite almost sneaked in after a flowing passing move and then spurned the best chance of the match, laid on by a superb searching ball from Stefan Johansen, when he spooned a shot over the bar with just the goalkeeper to beat. Cairney saw one effort from the edge of the box brilliantly beaten away by Carson and sent another curler agonisingly wide.
Derby almost stole a second on the break as the first leg reached a gripping denouement. Substitute Ikechi Anya stooped to connect with a Lawrence cross from the right at the near post but the ball eluded the Scottish international, whilst Denis Odoi found himself in the perfect position to head over his own crossbar with Lawrence and David Nugent well placed in the middle. Jokanovic threw on Neeskens Kebano and Lucas Piazon in search of an equaliser, but the Whites will have to break that seven-match play-off hoodoo on Monday if they are to make a return to the stadium Shahid Khan is close to purchasing.
DERBY COUNTY (3-4-2-1): Carson; Forsyth, Davies, Keogh; Huddlestone, Johnson, Wisdom, Weimann (Hanson 90); Lawrence, Vydra (Anya 68); Jerome (Nugent 68). Subs (not used): Roos, Pearce, Ledley, Palmer.
BOOKED: Weimann, Johnson.
GOAL: Jerome (34).
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett, Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Johansen (Norwood 88), Cairney; Ayite (Piazon 76), R. Sessegnon (Kebano 76). Subs (not used): Button, Christie, Kalas, Kamara.
REFEREE: Roger East (Wiltshire).