Thirty five years after Malcolm McDonald’s dream of guiding Fulham back to the top flight died after the intervention of unruly Derby fans at the Baseball Ground, the Whites earned a modicum of revenge on an electric night at Craven Cottage. Second half strikes from Ryan Sessegnon and Denis Odoi carried Slavisa Jokanovic’s side to Wembley as Fulham overhauled Derby’s one-goal advantage from Friday’s first leg, recording their first play-off win in eight attempts at precisely the right time.
It might be too early for Sessegnon to board a flight to Russia with England’s World Cup hopefuls this summer, but the seventeen year-old banished any doubts about his big-game temperment with a finish of the highest two minutes into the second half. The teenager, whose maturity and agility have lit up the Championship for a second successive year, had been denied by a remarkable reaction save from Scott Carson early on but the Derby keeper stood no chance with his powerful left-footed half volley that flew into the top corner after Stefan Johansen had done superbly to chest Matt Targett’s cross into Sessegnon’s path.
It was just the shot in the arm the home side needed after spurning a hatful of chances before the interval. Jokanovic has instilled serious belief in this side, who had to show serious resilience after missing the chance to seal automatic promotion at Birmingham City on the final day of the season, and their waves of attacks on the Derby goal only continued. Twenty minutes later, they scored the crucial second goal. Sessegnon swung over a corner from the right and Denis Odoi, initially a makeshift centre half who has made the position his own at the expense of Tomas Kalas, soared to glance a sublime header inside Carson’s far post.
There was a still a quarter of the game to be played and Derby almost replied instantly with Bettinelli pushing away Jerome’s drive at his near post. Gary Rowett reacted immediately sending on Kasey Palmer and David Nugent in search of a route back into the tie. Derby pushed the Whites back deep into their own half and Palmer almost had an immediate impact, jinking his way to the byline before landing a cross onto the head of Andi Weimann, who nodded over when it seemed easier to score. Fulham still looked dangerous on the break – with Johansen going close twice and Kamara being booked for simulation when he appeared the favourite to round Carson – but the Craven Cottage faithful had their hearts in their mouths when Matej Vydra, coached by Jokanovic at Watford, steered wide from close range in stoppage time.
Fulham seemed enlivened by the inclusion of Aboubakar Kamara from the right wing, with the mercurial Frenchman showing intent to ran at the Derby defence from the outset. Tom Cairney had the first sight of goal but his tame shot after 90 seconds from 23 yards was easily fielded by Carson, but the Whites were much more penetrative in the first half than they had been at Pride Park. They should have taken the lead in the eighth minute when Fulham broke from a Derby corner and Kamara intelligently found Sessegnon with a sweeping pass, but Carson produced a superb save high to his right.
At times in the early exchanges, Fulham appeared rampant. Johansen whistled a drive wide before Mitrovic, mostly anonymous in the first leg, turned Curtis Davies inside out before sidefooting wide. Carson then clawed away a venomous Kamara drive at his near post after the French forward had been released by a wonderful piece of distribution from Marcus Bettinelli. The former England keeper then touched over a rasping drive from the rampaging Ryan Fredericks before displaying incredible reflexes to keep out Mitrovic’s fierce header from a floated Targett cross.
When the Whites headed in scoreless at half time, it seemed as though Fulham might rue not capitalising on their lightning start – but that reckoned without the home side’s rousing second half display. The oldest team in London haven’t made a pilgrimage to the national stadium in 43 years and with the miserly Jokanovic at the helm, they’ll be little chance of Fulham underestimating the task that still lies at. This seemed like an evening for celebrations – especially when many of the capacity crowd poured onto the Craven Cottage turf at full-time in one of the game’s most well-mannered pitch invasions.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks, Targett (Kalas 76), Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Johansen, Cairney (Norwood 90); Kamara, R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Button, Christie, Piazon, Ayite, Fonte.
BOOKED: Johansen, Kamara, McDonald, Bettinelli.
GOALS: Sessegnon (47), Odoi (66).
DERBY COUNTY (3-4-2-1): Carson; Keogh, Davies, Forsyth; Wisdom, Anya (Vydra 67), Huddlestone, Johnson; Lawrence (Palmer 67), Weimann; Jerome (Nugent 75). Subs (not used): Roos, Pearce, Ledley, Hanson.
BOOKED: Huddlestone, Palmer.
REFEREE: Chris Kavanagh (Lancashire).