This wasn’t a vintage Fulham performance. They never are at this stage of the season. Locked in a titanic struggle against relegation, it is more grit and guts that guile and pretty passing. Scott Parker admitted that beating Sheffield United was a must as he looked for the Cottagers’ survival bid to step up a gear and his side, although clearly in the ascendancy for much of the ninety minutes, just did enough. Ademola Lookman provided the crucial goal – a classy finish – after some artistry from Joachim Andersen had unlocked the Blades defence, although the hosts were indebted to some brave goalkeeping from Alphonse Areola for preserving their slender advantage.
The players’ roars of delight told you everything you needed to know about the importance of this success. In another time, those screams would have been drowned out by raucous Hammersmith End celebrations acclaiming another massive victory. Fulham fought to the bitter end, battling to protect the narrowest of leads – and, while there could be no doubting Sheffield United’s desire, the Blades still look blunt in the final third. Chris Wilder won’t be admitting it yet, but as he alluded to earlier this week, familiar failings in both penalty areas have left his workmanlike side too short to be competitive at the highest level this term.
The transformation in Fulham’s prospects has been stark over the past seven days. Seven points from three games might well have been beyond Parker’s wildest dreams – especially when you consider that two of those fixtures were staged at venues where Fulham have amassed a single league win in seventy years. This was not a complete domination like the one Everton suffered at Goodison Park and had much more in common with the nervy affair at Burnley in midweek, but it was no less important. You measure character in these moments of adversity and Parker’s side seem to have galloons of it.
The hosts tried to play at a high tempo from the outset but, despite buzzing around the Blades box regularly, they struggled to make a serious impression. Aaron Ramsdale flapped at a couple of corners but Fulham’s best openers were speculative shots from outside the area. Lookman saw one deflected wide, sent another straight at the goalkeeper and Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa – restored to the Fulham engine room – fired off target.
It was when Fulham got runners behind the visitors’ back three that they looked the most dangerous. Ivan Cavaleiro, deployed so often as a lone forward this season, had looked lively in a more natural right wing role but spurned a glorious opportunity having darted into the penalty area, lifting an optimistic effort over when a cross appeared more appropriate. Ruben Loftus-Cheek flitted in and out of proceedings in the first period, spooning a shot high from the edge of the area as Fulham’s frustration that their spritely start hadn’t paid dividends began to surface.
Sheffield United had turned the game into a scrappy squabble but struggled to create anything of note, despite Wilder fielding two strikers after making five changes from the side that subsided so sadly at West Ham. Injuries have been the bane of his campaign – robbing the Blades of their regular central defensive trio – and misfortune struck again shortly after half-time when Chris Basham injured a hamstring having sprinted to try and subdue Lookman.
They almost went behind immediately afterwards when Loftus-Cheek tiptoed his way through the penalty area and appeared to have prodded the ball beyond Ramsdale, only for George Baldock to clear off the line. The reprieve was short-lived, though, as the opening goal arrived from a more direct type of football than you usually associate with Parker’s philosophy. Andersen’s cultured through ball travelled from the halfway line to release Lookman on the left edge of the penalty area and, when the winger got a bit of fortune, to progress past the stumbling Ethan Ampadu, he cashed in by lashing a low shot between Ramsdale’s legs and into the net.
Going behind only served to galvanise the Blades, who saw veteran striker Billy Sharp and Ollie McBurnie waste good chances in quick succession that might have survived VAR reviews for offside and they should have been level within three minutes. Sharp was the provider this time, capitalising on a careless concession of possession from Loftus-Cheek to play in Enda Stevens but Areola saved with his feet.
All of a sudden, Fulham were far less adventurous in attack. Ola Aina extended Ramsdale with a rasping drive from distance that needed to be tipped over, but the pressure was being applied at the other end of the field. Areola bailed out his backline again in the final minute of normal time blocking bravely with his feet as substitute Jayden Bogle looked favourite to reach a free-kick dropping dangerously inside the six-yard box. The review concluded there was no case to answer, with both players fully committed to getting a decisive touch.
There were seven minutes of added time for Fulham to suffer through but their bid to reel in Newcastle, now just three points ahead in seventeenth as they head to Old Trafford tomorrow, has now gathered serious momentum. Parker has attested all season that he believed that Fulham were far from done for – his players are now proving him right.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Areola; Aina, Robinson, Andersen, Adarabioyo; Reed, Anguissa; Cavaleiro (Tete 78), Lookman (Decordova-Reid 90), Loftus-Cheek; Maja (Lemina 86). Subs (not used): Rodak, Odoi, Hector, Ream, J. Bryan, Onomah.
GOAL: Lookman (61).
SHEFFIELD UNITED (5-3-2): Ramsdale; Baldock, Stephens, Ampadu, Jagielka (Bogle 80), K. Bryan; Basham (Norwood 51), Lundstram (McGoldrick 74), Fleck; Sharp, McBurnie. Subs (not used): Foderingham, Lowe, Burke, Osborn, Brunt, McGoldrick.
BOOKED: Baldock, McGoldrick.
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Peter Bankes (Merseyside).