Marco Silva received an early lesson in the unforgiving nature of the Championship as he was denied a first win as Fulham boss by Marc Bola’s late strike at Craven Cottage this afternoon. The Portuguese head coach had spoken glowingly of Neil Warnock’s experience ahead of this clash – and the wily veteran’s smart substitutions engineered a Middlesbrough fightback that punished Fulham’s failure to add finishing to their early fluency.
A one-nil lead always feels too narrow in the Championship, especially against a Warnock side that will always battle to the bitter end. Fulham failed to add to a sumptuous strike from debutant Harry Wilson, struggling to create clear cut chances despite dominating the second half. Just as they were building up a head of steam, Middlesbrough caught them shorthanded at the other end. Marcus Tavernier, who had injected energy from the bench, saw his shot bravely blocked by Kenny Tete but the danger didn’t abate and Bola found the bottom corner beautifully after being played in by the impressive Isaiah Jones.
Such was the impetus the away side gained from equalising that they might even have nicked it in the closing stages. Jonny Howson nipped in to seize possession from Fabio Carvalho and fed Tavernier but the winger hurried his shot and it sailed over the crossbar. Paddy McNair sent an ambitious free-kick over as well in the dying embers of stoppage time, whilst Fulham’s attacking patterns seemed disrupted once Silva sent on both Ivan Cavaleiro and Aboubakar Kamara in search of a late winner.
It was a far cry from a first half that Fulham completely controlled. Even Boro’s best opening came courtesy of the home side when birthday boy Antonee Robinson almost sent a wayward backpass into his own goal – the stretching Paulo Gazzaniga, preferred to Marek Rodak in goal, managed to avert calamity by sticking out a leg and conceding a corner instead. Fulham were bright with the ball with Josh Onomah drifting into dangerous positions. One excellent link up with Tete saw him slam a shot into Dael Fry, before he sent Carvalho cruising into space behind the Boro backline only for the youngster’s shot to be blocked.
Carvalho then kept his feet when he might have gone down in the area after bursting onto a Tete pass before Wilson, almost from nothing, bent a brilliant effort goalwards – only for Joe Lumley make a magnificent save. Boro didn’t heed the warning about preventing the Welsh winger from cutting inside onto his left foot. Found by Onomah in the inside right position, Wilson ventured infield, finding enough space to thread a finish through a forest of legs and past an unsighted Lumley.
It felt like left off for Fulham – and it probably should have been. Neeskens Kebano, lively down the left flank, came off his wing and shot for goal but his dipping effort dropped wide of the far post after a wonderfully constructed move from the back. Middlesbrough were gritty and had their best spell in the five minutes before the break, but they were unable to test Gazzaniga.
The second period followed a similar pattern. Mitrovic, who had been booked for poleaxing Howson after a matter of seconds, swapped passes with Wilson and played in Carvalho, whose promising run was crudely ended by Sam Morsy. The ex-Wigan midfielder didn’t get any of the ball, but Keith Stroud waved play on. Mitrovic fashioned another chance for Carvalho with a clever flick on, but teenager’s finish flew over the bar from the edge of the area. Such was his influence that Morsy was reduced to hauling him down in the manner of a rugby forward shortly afterwards.
Warnock reacted swiftly sending on former Fulham youngster Djed Spence and Tavernier and switching systems. Kebano wasted a terrific Tete cross by heading straight at Lumley when Mitrovic was lying in wait and the Serbian striker then sent his own diving header wide of goal after winning a wrestling match with Grant Hall to meet another teasing Tete delivery. It seemed a matter of time before Fulham found a second, with Kebano firing past the far post as he fell to ground at the end of a lightning Fulham break, but the hosts were undone by Boro’s first shot on target.
Bola’s brilliant finish after enterprising interplay with Jones floored Fulham, whose only real chance for a winner came when Wilson raced clear of Bola only to shoot straight at the advancing Lumley and Mitrovic spooned the follow-up high in the Hammersmith End from 25 yards. A disappointing day might have got even worse in the final minute of stoppage time but Tosin Adarabioyo brilliantly denied Tavernier a winner with a brave block.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Gazzaniga; Tete, Robinson, Adarabioyo, Ream; Francois (Cavaleiro 83), Onomah; Wilson, Kebano (Decordova-Reid 76), Carvalho (Kamara 88); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Mawson, Bryan, Seri.
BOOKED: Mitrovic, Wilson.
GOAL: Wilson (29).
MIDDLESBROUGH (4-3-1-2): Lumley; Dijksteel, Hall, Fry, Bola; Howson, Morsy (Jones 72), McNair; Crooks; Watmore (Spence 55), Ikpeazu (Tavernier 55). Subs (not used): Stojanovic, Peltier, Payero, Coburn.
BOOKED: McNair, Ikpeazu, Bola.
GOAL: Bola (77).
REFEREE: Keith Stroud (Hampshire)