Jay Stansfield scored the winner on his return after knee surgery as Fulham’s under 23s beat Nottingham Forest tonight.
The teenage striker turned home Kieron Bowie’s cross to settle a tense contest at Alfreton Town. Stansfield was making his first appearance since November and grabbed his fourth goal of the season to secure a tenth straight league victory after Forest had fought their way back into the match. Steve Wigley handed goalkeeper Alfie McNally an under-23 debut whilst promoting under-18 centre back Charlie Robinson.
Stansfield returned from his period on the sidelines and looked lively from the outset – shooting agonisingly wide of the far post from the edge of the area after just three minutes. Referee Greg Rollason then waved away voicerfous Forest shouts for a penalty when Lewis Salmin tumbled under a challenge from Idris Odutayo and Andy Reid’s side went close again when Will Swan had a low drive bravely blocked by Matt Dibley-Dias.
The visitors went straight up the other end and threatened themselves when Adrion Pajaziti firing an effort just off target from range. Five minutes later and the league leaders hit the front. Kieron Bowie seized upon a mix up between Alex Gibson-Hammond and Swan to win possession and sauntered past Fin Back before finding the bottom corner with a fabulous shot that gave goalkeeper Nicky Hogarth no chance.
Fulham went close to doubling their lead seconds later when Ollie O’Neill headed against the post from Luciano D’Auria-Henry’s cross. The visitors were playing some lovely stuff with the Irish youth international floating a devilish ball just out of the reach of Stansfield and Bowie. By contrast, Forest had been restricted to potshots from range – with McNally called upon to keep out a powerful effort from Julian Larsson. Swan struck a drive wide as Forest finished the first period on the front foot – and the hosts got a leveller five minutes after the interval.
Parity was restored courtesy of a wonderful individual goal from Ateef Konate. There appeared little danger when he picked up possession just outside the area but the French attacking midfielder darted away from his marker and found the top corner with a magnificent curling effort. Ten cagey minutes followed before Stansfield seized his chance from close range after O’Neill had failed to make contact with Bowie’s ball in.
The former Exeter forward was then foiled by Hogarth’s legs when he might well have settled matters before skipper Sonny Hilton almost scored from the acutest of angles with seven minutes to go. Hogarth denied Hilton from twelve yards in stoppage time after bringing down Bowie in the box, but fortunately that miss was to prove academic. Another win sees the young Whites move fourteen points clear of Norwich at the top of the table.
NOTTINGHAM FOREST UNDER 23s (4-4-2): Hogarth; Gibson-Hammond (Fewster 45), Back, Mbe Soh (Hanks 70), Donnelly; Fornah, Konate, Barnes, Larsson; Swan, Salmon (McDonnell 66). Subs (not used): Wright, Collins.
GOAL: Konate (51).
FULHAM UNDER 23s (4-2-3-1): McNally; D’Auria-Henry, Larkeche (Bowat 75), Odutayo, C. Robinson; Pajaziti, Dibley-Dias; Hilton, O’Neill, Stansfield (Tiehi 75); Bowie. Subs (not used): Borto, Araujo, Lanquedoc.
BOOKED: Larkeche, Odutayo.
GOALS: Bowie (27), Stansfield (61).
REFEREE: Greg Rollason