They left it late, but Fulham finally ground down a cynical Southampton side to claim a crucial win on the day Craven Cottage paid a fitting tribute to both George Cohen and Pele. Joao Palhinha headed from another clever corner with two minutes to play after Kenny Tete had won a flick on, to restore the Whites’ lead after a wonderful James Ward-Prowse free-kick had cancelled out the hosts’ opener, when the midfielder deflected Andreas Pereira’s shot past Gavin Bazunu.

Aleksandar Mitrovic proved he was human by seeing a stoppage time spot-kick saved by Bazunu after substitute Dan James had been fouled in the area, but the first failure of the Serbian’s sensational season did not prove costly. Marco Silva’s side have made a mockery of the pessimism of the pundits and sit in seventh at the end of the most successful calendar year in the history of London’s oldest professional football club. Cohen, who made 459 appearances for his boyhood club, and Pele – who described the Whites as his favourite English side after playing at Craven Cottage in 1963 – would certainly approve.

The swirling wind and rain did not make this the sort of stylish encounter that Silva’s side have served up this season and a snarling Southampton, very much in the image of their lairy former Luton manager Nathan Janes, gradually inched up the field, looking lively on the counter-attack. Che Adams, who ended Slavisa Jokanovic’s 23-match unbeaten run at St. Andrew’s and is a regular scourge of the Cottagers, had a very presentable early opportunity but Bernd Leno scampered off his line and saved.

There was another scare when Mohamed Elyounnoussi lashed wastefully over from the edge of the box with two Saints forwards free, but Fulham controlled possession and created good chances of their own. Willian whistled a shot just past the angle of post and bar, whilst the bright Bobby Decordova-Reid had a shot blocked. Fulham raised the intensity and they took the lead from a smart set-piece.

Willian’s corner came from the old Manchester United playbook, with the ex-Old Trafford playmaker Pereira on lurking on the edge of area, and the Brazilian’s shot flew past a bewildered Bazunu after deflecting off the unfortunate Ward-Prowse. Fulham looked more fluent at the start of the second half with Pereira prodding wide after Decordova-Reid had retrieved Harrison Reed’s overhit cross. But the hosts were to pay for that prolificacy when Ward-Prowse bent a brilliant free-kick around the wall and into the top corner to haul the league’s bottom side level.

The equaliser enlivened Saints, who suddenly looked likely to go on and grab all three points. Adams still worried the Whites in behind, with substitute Stuart Armstrong offering creativity that had previously been lacking. Silva sent on Tom Cairney and Dan James, with the latter delivering a high-octane, helter-skelter cameo where he gave the ball away three times in quick succession whilst simultaneously threatening the Southampton defence with his pace.

Cairney again made a telling contribution from the bench, with his experience a calming presence in the centre of the park from where the Whites began the wrestle the initiative. The playmaker even pinched possession on the halfway line with a powerful tackle and surged straight at the Saints defence. He eventually released Robinson along the left and although the American full back’s cross was too high for Mitrovic, Bazunu parried it straight to Kenny Tete. The otherwise excellent right back fired over the top.

Southampton were bitty and battled hard, but their direct football was totally transformed from the teams of Adkins, Pochettino and Hassenhattl who all strutted their successfully in SW6. Graham Scott lost control of the contest long before Sam Edozie literally laughed in his face and chuckled heartily at the Hammersmith End after being labelled a cheat for some highly accomplished amateur dramatics. It was the home side who had the last laugh, when Palhinha ghosted away from Stuart Armstrong to nod into the net after Tete had flicked on Pereira’s corner. He wheeled away to celebrate more in relief then ecstasy, but these ugly victories are almost more telling than the Boxing Day stroll at Selhurst Park.

Bazunu did save Mitrovic’s stoppage-time spot kick after flooring James following a comical mix-up between the Saints goalkeeper and Lyanco, but that failure was only academic. Fulham’s fourth home win in seven sees Silva’s side finish 2022 immediately above Chelsea and Brentford. In front of a clutch of club legends who had come to pay their own personal tributes to the gentlemanly George Cohen, the current side might fancy matching Roy Hodgson’s 2008/09 team who finished that campaign in seventh and qualified for Europe. We can dream.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Leno; Tete, A. Robinson, Diop, Ream; Reed (Cairney 62), Palhinha; Decordova-Reid (James 72), Willian, Pereira (Adarabioyo 90+8); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Duffy, Chalobah, Harris, Vinicius.

GOALS: Pereira (32), Palhinha (88).

SOUTHAMPTON (3-4-2-1): Bazunu; Lyanco, Salisu (Lavia 90), Bella-Kotchap, Elyounoussi (Mara 90), Ward-Prowse, Maitland-Niles (A. Armstrong 90), Walker-Peters, Aribo (S. Armstrong 67),, Edozie (Perraud 77); Adams. Subs (not used): Cabellero, Finnigan, Caleta-Car, Diallo.

BOOKED: Elyounoussi.

GOAL: Ward-Prowse (56).

REFEREE: Graham Scott