Stansfield shines on the senior stage

It might be a mere footnote in the national football reporting of FA Cup third round day, but there was something ever so touching about the glimpse of young Jay Stansfield greeting his family after his senior debut. The young man, who has had a tough start in life, was almost dragged into the Putney End by his proud relatives following the final whistle – and they had every reason to be delighted with the teenager’s eye-catching cameo that changed the context of what became an enthralling Cup tie.

The Stansfield story is an incredibly personal one. Jay is the eldest son of the lower-league goal grabber, Adam Stansfield, who made a career of being an irritant to centre backs. Shorter than six feet, Stansfield senior posed problems wherever he played, securing promotion to the Football League with Yeovil Town, with whom he also won the FA Trophy, Hereford United and Exeter City. Stansfield went one better with the Grecians, winning promotion to League One, where he scored seven goals before being diagnosed with the colorectal cancer that tragically killed him only four months later.

Stansfield is beloved by Exeter’s fans, who still sing movingly about him at ever game. Their hymns of praise are more than just the recognition of a storied striker because Stansfield was an articulate young man, generous with time and someone who recognised that he was incredibly lucky to earn a living from the beautiful game. I witnessed this first hand as a regular at St. James’ Park when I was at university and also came to rely on Stansfield’s cogent analysis after games as I was compiling match reports and articles as a young sports writer. On one memorable occasion he gave me his thoughts on a particularly physical game as he walked back to his car with no press officer in sight.

Stansfield senior’s memory is more than kept alive these days by a thriving foundation that was founded by his widow Marie, after the idea came to her during his funeral at Exeter Cathedral that drew more than a thousand mourners. It offers opportunities in football for youngsters in Devon, Somerset and Herefordshire, with a particular focus on activities within the game for disabled youngsters, as well as raising awareness of bowel cancer. Such was the impact of the Stansfield foundation that it had raised over £150,000 within four years – and it goes from strength to strength today.

Exeter City deserve far more credit than they have received to date for young Jay’s development. They have raised a respectful and curious young man, with a thirst for the game and a hunger for knowledge, and nurtured his precocious talent into a burgeoning potential that was coveted well beyond Devon. City were rightly miffed when Fulham poached him for relative peanuts this summer – with the then sixteen year old the latest young star to depart for pastures new, following in the footsteps of the likes of Dean Moxey, Matt Grimes and Ethan Ampadu in recent years.

Everyone knew that Fulham had signed a real talent, but Stansfield has blossomed perhaps even beyond their wildest dreams in his five months in south west London. The young man had a steely desire to make it on his own terms and not just benefit from the goodwill that swells through Devon on account of his incredible backstory. He scored on his debut for Fulham’s under 18s and his not stopped since. Stansfield has eighteen goals in eleven under-18 games to date and even scored on his debut for the under 23s against West Ham United in the PL2, bagging a hat-trick against South Shields in the third round of the FA Youth Cup and earning international recognition with England.

His elevation to the senior squad yesterday came as something of surprise, even with Fulham’s recent history of fast-tracking their academy prospects. Stansfield was far from overawed at taking on Premier League opposition and Scott Parker’s decision to introduce him at a point when the Whites were hanging onto a narrow lead offered his side an out ball as well as a genuine threat in the final third they had lacked for much of the afternoon.

Stansfield might be known as a poacher of goals, but he showed in fourteen minutes yesterday that there is much more to his game. His willing runs between James Chester and Bjorn Engels showed an intelligence beyond his tender years as well as a recognition of what was needed to keep Villa honest at a time when they were pressing for an equaliser. He almost made a goal for Anthony Knockaert with a delicious low cross to the back post and might have marked his debut with a goal had Knockaert returned the favour in stoppage time. That emotional moment will come in time, I’m sure – and, given the young striker’s accelerated development, you wouldn’t bet against it arriving sooner rather than later.

You can donate to the Adam Stansfield Foundation here

Parker hopes FA Cup win can build belief

Fulham boss Scott Parker hopes his side can grow in confidence after knocking Premier League Aston Villa out of the FA Cup this afternoon.

The Whites saw their hopes of gaining automatic promotion from the Championship dealt a serious blow when they lost to Reading on New Year’s Day at Craven Cottage. Fulham got back to winning ways with an impressive win over a weakened Villa side thanks to superb strikes from Anthony Knockaert and substitute Harry Arter in the second half.

Knockaert’s individual goal was his first Fulham since September, whilst Arter marked his first appearance for the Whites since October with a goal just 105 seconds after replacing Kevin McDonald. Parker was full of praise for the impact of his brother-in-law:

Both goals were pretty special. But for Harry, in the sense he has been out for three months, he’s worked hard for some long and lonely days, and when you probably doubt what you have, to come on and score the winner probably justifies everything.

So for that moment, and for what it was, probably Harry’s was better. I’m pleased for him, he’s worked hard. He’s got himself a position and had a shot. It was a good moment. He came in at the beginning of the season and is a player we knew would give us something. It’s a shame he had a big injury but we all understand the player we’ve got. It’s moments like this, for both Harry and the team, that we need to build on.

The Fulham head coach was delighted with the application of his side, who coped admirably in the absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic, and the way in which they responded to being pegged back by their top flight visitors.

The result was pleasing and the performance was outstanding. We lacked a bit in the final third in the first half and we spoke about that at half-time, and in the second half we executed it very well. Hopefully we can build on that. Winning football games is vital for us. This team was used to losing and losing becomes a habit like winning does.

Big performances and big wins, against a Premier League side like Aston Villa, build belief. It’s a key moment for us in that sense.

Arter screamer sends Fulham through

Two stunning strikes from Anthony Knockaert and Harry Arter helped Fulham overcome a much-changed Aston Villa side and reach the fourth round of the FA Cup.

Dean Smith made no excuses for altering his starting eleven, with an eye on Tuesday’s League Cup semi-final and trying to secure Villa’s place in the top flight for another season, admitting that the world’s oldest club cup competition had lost something of its sparkle. There was something of an experimental nature of Scott Parker’s line-up as well with Joe Bryan operating as a left-winger in a side that was without a recognised centre forward.

But the absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Aboubakar Kamara allowed a fluid front three to outfox Villa with a combination of movement and probing passing. Bryan survived an early injury scare to turn in an adventurous display in an unfamiliar position, whilst Ivan Cavaleiro and Knockaert interchanged more effectively than they have for most of what has been an individually underwhelming season to date. Fulham began the brighter but struggled for penetration in the final third with a couple of dangerous crosses from Cyrus Christie going uncoverted.

Villa gradually got a foothold in the contest and fashioned a couple of promising openings. Former Brentford midfielder Jota, a regular Fulham scourge in seasons past, drilled a speculative shot just past the post after the home side had failed to clear a free-kick. Jonathan Kodija lost his composure having waltzed past three Fulham defenders, including new arrival Michael Hector who made his debut at centre back, before spooning a shot over from a tight angle whilst Ahmed Elmohamady glanced a free-kick fractionally wide with his head.

Bryan blasted an effort towards goal that James Chester did well to divert wide after another threatening run in from the flank, but it was Villa who should have gone in front on the stroke of half time. Kodija slipped away from the attentions of Alfie Mawson far too easily and squared for Anwar El Ghazi eight yards out, only for the Dutch international to be denied by Marek Rodak, who clawed the shot away at full stretch with his left hand.

A game that had been short on quality in the final third came to life in the second half as both sides sought to avoid a replay they could do without. Knockaert drove infield from the field and fired a shot agonisingly across goal, but Villa failed to heed that warning.

Instead, the on-loan Brighton winger opened the scoring in mesmerising fashion ten minutes after the break. After making a vital tackle in his own area, Bryan presented him with the opportunity to saunter forward down the left, where there appeared to be little danger, and Knockaert seemed outnumbered even as he drifted inside. A hesitant Villa back line stood off, Knockaert worked the ball onto his right foot and curled a mangificent finish around Ørjan Nyland and into the top corner. It felt like the goal he’d been trying to score all season – and it enlivened the Cup tie.

Fulham went in search of a second and Bryan, having opened up Villa’s defence with a one-two at pace with Cavaleiro, drew a sprawling save from Nyland after shooting towards goal from seven yards out. Chester and Bjorn Engels blocked follow-up efforts as Villa scrambled the ball to safety.

The visitors profited from Fulham’s inability to extend their advantage when Jota floated a ball in behind the home defence. Hector looked the favourite to reach it but inexplicably allowed Kodija to drift beyond him. The forward lifted a lovely finish over the advancing Rodak with El Ghazi making sure of the equaliser by rolling it over the line from close range. Fulham looked shaky in the immediate aftermath of losing their lead, with Rodak pushing away a Jota curler as the hosts backed off.

Parker then gave Arter his first taste of action since October and his brother-in-law paid the Fulham boss back into unexpected fashion. There appeared nothing on when the Bournemouth loanee collected a square pass from Stefan Johansen some thirty yards out two minutes later, but Arter’s ambitious strike swerved and dipped into the top corner leaving Nyland pawing at fresh air.

Villa probed for an equaliser without carrying a great deal of threat and Parker’s decision to send on 17 year-old Jay Stansfield, who has been scoring goals for fun at youth level since signing from Exeter in the summer, offered a different type of threat up front. The teenager certainly made an impact on his senior debut, almost laying on another one for Knockaert with a teasing cross from the left, and worrying the Villa defence with his pace. Knockaert could have sealed it late one but, after slaloming his way through the Villa defence, he opted to try and dink a finish over Nyland rather than playing a pass to his right with others waiting for a tap-in.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Odoi, Hector, Mawson; McDonald (Arter 72), Johansen; Onomah (Stansfield 82); Knockaert, Bryan, Cavaleiro (de la Torre 84). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, O’Riley, Harris, Jasper.

BOOKED: McDonald, Knockaert, Hector.

GOALS: Knockaert (54), Arter (74).

ASTON VILLA (4-3-3): Nyland; Elmohamady, Taylor, Chester, Engels; Lansbury, Nakamba (Vassilev 80), Hourihane; El Ghazy (Ramsey 86), Jota (Trezeguet 76), Kodija. Subs (not used): Kalinic, Konsa, Guilbert, Hause.

BOOKED: Nakamba, Taylor, Lansbury.

GOAL: El Ghazi (63).

REFEREE: Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire).

ATTENDANCE: 12,980.

Resurgent Royals punish frail Fulham

New year, same old defensive failings. Any hope that Scott Parker might have banished the shortcomings that have haunted Fulham’s underwhelming promotion push vanished as an improving Reading side recorded an impressive victory at Craven Cottage this afternoon.

The hosts would have had ambitions of cutting the gap between themselves and the automatic promotion places with a victory, but were left licking their wounds after the Royals proved both far more ruthless in front of goal and much more resilient at the other end of the field. Whilst Michael Morrison and Liam Moore kept Aleksandar Mitrovic quiet, Mark Bowen’s men efficiently picked Fulham off on the counter – with well-worked goals from the energetic John Swift and the evergreen Charlie Adam leaving Fulham far too much to do, despite Ivan Cavaleiro’s low drive halving their arrears just after the hour.

Parker reshuffled his pack with Josh Onomah and Tom Cairney unavailable and a rejigged midfield had to cope with more disruption once Harrison Reed succumbed to a knee injury. The Fulham head coach had handed teenager Matt O’Riley a league debut and the much-lauded academy prospect was a willing outlet for the ball throughout, before being harshly sacrificed as the hosts chased an equaliser in the closing stages. It was an act of brutality that made little sense – especially as Fulham are hoping to encourage O’Riley to stay with the club beyond the summer.

The youngster had entered proceedings at a tricky time, with his side a goal down against the run of play. Fulham began brightly, with Rafael Cabral making a stunning double save to deny both Bobby Decordova-Reid and Anthony Knockaert from close range, but allowed their visitors to take the lead from their very first foray forward. Harrison Reed played an ambitious ball that Cyrus Christie was never in a position to reach and Tyler Blackett surged down the left flank before crossing for Swift to caress a finish beyond Marek Rodak.

Reading were quite happy to operate on the break – and they could have been further in front before half-time. Adam wasn’t too far away with an audacious attempt at chipping Rodak from halfway, whilst Fulham’s monopolisation of the ball didn’t translate in any clear-cut chances. Knockaert’s composure deserted him disastrously on a couple of occasions in the final third, whilst Joe Bryan slashed wide when a corner dropped invitingly for him outside the box.

Bowen, enjoying an immensely satisfying return to the ground where he had been number two to Mark Hughes for a season, then saw his side make the perfect start to the second period. Moore typified their sense of adventure, sending a header over from Ovie Ejaria’s ball in, and after O’Riley surrendered possession in the Fulham half, the Royals bounced. Ejaria sauntered past Christie far too easily and Adam arrived at the near post between two flat-footed centre halves to double the lead.

Parker sent Cavaleiro on for Joe Bryan as Fulham went in search of a dramatic comeback. It looked on when the on-loan Wolves winger took advantage of oceans of space down the left to cut inside and find the bottom corner from just inside the box within four minutes of being introduced – but the hosts’ pretty passing football lacked real penetration.

Fulham’s desperation was encapsulated by Mitrovic’s booking for simulation as he attempted to win a penalty and they struggled to fashion a serious opportunity until five minutes from time. Again, Cavaleiro was the outlet, an immaculate bit of close control giving the Portuguese winger time to drive a low shot against the base of post before Aboubakar Kamara miscued the rebound horribly.

Cavaleiro almost created an equaliser in the first minute of stoppage time but Cabral did superbly to claw a dipping Mitrovic header on to the frame of the goal. Reading hung on for a fourth consecutive victory that their organisation and desire probably merited, leaving Fulham to reflect on why their consistent inconsistency has so undermined Parker’s progressive philosophy.

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Christie, Bryan (Cavaleiro 57), Odoi, Ream; Reed (O’Riley 19, de la Torre 83), Johansen; Knockaert, Kamara, Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Mawson, McDonald, Harris.

BOOKED: Bryan, Cavaleiro, Mitrovic, Knockaert.

GOAL: Cavaleiro (61).

READING (4-2-3-1): Rafael Cabral; Gunter, Blackett, Morrison, Moore; Pele, Adam (Rinomhota 63); Meite (Miazga 68), Ejaria, Swift; Joao (Baldock 86). Subs (not used): Walker, Obita, McCleary, Boye.

BOOKED: Pele, Joao, Morrison.

GOALS: Swift (14), Adam (48).

REFEREE: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).

ATTENDANCE: 18,575.

Keep Fighting

My mid-season report is coming two games late this year. Christmas has gotten the better of me, obviously. The good news is that while the first half of our season was an inconsistent one, we are already one point up from the second round of matches based on the matches we have played so far. While our 3-3 draw with Luton on Boxing Day was a disappointing result overall, we can be happy at least with the fight the team showed to come from behind on three occasions while the win over Stoke certainly beats our embarrassing defeat away from home in the reverse fixture.

Going into 2020 we find ourselves in the healthy position of third in the Sky Bet Championship, but a full nine points behind both Leeds and West Brom in first and second. With Leeds travelling to West Brom on New Years Day we have a chance to pull at least two points closer to one of them, depending on the result, if we pick up a win at home to Reading. We’ve had some super results throughout the first half of the season, with the victories over Millwall, Leeds and Reading all showing what we can do, but too many defeats against clubs around the lower end of the table has kept us away from a real automatic promotion battle.

We should have enough to stay within the play-off picture, but we certainly can’t take our position for granted. There’s only six points between us and Blackburn in 13th, so we need to keep picking up wins. If I was Scott Parker, I’d be telling the team to make sure that they better their points total from the first half of the season. When you think of the amount of silly points that we have dropped, I’d be fully expecting that we have it in our capabilities to put things right. The form of Leeds and West Brom over the first half of the season was superb, but can they sustain this? We have already seen Leeds drop a few points recently, while it was Middlesbrough who ended West Brom’s 100% home record on Saturday. Points will be dropped in the coming months, that’s certain, but it’s by who and how many that matters. If we manage to close the gap to six on Wednesday with a win over Reading and either a Leeds or West Brom loss, then this automatic promotion race is far from over.

In my first season covering football outside Fulham, I was at a match between Crusaders and Dungannon Swifts in the Irish Premiership. Crusaders won giving them a 12 point lead at the top of the league, and afterwards I asked manager Stephen Baxter if the title was won. He gave me the usual, very diplomatic answer of “It’s not over until we have our hands on the trophy….” but to be honest nobody really believed him. If they blew it at that stage, it would take a combination of a serious fight from another team and a huge dip in form from themselves. I was also there on the final day of the season when arch rivals Linfield lifted the trophy after an extraordinary run-in saw them somehow pip Crusaders to the title. Crazy things can happen in football. All we can do is control our own results, and if we do that then you never know what might happen.

#coyw

Decordova-Reid sinks Stoke

This was the archetypal game of two halves. For 45 minutes, Fulham were at their fluent best. They passed their way through a hesitant and jittery Stoke almost at will and should have been far further ahead than the single goal that an in-form Bobby Decordova-Reid snaffled at the far post following some dangerous approach play from Anthony Knockaert. But that dominant Fulham were dormant after the break and, only some poor Stoke finishing, prevented them from paying the price for their lethargy as Michael O’Neill’s men finished by far the stronger.

Scott Parker, perhaps bruised by a crazy Boxing Day draw at Luton Town, opted to praise his side’s defensive fortitude after the final whistle. It had been seven games since the Whites had recorded a clean sheet but they were far from convincing, especially after Alfie Mawson had departed midway through the second period having injured his knee again. The nerves around Craven Cottage were palpable in the final ten minutes when Parker replaced ineffectual captain Tom Cairney with Steven Sessegnon and switched to a back five – something which only invited a sustained aerial bombardment from an emboldened Stoke side.

The Potters might consider themselves unfortunate not to have come away with a point. They forced a succession of late corners and Marek Rodak produced an excellent late save at his post to keep out a volley from James McClean after the former Sunderland winger had latched onto a clever flick-on from substitute Sam Vokes. On another day, one of the loose balls that bounced around in the Fulham box would have fallen kindly for a Stoke forward, but the hosts clung on to three precious points.

Such a nerve-shredding ending didn’t appear likely at all as the home side made all the early running. The recalled Anthony Knockaert started as if he had a point to prove, testing Jack Butland with an early cross-shot from the right, before Josh Onomah underlined his recent improvement from the heart of midfield. His strength and desire took him away from Ryan Shawcross and a lovely disguised pass played in Aleksandar Mitrovic, but the Serbian’s precise shot was beaten away by Butland.

Decordova-Reid and Joe Bryan were dovetailing beautifully along the left flank for Fulham, although the former was booked for a professional foul on Tom Ince as Stoke threatened a counter-attack from a Fulham corner. Fulham continued to play on the front foot and, as Knockaert roamed inside, space opened up for Cyrus Christie. The Republic of Ireland international enjoyed a fruitful afternoon at right back and sent over a delicious cross that Mitrovic should have converted instead of planting a free header over the bar from close range.

The chances were mounting up for Fulham and they soon went in front. Another period of probing in front of the Stoke defence culminated with Knockaert finding more space on the right and, although Butland was able to parry the French winger’s low cross, Decordova-Reid was on hand to slide home his third goal in two games. The hosts might have had more before the break but Cairney curled an effort fractionally wide from outside the box and Butland did brilliantly to claw away a Mitrovic header at the far post.

Fulham failed to start the second half with a similar intensity and it was Stoke who created the early chances. Lee Gregory did well to link up with Sam Clucas inside the home penalty area, but the former Hull midfielder could only rasp the side netting with a fierce drive. At the other end, Mitrovic almost released Decordova-Reid inside the box but a fine tackle from Danny Baath prevented him from making the most of the opportunity.

Stoke were seeing far more of the ball than during the first half and Rodak had to be alert to field a speculative shot from Jordan Cousins after an encouraging spell of possession for the visitors. Fulham’s own attempts on goal were far more sporadic: Mawson couldn’t get a clean connection on a corner and dragged an effort wide, whilst Butland produced a superb one-handed save to deny Bryan’s piledriver from distance after a quick free-kick.

As time ticked by, Stoke looked like the more likely scorers. Substitute Tyrese Campbell, who scored the opener in Stoke’s home win over Fulham back in November, snatched a little at an effort that Rodak got down well to smother before Parker’s early withdrawal of Cairney signalled that the Whites were happy to try and hold onto their slender advantage. Stoke, playing with an injured Shawcross as an additional centre forward at this point, threw bodies forward but their clearest chance fell to McClean, who was bravely denied by Rodak.

Ream hacked a late effort from Joe Allen clear from underneath his own crossbar during six minutes of stoppage time and it said everything about how the balance of power had shifted within this contest that Fulham were relieved to hear the final whistle. The victory takes Parker’s side back to third in the table – nine points behind Leeds and West Brom – but the Whites will need to be far more clinical should they wish to mount a serious automatic promotion push in the new year.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Bryan, Mawson (Odoi 67), Ream; Reed, Onomah (Cavaleiro 37), Cairney (S. Sessegnon 84); Knockaert, Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Johansen, O’Riley, Kamara.

BOOKED: Decordova-Reid, Rodak.

GOAL: Decordova-Reid (26).

STOKE CITY (4-3-3): Butland; Smith, Ward (Martins-Indi 42), Shawcross, Baath; Allen, Cousins (Campbell 75), Clucas; Ince, McClean, Gregory (Vokes 69). Subs (not used): Davies, Lindsay, Woods, Biram Diouf.

BOOKED: Ince, Shawcorss, Martins-Indi.

REFEREE: Andy Davies (Hampshire).

ATTENDANCE: 18,747.

Decordova-Reid rescues point for flaky Fulham

Scott Parker had Bobby Decordova-Reid to thank as the on-loan Cardiff forward’s double ensured Fulham left Kenilworth Road with a point having come from behind three times against relegation-threatened Luton Town.

The Londoners might have aspirations of automatic promotion, especially after their feisty win over second-placed Leeds United last weekend, but some generous defending gifted the hosts at least two goals as the Fulham back four appeared to extend the season of goodwill a little too far. It took just five minutes for a first gift to arrive. Marek Rodak played Alfie Mawson into the trouble and the lumbering centre half was robbed by James Collins, who teed up Kazenga Lua-Lua for the simplest of finishes.

Fulham fashioned a spirited riposte three minutes later. Ivan Cavaleiro tricked his way towards the byline down the right flank and whipped over a delicious cross that Decordova-Reid nodded home from close range, having been afforded the freedom of Bedfordshire by a sleepy Luton defence. The visitors then put together a serious spell of pressure but Croatian keeper Simon Sluga was equal to powerful efforts from Joe Bryan and Tom Cairney.

Just as it appeared as though Fulham were getting on top, those defensive frailties resurfaced again. Mawson failed to clear a free-kick and Collins slammed home his eighth goal of the season, although it looked suspiciously like he had used his hand to control the ball prior to blasting past a helpless Rodak. In a bid to redeem himself, Mawson went on a sortie upfield but screwed his shot well wide from long-range and Fulham were probably fortunate not be further behind at half-time, after Collins had a second goal ruled out for offside.

Luton were penned back almost from the off after the resumption, battling to hold onto their lead. Inside the first ninety seconds of the second half, Aleksandar Mitrovic, scorer of a hat-trick when these sides met at Craven Cottage earlier in the season, saw a shot blocked before Sonny Bradley bravely threw himself in the way of Josh Onomah’s attempted strike. Decordova-Reid looked Fulham’s mostly likely source of an equaliser, cutting in dangerously from the left flank, but Sluga made one fine save to turn a rising drive over and the former Bristol City forward sent another low strike fractionally wide of the far post.

The hosts’ own attacks were rather sporadic but former Fulham midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe had a glorious chance to put the game beyond his old side with seventeen minutes to go. Played in by a combination of Collins and Harry Cornick, Tunnicliffe opted to try and pull the back across goal instead of shooting from an acute angle and Cyrus Christie was able to block Collins’ attempted finish as Fulham bodies flooded back.

Fulham exploited that let off when Mitrovic, hitherto brilliantly nullified by the Luton defence, nodded home a Knockaert corner at the far post to level matters. Any hopes that the sizable away contingent held of roaring their side onto victory evaporated when Tim Ream and Bryan got themselves into a horrible mess overplaying inside their own half and substitute Cornick rolled a low finish into the unguarded net. Cornick then had a chance to make certain of the points for the Hatters after he breezed away from Ream but dragged his finish wide after latching onto Pelly Ruddock’s punt forward.

Fulham came again and got the most fortuitous of lifelines in the fourth minute of stoppage time. Knockaert sent over a teasing cross from the right, Sluga couldn’t hold substitute Aboubakar Kamara’s header and Decordova-Reid thumped home another equaliser from inside the six-yard box. That sparked euphoria amongst the travelling supporters – but the fact that Fulham couldn’t convert 65% possession into a victory over the Championship’s worst defence should trouble Parker.

LUTON TOWN (4-2-3-1): Sluga; Bolton, Bree, Pearson, Bradley; Tunnicliffe, Ruddock; McManaman (Cornick 65), Lua-Lua (Jones 75), Berry; Collins. Subs (not used): Stech, Sheehan, Shinnie, Moncur, Butterfield.

GOALS: Lua-Lua (5), Collins (28), Cornick (84).

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Bryan (Kamara 89), Mawson, Ream; Reed (Knockaert 70), Onomah, Cairney; Cavaleiro (Kebano 76), Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, S. Sessegnon, O’Riley, Johansen.

GOALS: Decordova-Reid (9, 90+4), Mitrovic (78).

REFEREE: Dean Whitestone (Northamptonshire).

ATTENDANCE: 10,068.

Luton away and the joys of the Championship

Luton away and the joys of the Championship

On Boxing Day, Fulham travel to Kenilworth Road to play Luton Town. For many, the match will be a great chance to pick up three points against a side in 21st position. But for me, the trip to Luton will hold a greater significance.

As an American Fulham supporter, it is often difficult to explain your loyalties to other football fans who follow the big clubs. Relegation is an alien concept to them. Few fathom why one would support a team in the Championship.

Following Fulham’s relegation last spring, the derisory comments flooded in. Mixed in with the banter was a familiar refrain — “you’ll be playing Luton away next season.” The dig was simple. Instead of mixing it up with Liverpool or Manchester City in the top flight, little old Fulham would be facing off against Luton Town — a team that hadn’t appeared in the top division since the early 1990s.

Group chats were even named ‘Luton Away’ in recognition of the relegation. But far from an insult, the Boxing Day trip to Kenilworth Road will be one of the highlights of the season. What the American fan can’t understand is that the away days to old-fashioned, atmospheric stadiums like Luton’s are priceless experiences. And in modern football, these grounds are rapidly going extinct.

Ask most Whites supporters and they’d tell you they would prefer the Championship over the Premier League. Why? The sanitised Premier League experience, the drastic gap between the top and bottom clubs, and the exorbitant ticket prices all contribute to the top flight losing its luster.

In the Premier League, you could never get a day out at Luton Town. Where else would you walk to the away end through a row of houses?

When I take my seat in the away end (unreserved of course, another Luton specialty), I’ll be buzzing for the festive match. Luton away isn’t an embarrassment — it’s the best away match of the season.

Proud Parker praises Fulham’s desire

Scott Parker praised his side’s commitment and desire after Fulham fired a warning to the rest of the Championship by ending Leeds’ eleven game unbeaten run at Craven Cottage.

The Whites brought their end dismal three-match losing streak to an end with a 2-1 win over second-placed Leeds, thanks to a first half penalty from Aleksandar Mitrovic and Josh Onomah’s first goal for the club. They had to weather a late Leeds rally to claim a precious victory – and Parker was delighted with the way his team had responded after their derby defeat at Brentford last week.

“The most overriding feeling I have at this moment in time is pride. I spoke to the players before the game and said: ‘You’re not getting judged today on technique or what a good football player you are. There are 20,000 coming here today and people are judging you, and me, on what you are like as a man. Can you stand up when the chips are down because the chips at this moment are down?’

Your eyes often don’t lie in football. That’s what people told me. Today I saw a team that was on the front foot, aggressive and determined to make a statement. A team that showed passion and desire. One man’s strength is never greater than a team of players. The team represented me and it represented what this football club is about. That’s what made me the happiest.

Coming off three straight losses, like we were, the most important thing was putting in a performance. At times last week we didn’t stick to our plan at Brentford, but to a man today this team executed the game plan and ultimately caused Leeds problems.

Parker was also full of praise for Onomah, who has endured a difficult start to his Fulham career. The former England under-21 international produced his most complete performance since moving to Craven Cottage in the summer – and lashed home the winner after Leeds had failed to clear a corner.

Josh has been fantastic and I am so, so pleased for him. I coached Josh when he was a 15-year-old boy at Spurs and I know what ability he’s got. I know everything about him. He came in here and he struggled a little bit. He would admit that. Everyone seeing him over the first few weeks was sceptical and would have had a lot of doubts, but he represented everything that I spoke about today – what character does and what passion does. He deserved his moment. 

Onomah ends Leeds’ unbeaten run

If Scott Parker could have fashioned a response to Fulham’s limp capitulation in last week’s local derby at Brentford himself, this would have been it. The home side were feisty from the outset, eager to mount a physical challenge to high-flying Leeds United and prove that the Championship’s automatic promotion positions were not a foregone conclusion before Christmas.

It was fitting that Josh Onomah crowned his most complete performance since moving the other way in the deal that took Ryan Sessegnon to Tottenham this summer with the winner. Plenty of brickbats have headed the young midfielder’s way after his indifferent start to life in south west London, but the desire with which he strode onto a loose ball after Aleksandar Mitrovic’s ambitious overhead kick at a corner had been blocked and lashed a venomous volley beyond Kiko Casilla spoke volumes, as did the fact that all of his team-mates rushed as one to join the joyous celebrations.

No team has come to Craven Cottage this season and dominated possession in quite the manner that Marcelo Bielsea’s side managed this afternoon, but the fact that Leeds travelled back to south Yorkshire without even a point to show for their efforts demonstrated both how Parker is growing as a tactician and how well-organised Fulham were at the back to restrict one of the division’s most progressive sides to a handful of clear cut chances.

Leeds had the first sight of goal when Helder Costa might have done better than drill a shot straight at Marek Rodak after being found by a fine Jack Harrison cross, but they were behind inside five minutes. A sweeping move saw Onomah lift a ball towards Mitrovic at the back post and the Serbian striker’s attempt to find the recalled Bobby Decordova-Reid in the centre resulted in the on-loan forward falling to the turf under the challenge of Ben White. Referee Tim Robinson’s penalty award appeared more than soft and Casilla got a hand to Mitrovic’s spot-kick, only to see the ball cannon in off the post.

A lead inside the first seven minutes was just the sort of start Parker would have scripted and Fulham’s high press initially unsettled a jittery Leeds. Bielsa’s side gradually got themselves going and could have been level midway through the first half. Former Brentford midfielder Stuart Dallas drew a fine reaction save from Rodak, who sprinted off his line and blocked with his legs, after being played in by Ezgjan Alioski, who was an early replacement for the injured Pablo Hernandez.

There was another let off moments later when Harrison deliciously cut a ball back from the byline, but Mateusz Klich’s low drive from close range was brilliantly turned onto the base of the post by Rodak. Leeds were restricted to mostly speculative efforts for the remainder of the half – with Dallas drilling wide from just outside the box after fine hold-up play from Patrick Bamford, who also headed over from Kalvin Phillips’ free-kick.

The spiky nature of the contest was encapsulated by a fracas caused by Luke Ayling’s inexplicable decision to bundle over Tom Cairney in the technical area as he sought to take a quick throw in. The Fulham captain wasn’t impeding the recycling of the ball, but the lapse in concentration was perhaps an indication that things weren’t going Leeds’ way. Bielsa was far from happy and switched to a 4-4-2 at the break, introducing Eddie Nketiah to partner Bamford.

Fulham began the second period on the front foot, with Mitrovic having a goal chalked off for offside, but there were pegged back inside five minutes by clever combination play between Nketiah and Bamford. The hosts struggled to reorganise once a promising break came to naught after Ivan Cavaleiro ran into traffic on the edge of the Leeds box and Aiolski played in Nketiah down the right. Rodak might have done better than just parry the Arsenal loanee’s shot into the path of Bamford, who was never going to miss.

Rodak made amends with a smart save to preserve parity after Harrison’s deflected cross fell kindly for Alioski, but the substitute couldn’t beat the Fulham goalkeeper with his head. At the other end, Casilla produced an outstanding save to turn Cavaleiro’s rasping drive over the bar at full stretch when it seemed destined for the top corner. That sparked a period of prolonged home pressure, which eventually culminated in the winner.

It came from a corner which Leeds couldn’t clear and, after Mitrovic had tried an acrobatic bicycle kick, Onomah lashed home his first goal since Christmas 2017 – and you could feel plenty of fury in his finish. Leeds came again with Mawson bravely blocking a Klich shot at source and, during five frantic added minutes, they laid siege to the home goal. Alioski curled narrowly over the bar after being teed up by Phillips, before Mitrovic somehow managed to clear Liam Cooper’s header off his own line as Fulham clung on to end a damaging run of three straight defeats.

The endeavour and passion on display to topple the league’s second-placed side was in stark contrast to the tepid effort at Griffin Park a week earlier – but it showed that Fulham still can mix it with the league’s best. They rode their luck at times, but this was a precious victory for Parker, who will want to follow it up with further wins over the likes of Luton, Stoke and Reading during Fulham’s festive programme.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Bryan, Mawson, Ream; Reed (Johansen 90), Onomah, Cairney; Decordova-Reid (S. Sessegnon 90), Cavaleiro (Knockaert 90), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, O’Riley, Kebano, Kamara.

BOOKED: Reed, Bryan, Mitrovic.

GOALS: Mitrovic (pen 7), Onomah (69).

LEEDS UNITED (4-1-4-1): Casilla; Ayling (Stevens 72), Dallas, White, Cooper; Phillips; Costa (Nketiah 45), Harrison, Hernandez (Alioski 3), Klich; Bamford. Subs (not used): Meslier, Berardi, Gotts, Casey.

BOOKED: Klich, Cooper, Costa, Alioski.

GOAL: Bamford (54).

REFEREE: Tim Robinson (West Sussex).

ATTENDANCE: 18,878