Fulham survive second leg scare to book Wembley place

Slavisa Jokanovic’s side were swashbuckling and Scott Parker’s men are streetwise. They might have reached Wembley in contrasting styles but the end result is still the same – Fulham are into the Championship play-off final and stand ninety minutes away from a return to the top flight.

Parker’s side had to survive an almighty scare after Cardiff City grabbed an early goal at Craven Cottage to make their comfortable cushion after Monday’s 2-0 win in Wales look pretty precarious and when Lee Tomlin thumped home seconds after stepping off the bench at half-time, Fulham’s very participation in Tuesday’s final, against near neighbours Brentford, appeared to be in serious jeopardy. But Parker has made his team much more gritty during his first season in charge – and Fulham’s fortitude come to the fore as they rebuffed a succession of Bluebirds’ attacks in the closing stages.

It was never likely to be plain sailing on the banks of the Thames, especially given the enormity of the prize on offer. Cardiff, who were aiming to make play-off history by becoming the first side to overturn a two-goal deficit in a Championship semi-final, knew they needed to strike first – and they did, albeit in controversial circumstances. Marek Rodak felt he had been impeded by Danny Ward, preventing him for coming to collect Joe Ralls’ corner before Curtis Nelson nodded in at the back post. Referee Paul Tierney disagreed – and the goal stood.

Fulham’s anger evaporated after 24 seconds. That’s how long it took for the hosts to fashion the perfect riposte. Bobby Decordova-Reid, again deployed as a false nine against his old side as Aleksandar Mitrovic rested his sore hamstring, sauntered down the right and delivered the perfect cross for Neeskens Kebano to roll home his fourth goal in as many matches from twelve yards. That spirited response galvanised the home side, but try as they might, they couldn’t find another goal before half-time to put the tie beyond the visitors.

Alex Smithies, who was once again excellent in the Cardiff goal, produced smart saves to keep out efforts from Cyrus Christie and Anthony Knockaert at his near post, whilst the French winger also saw an effort deflected narrowly over the crossbar. Kebano wasn’t fit to continue past the break, with Aboubakar Kamara replacing the Congolese winger, who had an ice pack applied to his hamstring for much of the second half.

It was Cardiff’s half-time changes that proved more consequential, however. Two minutes after the break, two substitutes made telling contributions from a Will Vaulks long throw-in to reduce the arrears to one once more. Nathaniel Mendez-Laing capitalised on some hesitation to power a header goalwards and, although Rodak did well to keep it out, Michael Hector missed his chance to clear and Tomlin powered home the rebound from close range.

The pair were at it again a couple of minutes later. They linked up beautifully down the right and an untimely slip from Christie gave Josh Murphy a glorious sight of goal, but he opted to use his head instead of bringing the ball down, and Rodak gratefully plucked the ball out of the air. Leandro Bacuno then crafted a delicious cross that narrowly eluded Danny Ward. By now, Fulham, who had been dominating the ball during the first half, looked decidedly jittery and capable of collapsing before the finishing line.

Tom Cairney did his bit to restore some order, producing a mesmerising run from wide on the left to the edge of the box before he was cynically upended by Sean Morrsion. Cairney was on the ground again seconds later, having slipped as he tried to send the free-kick goalwards, but Abouakar Kamara picked up the baton – charging forward in his unique fashion to draw two stunning saves from Smithies in quick succession. He flew past Bacuno and the former QPR goalkeeper had to be alert at his near post and then Smithies somehow tipped a piledriver onto the woodwork from just outside the box.

The remainder of the drama came at the other end as Cardiff pushed for a third that would have taken the tie into extra time. They were indebted to Rodak for a sensational double save in the midst of a mad goalmouth scramble with eighteen minutes to go. Robert Glatzel, on as a substitute, almost scored with his first touch – with Rodak somehow blocking his deft flick from Ralls’ set piece. In the aftermath, Christie put his body in the way of efforts from Mendez-Laing and Nelson, before Rodak hauled himself off the floor to turn away Vaulks’ venomous volley that was heading for the top corner.

Cardiff kept searching for their leveller, even after Tomlin was forced off when he aggravated his troublesome hamstring, and Glatzel spurned their best chance to dash Fulham’s dreams deep into stoppage time. Callum Paterson climbed highest to glance a long free-kick into Glatzel’s path and, although the German forward got great contact on his effort, it was always rising over Rodak’s crossbar.

This wasn’t vintage Fulham, but that didn’t matter. Parker’s side have shown determined and significant staying power to keep their promotion hopes alive in a season where they often looked out of the race. Here was another example. Unlike that glorious night against Derby a couple of years ago, relief rather than ecstasy was the prevailing emotion at full-time. A backs-to-the-wall effort secured a shot at glory, against our local rivals, at the home of football. Parker will know his side will need to show more quality at Wembley – but he can be confident of their stomach for the fight.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Bryan (Le Marchand 90), Hector, Ream; Reed, Cairney, Onomah; Knockaert (Odoi 76), Kebano (Kamara 45), Decordova-Reid. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Mawson, McDonald, Johansen, Cavaleiro.

BOOKED: Decordova-Reid, Rodak, Christie, Onomah.

GOAL: Kebano (9).

CARDIFF CITY (4-2-3-1): Smithies; Bacuno, Bennett, Morrison, Nelson; Pack (Tomlin 45; Whyte 83), Vaulks; Murphy, Hoilett (Mendez-Laing 45), Ralls; Ward (Glatzel 71). Subs (not used): Etheridge, Bamba, Sanderson, Smith.

BOOKED: Morrison, Bacuna, Vaulks, Ralls.

GOALS: Nelson (8), Tomlin (47).

REFEREE: Paul Tierney (Lancashire).

Fulham eye loan move for Skipp

Fulham are in discussions with Tottenham over a possible loan move for teenage midfielder Oliver Skipp – but a deal will only be completed if the Whites fail to secure promotion to the Premier League.

Tonight’s Evening Standard reveals that Scott Parker, who coached Skipp during his spell in charge of Tottenham’s under-18 side, is keen to bring the England under-21 international to Craven Cottage and that Fulham lead a queue of several Championship sides, including Reading and Nottingham Forest, in the race for his services.

The nineteen year-old, who signed a new four year contract with Spurs last week, has been told that he can leave Tottenham on loan next season to further his development. Skipp has been encouraged to seek more first team football following the success enjoyed by Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount, whose loan spells in the Championship were followed by breaking into the Chelsea first team and Parker is a known admirer of his talent.

Skipp, tipped to a future Tottenham captain last week by Jose Mourinho, got just 105 minutes of senior football under his belt this season, but the picture would be complicated should Fulham earn promotion via the play-offs. The Standard suggests that both Burnley and Southampton are interested in taking the defensive midfielder on loan.

Onomah repays Parker’s faith

Josh Onomah dedicated his play-off wondergoal to Fulham manager Scott Parker and says he is delighted to be able to repay some of his coach’s faith following a slow start to life at Craven Cottage.

Parker, who coached Tottenham’s under-18 side before moving back to west London to join Slavisa Jokanovic’s coaching staff when the Whites won promotion to the top flight, picked Onomah as the makeweight in the deal that took Ryan Sessegnon to White Hart Lane last summer. The former England youth international found it tough to settle in his new surroundings initially but has really come into his own since the Championship resumed after lockdown.

Onomah told FFCTV about the part that Parker has played in his own development:

He [Parker] is someone I looked up to, I dedicate that goal to him because he someone who always believes in me and I thank him for giving me the chance. From the day one I have come in he has always believed in my ability trying to get the best from me and towards the end of the season, I started to show him.

The talented midfielder was perhaps guilty of underplaying the magnificence of his opening goal that sparked Fulham into life at the Cardiff City Stadium.

Harrison Reed gave it to me and when I got into the box I knew they couldn’t really touch me so I dribbled past them and when I hit the back of the net I was over the moon. It was a great feeling for men and my family, we will go into the second leg and do the same again. I relaxed, stayed calm and gained composure and did that and got the reward for it.

Onomah admitted that Fulham were below-par in the first half as Cardiff made a quick start and recognises the importance of not resting on their laurels, despite establishing a two-goal lead.

We started the game quite slowly and in the second half we came out strong and we got the goal after the goal we defended as a team and worked hard and it shows how good the morale is. We must be composed, stay calm and do the same thing on Thursday.

Parker pleased with ‘fantastic’ Fulham

Scott Parker hailed a fantastic Fulham performance that put his side firmly in control of their Championship play-off semi final after two second half goals gave the Whites victory over Cardiff.

Parker’s side made light of the absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic, who wasn’t risked for the first leg after picking up a hamstring problem in training on Sunday, by carving out a strong advantage thanks to strikes from Josh Onomah and Neeskens Kebano. The Fulham boss was delighted by the way his side adapted to proceedings after making a slow start, eventually dominating possession and limiting Cardiff to very few openings.

Parker told his post-match press conference:

“Overall it was a very, very good performance for us, a strong performance. “We weathered a little bit of a storm early on in the game, but we understood what we were coming into and we knew what we had to do. We got a foothold in the game, we had a real control about us, kept the ball very, very well.

He said that there were a few stern words in the dressing room at half time and his tactical tweaks paid almost immediate dividends, with Onomah opening the scoring with a sensational individual goal.

“We probably lacked a little bit of an impetus, certainly in the first half, so we changed things around a little bit second half in terms of our positioning and looked to be more of a threat and cause Cardiff some problems. Second half we executed that plan very, very well. We showed a real quality about us and were well worthy of the two goal lead.

Parker warned his charges not to take anything for granted as he expects Cardiff to make a fast start at Craven Cottage on Thursday.

This tie is only halfway through. There’s still a lot of football to be played. I also understand that what got us the result today was a team that worked their socks off, a team that was organised out of possession and nullified them to very few chances. That’s what you saw second half, there was a foundation about us that was built on concrete today. And from that you see players’ skill, you see a fluidness about us, and we need to do that again in the next game. We need to understand it’s only half done, we need to be professional.

Onomah and Kebano put Fulham in the driving seat

An outrageous individual goal from Josh Onomah and another free-kick from Neeskens Kebano carved out a commanding cushion for Fulham to take to Craven Cottage on Thursday as Scott Parker’s side seized control of their Championship play-off final by beating Cardiff tonight.

The Londoners were largely nullified in a first half where the clearest chances fell to Cardiff, but Fulham underlined their promotion credentials with an improved display after the break – playing on the front foot, at a higher tempo and looking threatening in the final third. That two terrific goals were allied with another miserly defensive display leaves the Whites in pole position ahead of the second leg when they will hope that talisman Aleksandar Mitrovic, omitted as a precaution this evening, will be available to lead the line.

The enormity of the play-offs created a nervy affair and it was Cardiff who settled quickest. The Bluebirds first sight of goal came through a powerful drive from just outside the box by Leandro Bacuna, which surprised Marek Rodak, who could only palm the ball clear. Robert Glatzel looked favourite to roll home the rebound from close range, but Michael Hector produced a wonderful piece of defending, diving in to beat Glatzel and hook the ball clear from underneath his own crossbar. The German striker should have opened the scoring moments later when a clever turn and pass from Junior Hoilett left him free in the centre of the goal ten yards out, but his shot was straight at Rodak.

There was even time for Glatzel to spurn a third opening inside the first half hour, shooting straight at Rodak once more after Marlon Pack had prized open the Fulham defence with a lovely little reverse pass. Cardiff were sharper in possession and showing more movement in the final third than Fulham who, despite dominating the ball, struggled to break down Neil Harris’ well-drilled defence. Fulham’s first serious opening came when the lively Onomah ghosted onto Kebano’s lofted cross, but Alex Smithies dashed off his line to block the shot. They nearly went in ahead at the break when Cyrus Christie surged down the right and teed up Tom Cairney, whose trademark curler from 25 yards grazed the outside of the post.

Some stern words from Parker seemed to inspire Fulham after the interval. They were far more assertive in their play and the goal that broke the deadlock was breathtaking in its brilliance. There was a touch of Argentinian flair from yesteryear about the way Onomah took it, spinning around Pack effortlessly, slaloming between the Cardiff backs a la Maradona and tucking away a nonchalant finish low at the near post as he gave Smithies the eyes. It brought to mind Ricky Villa’s magic at Wembley from all those years ago – and, given how Onomah has made a midfield place in this side his own after a slow start, there was no more fitting a scorer.

A narrow lead in a crucial game seems to be made for Parker’s streetwise side. Fulham have lost just six points from winning positions all season – and never seriously looked like sacrificing their advantage here. Harris sent on Danny Ward, Josh Murphy and Will Vaulks to try and prompt a home revival, but the greater danger came at the other end. Onomah nearly laid on a second for Bobby Decordova-Reid but the former Cardiff forward’s rising drive flashed fractionally over the bar. Cairney almost nicked a second when he dispossessed Pack but his eventual shot lacked conviction and was blocked.

Rather than protect their lead, Fulham sought a second. Parker introduced Aboubakar Kamara for the final ten minutes and the Whites always carried a threat. When Cairney was crudely blocked off by Sean Morrison in stoppage time, it presented Fulham with a promising free-kick just outside the box in a central position. The Fulham skipper could have taken it himself, but played decoy for Kebano, who curled a majestic effort into the top corner. It was the Congolese winger’s third free-kick in as many games and topped off a perfect night in south Wales for the Cottagers.

CARDIFF CITY (4-2-3-1): Smithies; Bacuna, Bennett, Morrison, Nelson; Pack, Ralls; Mendez-Laing (Murphy 70), Hoilett (Vaulks 70); Glatzel (Ward 70). Subs (not used): Etheridge, Sanderson, Paterson, Bamba, Flint, B. Smith.

BOOKED: Hoilett, Bacuna.

FULHAM (4-3-3):
Rodak; Christie, Bryan, Hector, Ream; Reed, Onomah, Cairney; Knockaert (Kamara 81), Kebano (Odoi 90), Decordova-Reid. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Mawson, Le Marchand, S. Sessegnon, Johansen, Jasper.

GOALS: Onomah (49), Kebano (90).

REFEREE: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).

Lydia’s line-up for Cardiff away

I’m feeling uncharacteristically chilled about tomorrow night. It’s not at all that I think that we will roll Cardiff over, I’m just very relaxed about whether we are in the Premier League or Championship next season. Obviously it would be nice to be in the top league again, but I just think that the Championship is much more fun and I have this dream that when we do go back up, it will be as champions. How nice would that be?

However, that doesn’t mean that I’ll not be nervous tomorrow evening, nor does it mean that I want us to lose, or that I don’t care. I hate watching us lose football matches. While Cardiff was the team that I wanted to avoid in the play-offs, I’d rather face them than a Swansea side who will be absolutely buzzing following the final day of the season. I fancy our chances against Neil Harris’ side, but we have to be aware of the threat they provide. This is a very different outfit that it was under Warnock. While they are still hard to break down, they have much more about them going forward. Lee Tomlin is their most creative player, so I’d say that the key will be in keeping him quiet. Make him struggle to have an impact and we should win over two legs.

Fulham have a very talented squad, but in some positions it’s our more workmanlike players who I would have on the field. I’ve decided to put together my starting eleven for tomorrow night so, Scott Parker, if you are reading, feel free to take some notes.

Defence

No surprises that Rodak will start in goal. He has been a revelation since he made the position in between the sticks his own. He is by far the most talented keeper that we have had at the club for years.

I’ll stick with the centre back pairing of Michael Hector and Tim Ream. I do worry about Ream going forward as I think that his best years are behind him, but he has played there all season so it would be a strange move to change that up at the last moments of the season.

I’d have Joe Bryan at left back with Cyrus Christie on the right. Christie has been hard done by this season I think given that he has been very solid pretty much every game he has been in for. I’d reward him for that with a place in the side tomorrow evening. Bryan is much better going forward than in defence, we know that. But I’d still have him in the side tomorrow night. With Denis Odoi on the bench, it means that we have a very good option to come on there, or at centre back, if either Bryan or Ream have an off day.

Midfield

In midfield I want to see Tom Cairney, Josh Onomah and Harrison Reed. Imagine if we had those three fit and on form all season? Reed has been exceptional in particular since the restart while Onomah has really grown into that role after a poor start. The Cairney situation one is an interesting one. He is an immensely talented player but there have been concerns that our play is much slower when we have him on the field. If he could just make that pass half a second quicker, his role as the heartbeat of the side would be much better. But he is still our most talented midfielder, and our captain, so it would be daft to leave him out.

Attack

Our front three is where it gets interesting. We have a wealth of talented and luxury players like Ivan Cavaleiro, Anthony Knockaert and Bobby Decordova-Reid, but none of those three have really lit things up in the way we’d have hoped. The  we have Aboubakar Kamara who only made his return from injury in the dying seconds of the game against Wigan on Wednesday night but who was a crucial part of our play-off win over Derby County two season ago. Given that he has played well when fit this season and the fact that he is our quickest player, I’d be tempted to put him in from the start.

Then I think Neeskens Kebano should be rewarded for his contribution over the past few games. Two goals, each a wonderful freekick, and his general play since the restart has been far more positive and impactful than Knockaert, Cavaleiro and Decordova-Reid put together, so for me he gets the nod. And Mitrovic is obvious. Our Golden Boot man. What an absolute joy it is to have a player named as the leagues top goal scorer! He loves it at Fulham, and we love him. SO that makes my front three Kebano on the left, Mitrovic in the middle and Kamara on the right.

We have so many talented players to come on then and change the game if needed. We have far more options there that Cardiff do and with the five-sub rule now, we need to make the most of it.

Tomorrow night is big. It’s just an absolute shame that we’ll have to watch from afar.

#COYW

46 Games Gone, 3 To Go?

Scott Parker was regularly raised in conversation over the last week, not just because of Fulham’s participation in the craziest Championship final day finish in a while and his side’s forthcoming play-off push but also because Jordan Henderson’s winning of the Football Writers’s Footballer of the Year drew comparisons to when the Fulham manager did got the award as part of a relegated West Ham team. Weird.

Anyway, Parker’s first full managerial campaign came to a conclusion at Wigan last Wednesday. His Fulham side might have gone off the rails after losing the first two matches after lockdown – so damaging were the defeats to Brentford and Leeds United – but they recovered, showing some serious character to stitch together a seven-match unbeaten run. Fulham might have been fortunate at times, having drawn on the individual star quality in their squad to snatch narrow wins, and they might also rue moments over the course of the season. Not being able to beat Charlton, those two defeats by Barnsley and a 3-0 home defeat by Hull, who admittedly had Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki at their disposal then. Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing and ‘unsuccessful’ seasons are crammed full of what ifs.

Promisingly, over 46 games, Fulham could not be beaten when scoring the first goal but on the flip side, only QPR could be beaten (albeit twice this season) when scoring first. The old saying is football is a results based business, though most football supporters want both results and sexy football. ‘Parkerball’ has struggled to deliver a complete 90-minute display, with some of the better performances with Middlesbrough, Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday at home being limited to first half glimmers of what could be possible. Of course we all remember the record breaking 4-0 home win against Millwall who were at the time managed by Neil Harris, now of Cardiff who we’ll meet on Monday and Thursday night (we’d all love repeats of that performance I’m sure).

One of the major disappointments this season has been Fulham’s ineffectiveness in the final third despite the serious investment in attacking options. Parker’s side finished seveth in the division for goals scored (below sides like QPR, Blackburn and our playoff rivals Cardiff City). Some would say our total shots being 5th in the division is below-par (around 130 shots fewer than Leeds) and, even more alarmingly, our shots from inside the penalty area drops us down to eleventh in the league. At no point this season have we seen the Anthony Knockaert who was named Championship Player of the Year in Brighton’s promotion campaign and, since the turn of the year, Ivan Cavaleiro has provided just two goals and a sole assist. If not for Aleksandar Mitrovic’s ability to score match winning goals and Michael Hector’s January arrival helping to bring a bit of solidity at the back, you wonder just how durable Fulham’s promotion push might have been.

Yet, despite all of the low points, there’s a chance that Scott Parker leads Fulham back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. I must say, as the year has progressed, I’ve gotten flashbacks to 2017/18. Whilst a stylish, attacking and swaggering side has been on electric form with goals potentially coming from anywhere, there’s been a former Premier League club with a deep squad full of known players never really out of the play-offs but never really pushing for automatics. Of course we know one was Fulham and the other Aston Villa, but this year it appears we take the role of Aston Villa whilst Brentford’s eye catching side are drawing comparisons to Slavisa Jokanovic’s Fulham team.

Without looking beyond Cardiff, Fulham will absolutely be expecting to walk at Wembley on the evening of August 4th but the lottery of the play-offs is unpredictable and honestly my fingernails may not exist watching on TV. If Parker achieves promotion for Fulham then no one will really care about the manner in which he did so, but another campaign in the Championship will raise many questions not just of Parker but perhaps more worryingly the futures of some of Fulham’s top end players.

Neil Harris’ Cardiff side will be a tough test but Fulham will be hopeful having recorded a comfortable victory at Craven Cottage only a couple of weeks ago. And whilst the final is the richest game of football, you’ve got to get to the dance with a couple of ISA’s first.

Five-star Fulham take promotion race to final day

Confirmation of the craziness of the Championship came at Craven Cottage as Fulham rekindled their feint hopes of automatic promotion with an insane victory over Sheffield Wednesday. The Whites capitalised on Brentford’s surprise slip-up at Stoke City to record a win over the Owls that takes the race for second spot to the final day, but they might have squandered a comfortable advantage during a frantic finale.

Scott Parker rotated his side with the prospect of the play-offs in mind, making five changes from Fulham’s ultimately unsatisfactory draw against West Brom in midweek. It didn’t seem to disrupt Fulham’s rhythm as they raced into a commanding three-goal lead, with Neeskens Kebano firing in the opener and Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic bagging a brace to overtake Ollie Watkins as the division’s top scorer.

But Fulham’s defensive frailities were uncovered by Atdhe Nuhiu, one of three half-time Wednesday substitutes, whose early second-half spot-kick sparked a spirited revival from the visitors. It looked as if Kebano’s clever free-kick had restored Fulham’s comfortable lead, but when Jacob Murphy’s deflected drive from distance was followed by a trademark Nuhiu downward header, there was plenty of reason for the home side to panic.

In keeping with a crazy game, Fulham went straight down the other end and increased their advantage. Bobby Decordova-Reid slammed home a Mitrovic knock-down from outside the box to make it 5-3, although Harrison Reed – so pivotal in midfield for Fulham since the league’s resumption – will miss Wednesday’s crucial trip to Wigan Athletic after being sent off deep into stoppage time.

Kebano, who seems to save his best performances for Sheffield Wednesday, made the most of his opportunity to impress after Ivan Cavaleiro’s injury. The Congolese winger opened the scoring with a low finish from just outside the box after drifiting inside from the left having been found by a sweeping ball from Michael Hector. Some of Fulham’s football in first half was spellbinding and Cyrus Christie almost doubled the advantage from an acute angle – the Irish full-back denied by a smart save from Joe Wildsmith.

The second arrived on 26 minutes courtesy of a sumptuous passing move from the back. Fulham worked the ball patiently into midfield with a succession of short passes before Josh Onomah unlocked the Owls’ defence with a through ball that was perfectly weighted for Mitrovic to saunter clear. Although the striker’s run took him wide of goal, Mitrovic made light of the decreasing angle, confidently finding the bottom corner as Wildsmith rushed from his line.

More goals were on the cards with Onomah, in excellent form of late, sending a powerful half-volley fractionally wide. The chance to add a third came from the penalty spot after Dominic Iorfa crudely cut down Kebano in the area. Mitrovic made no mistake from twelve yards, despite slipping as he took the spot-kick, sending his finish straight down the middle.

The contest appeared as good as over at half-time but Garry Monk’s tactical switches gave Wednesday an impetus they had previously lacked. They got a penalty shortly after the break after a poor pass from Tim Ream played Maxime Le Marchand into trouble and Marek Radek was penalised for a two-footed challenge on Jacob Murphy. Nuhiu converted the spot-kick and the Owls came forward with more confidence afterwards.

Stefan Johansen and Mitrovic went close to restoring Fulham’s three goal lead after Wednesday’s strong spell, but it took a surging run from Reed to induce an error from the Wednesday rearguard. After the Southampton loanee was chopped down just outside the box, Kebano’s clever free-kick that crept under the wall gave Wildsmith no chance.

To Wednesday’s great credit, they refused to throw in the towel. Murphy’s speculative shot flew in off Kebano and, when Nuhiu nodded in from the winger’s right-wing cross, all the momentum appeared to be with the visitors. Fulham roused themselves in stoppage time, with Decordova-Reid making sure of the points by firing home his third goal of the season after Mitrovic had won a towering header. There was still time for Reed to see red, something which will complicate Parker’s preparation for a must-win clash at the DW Stadium, but the fact that Fulham are still in contention for second spot seems like something of a bonus.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Christie, Le Marchand, Hector, Ream; Arter (Odoi 90), Johansen (Reed 68), Onomah (Cairney 79); Knockaert (S. Sessegnon 90), Kebano (Decordova-Reid 79), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Mawson, McDonald, Bryan.

BOOKED: Decordova-Reid, Reed.

SENT-OFF: Reed (90+3).

GOALS: Kebano (11, 73), Mitrovic (26, pen 41), Decordova-Reid (90+1).

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY (5-3-2): Wildsmith; Odubajo (Murphy 45), Harris, Iorfa, Lees, Boerner; Pelupessy (Hunt 79), Bannan, Luongo (Reach 75); Da Cruz (Nuhiu 45), Windass (Wickham 45). Subs (not used): Dawson, Palmer, Waldock, Rhodes.

GOALS: Nuhiu (pen 49, 89), Murphy (78).

REFEREE: Darren England.

Hawthorns stalemate condemns Fulham to the play-offs

So, if Fulham are to make it back to the Premier League at the first attempt, they will have to do it via the play-offs. That’s the bottom line after Scott Parker’s side failed to beat second-placed West Brom at the Hawthorns this evening – having had the better of the early exchanges, but curiously failed to push for victory in the closing stages. Slaven Bilic’s charges seemed happy to settle for the point which keeps their own automatic promotion hopes in their own hands, with Brentford still snapping at their heels.

What could reasonably have been expected to be a cagey contest actually began at a fairly frenetic pace and proved to be open at either end. Parker was insistent that he had come looking for a fifth straight victory – and Fulham initially began the brighter of the two sides. A swift counter attack carved out the first opportunity with wingers Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert combining effectively, with the Frenchman driving towards the Baggies’ box and seeing a low shot from just outside the area turned aside by Sam Johnstone. Michael Hector almost turned the ensuing corner back across goal for Aleksandar Mitrovic, only for Ahmed Hegazi to scramble the ball behind.

Knockaert nearly created the opening ten minutes later. A clever switch of play from Tim Ream allowed Knockaert the room to cut back onto his left foot and Cavaleiro made up good ground at the far post to keep a deep cross alive, with Hegazi prodding off the line at full stretch as the Portuguese winger’s header drifted dangerously towards goal. Marek Rodak kept out a deflected cross from Grady Diangana that threatened to loop into the far corner before Mitrovic’s header was cleared from underneath his own crossbar by Jake Livermore in stoppage time.

Fulham, who had to replace the injured Cavaleiro with Neeskens Kebano before the break, failed to replicate their earlier adventure in the second period. West Brom were the aggressors for long periods, probing for an opening with Matheus Pereira’s creativity to the fore. Semi Ajaya, scorer of the equaliser at Craven Cottage in the reverse fixture, sent two headers from set plays just wide as well as clearing off the line from Mitrovic at the other end before Diangana somehow contrived to miss the game’s clearest opening having made space for himself with a superb dummy at the back post. The on-loan West Ham winger looked certain to break the deadlock had checked inside Denis Odoi, but Rodak made an instinctive save with his feet. The excellent Harrison Reed conjured up a crucial challenge as Hal Robson-Kanu burst through on goal to help preserve Fulham’s third straight clean sheet.

The lack of a telling final ball let Fulham down throughout. Mitrovic toiled manfully to get the visitors a foothold in the final third – but the visitors failed to get numbers forward to support him on a frequent basis. They might have stolen an unlikely victory when he cushioned a high ball down for Knockaert to strike from 25 yards, but the Frenchman’s dipping volley crashed off the crossbar and behind. It proved to be the closest either side came to goal – and Parker will now probably rotate his squad, which has solely missed the pace and power of the injured Aboubakar Kamara as well as the guile of captain Tom Cairney of late, as he plans for the play-offs.

WEST BROM (4-2-3-1): Johnstone; O’Shea, Townsend, Hegazi, Ajayi; Livermore, Sawyers; Diangana (Robinson 85), Grosicki (Phillips 45), Pereira; Austin (Robson-Kanu 66). Subs (not used): Bond, Furlong, Bartley, Brunt, Harper.

BOOKED: Pereira, Livermore, Townsend.

FULHAM (4-3-3): Rodak; Odoi, Bryan, Hector, Ream (Christie 90); Reed, Onomah (Johansen 77), Decordova-Reid; Knockaert, Cavaleiro (Kebano 43), Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Bettinelli, S. Sessegnon, Mawson, Le Marchand, McDonald, Arter.

REFEREE: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).

Why we need to sign Harrison Reed

One of the stand out performers since the restart for Fulham has been Harrison Reed. The midfielder has been plagued by injuries this season, but the stats show us that we seem to be a better side with him in it so being able to allow him to get fit during lockdown has made a huge difference to our promotion bid.

The first word that comes to mind when I think of his style of play is ‘busy’. He seems to get everywhere on the pitch, and buzzes around the opposition, winning the ball back and more often than not making a positive pass straight away. It can be frustrating when players win the ball but then lose immediately by holding on to it too long or by putting in a loose pass, but you rarely get that with Reed. His calm nature on the ball is what makes him so effective.

Reed has been involved in the league 23 times this season and of those games we have won 12 times, drawn 6 and lost 5. While those aren’t mind blowing stats, if we look slightly closer we can see how important he is in the heart of midfield. I’ll take the example of two of our loses this season. When we played Reading on New Years Day, Reed came off the pitch because of an injury after 19 minutes. We were already 1-0 down at that stage, but a bad start got even worse when he came off the pitch and we went on to lose 2-1. More recently we have our defeat in our first game back of the restart against Brentford. Reed had to come off after 80minutes when the score was still 0-0, but we went on to lose 2-0. There have been 20 matches without him. 10 of those have been victories, 4 have been draws and 6 have been losses. It’s simple really. We pick up more points, whether through draws or victories, with Reed in the side.

Whether we go up or not, we should be trying to make Reed’s move to Fulham a permanent one. It might be that the player himself is waiting to see what league we are playing in before he makes his decision. He deserves a shot in the Premier League but he hasn’t been given it at parent club Southampton, so a move away from them may be on the horizon regardless. We obviously give ourselves a better chance of signing him permanently if we go up, and if we do, we must avoid what happened with Ollie Norwood. Not signing him from Brighton when we went up last time was one of the many nails in our coffin that season. Hopefully Southampton will prove to be easier to work with than they were when it involved Matt Targett though.

For now our attention turns to West Brom on Tuesday night. If Cairney is back from injury I’ll be hoping to see a midfield three of him, Reed and Josh Onomah. That’s the midfield that is our most balanced and therefore giving the team the best possible chance of taking something from the game. With the play-offs confirmed and the automatics looking more and more unlikely given the form of other teams, all that matters right now is building up momentum.

#COYW