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Seven days, seven points

I’m not sure how you would work it out, but the Championship has to be one of the toughest leagues in Europe. It is ultra competitive, as we saw yesterday with a direct Millwall side posing Fulham plenty of problems, and anybody stands a chance of beating anyone else (I give you Burton’s victory over Slavisa Jokanovic’s side in September). There’s also the sheer weight and frequency of the fixtures that mean injuries and suspensions can prove very costly – and the stakes are so high that the pressure is intense.

Perhaps that’s why after the reverse at Wolves a couple of weeks ago there were those amongst the Fulham fanbase who were giving serious consideration to the idea of ditching Slavisa Jokanovic. Dan wrote at the time that he felt that was madness – and I haven’t spoken to a match-going fan who can come with a reason why the Serbian should be sacked – but, as the men who count the money never tire of telling us, football is a business now. And, to borrow a phrase from West Brom’s statement when they ran a mile from the odious Tony Pulis, it’s a ‘results-based’ one these days. If Jokanovic, who came so close to leading Fulham out at Wembley after that unbelievable end to last season, doesn’t manage to inspire some sort of promotion push than a parting of the ways could come at the end of the season.

But this week has shown us that dismissing the man who has got Fulham playing the best football since Craven Cottage witnessed Jean Tigana’s French revolution would be as big a mistake as, say, employing a stats fanatic with no experience in English football, as your assistant director of football. The Serbian certainly hasn’t become a bad coach overnight and Fulham’s prospects of reaching the Championship play-offs look an awful lot better after the Whites picked up seven points in a week where they hosted one of the promotion contenders, travelled to the league’s early pacesetters and won a thriller and then beat Millwall for the first time at this level since before Margaret Thatcher took up residence in Downing Street.

Jokanovic also tells us whether he can satisfied or not after each Fulham performance. It always reminds me of the pained high school teacher during parents’ evening trying to tell parents that their beloved boy or girl isn’t the angel they envisaged. Fulham’s head coach is such a stickler for the standards he set in his own playing career that he’s rarely ‘satisfied’ – and the last two games provided good examples of this. After the almost coronary-inducing end to that goalfest in south Yorkshire, Jokanovic told the press that, whilst it might have been a great game to watch for the fans, he’d have preferred a much less stressful evening.

The fear was always that Fulham, who looked like they could score at will when going forward at Bramall Lane, would grant the coach his wish – or wise – by struggling to break down a stubborn Millwall side. You could tell by the way some in the Hammersmith End began booing as Fulham nearly played themselves into trouble at the back that some fans felt Neil Harris’s men should be swept aside in an instant. That’s the danger of the sublime football we saw last season – those sort of standards are incredibly hard to maintain, especially when your opponents have had a whole pre-season to mug up on the things you do well.

People should also recognise that Fulham were markedly weaker yesterday than when they took the field in south Yorkshire. Tim Ream – undoubtedly Fulham’s most improved player during Jokanovic’s time at the club – was missing after succumbing to a knock picked up against the Blades. Denis Odoi, who had been an excellent left back against Derby and Sheffield United, reprised his central half role from Reading and Leeds. Kevin McDonald, arguably the most pivotal performer during last season’s surge to the play-offs, was missing from the base of the midfield and Stefan Johansen, promoted from the bench to the starting line-up, lasted only 45 minutes. Floyd Ayite’s hamstring injury is likely to get him out until much closer to Christmas at the very least.

In the circumstances, Fulham coped well with an aerial bombardment from a Millwall side who were desperate to end their six-game winless streak. On another day, the Whites could easily have been punished for allowing Tom Elliott two free headers inside the penalty area – one thudded against the far post – and affording the silky George Saville the freedom of Hammersmith and Fulham at times in the second half. There were plenty of hairy moments, not least when Aboubakar Kamara made a clumsy challenge inside the penalty area during stoppage time, but Fulham ground out an important home win for only the second time this season.

They perhaps should have made their possession count earlier in proceedings. Sheyi Ojo, cruelly mocked for that ‘go faster’ hairdo by the excellent travelling supporters, wasn’t quite as clinical as in Sheffield but he has certainly shown why Fulham were so pleased to conclude that loan deal with Liverpool. A moment of magic, when he decided to try and chip Jordan Archer from outside the box seemingly because nothing else was on, almost put the Whites ahead and his movement and willing running injected energy into the hosts’ play. Having Tom Cairney pulling the strings makes such a difference – twice two sumptuous through balls might have released Ojo and Neeksens Kebano, but Archer and Shaun Hutchinson just about snuffed out the danger.

Harris was convinced there was an element of fortune about the award of the penalty, but Conor McLaughlin clearly pulled back Rui Fonte, who had struggled to get much change out of the Millwall defence until that point. Given the baffling penalties that Fulham have seen awarded against them – the phantom penalty at Burton still sticks in my mind – you could understand Jokanovic’s bullishness on that point after the final whistle. He won’t have been happy at how Fulham ceded the initative in the second half, even if both Kamara and Tayo Edun showed both an appetite for the fight and an aptitude at this level that might lead to more first-team outings over the festive period.

Fulham’s lowly league position has been caused by a failure to bank points in August and September unlike the early pace setters. They’ve struggled to break down resolute defences at Craven Cottage and, as a result, only just climbed back into the top half of the table. Few would have expected seven points from a home game against Derby, who demolished Middlesbrough yesterday to move into six, a midweek trip to Sheffield United and a south London derby. The manner of this scrappy and yet gutsy three points was almost more important. It showed Fulham have the stomach for a fight.

Sessegnon hat-trick stuns Sheffield United

When he turns in performances like the one that terrorised Championship pacesetters Sheffield United at Bramall Lane this evening, it is hard to believe that Ryan Sessegnon is just seventeen. The teenage starlet celebrated his fiftieth senior appearance for Fulham with a hat-trick that blunted the Blades’ bid climb above Wolves at the top of the table, ended the Whites’ six-game winless streak and earned Slavisa Jokanovic’s side their first win at the oldest league ground in English football since Leroy Rosenior grabbed all three points in April 1985.

The visitors were grateful for Sessegnon’s predatory instincts at the end of 105 pulsating minutes because they were somehow clinging on by their fingertips to a precious victory, having been 5-2 ahead with twelve minutes to go. Chris Wilder has already proven that he doesn’t know how to go gently into the night – and his side were almost rewarded for their commendable never-say-die attitude. Substitute Samir Carruthers cut the gap to just two goals with four minutes to play and, when Leon Clarke powered home a close-range header for his third of the evening in the first of six added minutes, it appeared the home comeback was on.

Somehow a shattered Fulham defence held firm and, with James Linnington waving away penalty appeals at both ends in a nerve-shredding finale, it was left to captain Tom Cairney to carry the ball deep into United territory and earn Jokanovic’s side the most improbable victory of their stuttering season. It owed much to the returning Liverpool loanee Sheyi Oyi, whose early recovery from a dislocated shoulder allowed him to score twice either side of half-time and create another goal for Sessegnon. The England Under-20 World Cup winner more than justified the faith his head coach showed in him – and injected both pace and power into what had previously been a rather toothless Fulham attack.

The evening had initially appeared to be following the traditional script in S2. The Blades began with all the intensity and confidence of a side that has got used to sweeping opponents aside over the past two seasons, although Jokanovic and his coaching staff would have been furious with how former Rangers midfielder John Fleck was encouraged to carry the ball to within 20 yards of the Fulham goal and rifle a shot at David Button. The Fulham goalkeeper did well to get a hand to it, but as the visiting defence stood and watched, Clarke poached his tenth goal of the season. It was inexcusably easy.

Nobody could have legislated for the turnaround that occurred in the space of a couple of minutes just before the half-hour. Ojo had already shown the appetite to get behind the Blades back line and he certainly didn’t need any invitation to gallop onto a woefully underhit backpass from Cameron Carter-Vickers and tuck an assured finish past Jamal Blackman. From their next attack, Fulham went in front. Sessegnon, starting as the left winger in a fluid front three, drove at the heart of the home defence – ignoring the intelligent run of Floyd Ayite outside him – and bent a brilliant finish beyond Blackman’s left hand from more than 20 yards. It was a thing of a beauty from the European U17 champion who turned down the continent’s leading clubs to continue his footballing education at Fulham.

An insanely open contest developed a physical edge to it as the first half wore on with John Lundstram, who came in after Paul Coutts unfortunate leg break at the weekend, lunging nastily at Tom Cairney and Billy Sharp manhandling an incensed Ryan Fredericks. Fulham looked to have weathered a prolonged spell of home pressure, but Clarke slipped past Tim Ream with a stepover to create half a yard of space and his low drive burst through Button at the goalkeeper’s near post to level the scores. It was another tame goal to concede – and Fredericks’ enraged scowl at the ease with which the Blades wiped out Fulham’s advantage said it all.

Jokanovic has always encouraged his side to play with freedom and, incredibly, they went back in front before a breathless first period had even concluded. The excellent Ojo sauntered down the right and carved out an inviting cross, which Sessegnon stroked home on the volley at the back post. Wilder’s men emerged with renewed purpose after the interval and both Jack O’Connell and Clarke went close with chances earlier in the second half before an excellent piece of defending from Ream denied Enda Stevens a sight of goal.

The Blades then threw on the impressive David Brooks and Carruthers in an attempt to conjure up an equaliser but it was actually the Londoners who increased their lead on the break. The recently introduced Aboubakar Kamara accelerated away from the Blades defence and unselfishly squared the ball for Ojo, whose low finish squeezed past Blackman with the aid of a deflection. When Cairney acrobatically cleared James Hanson’s header off the line and Sessegnon completed his hat-trick with a rasping drive from the right angle of the box, Fulham seemed home and dry at 5-2.

But that reckoned without United’s undying spirit. After Kamara had an audacious finish ruled out for a seemingly innocuous challenge in the build-up, the Blades took renewed belief from Carruthers’ deflected strike that completely wrongfooted Button. The streams of home fans who had left early looked to have overlooked their side’s battling qualities when Clarke converted a dangerous cross from his captain Sharp to claim his second hat-trick in successive Bramall Lane appearances – and Fulham were left nervously clinging to the slenderest of leads during a seemingly never-ending period of added time.

SHEFFIELD UNITED (3-5-2): Blackman; Carter-Vickers (Brooks 58), Jake M. Wright, O’Connell; Basham, Stevens, Lundstram, Duffy (Carruthers 60), Fleck; Sharp, Clarke. Subs (not used): Moore, Stearman, Donaldson, Lafferty.

BOOKED: Lundstram, Sharp, Brooks.

GOALS: Clarke (6, 39, 90+1), Carruthers (86).

FULHAM (4-3-3): Button; Fredericks, Odoi, Kalas, Ream; McDonald (Johansen 83), Norwood, Cairney; Ojo (Fonte 74), R. Sessegnon, Ayite (Kamara 68). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, Edun, de la Torre.

BOOKED: Fredericks, Ayite, Odoi, Kamara.

GOALS: Ojo (28, 69), R., Sessegnon (30, 43, 78).

REFEREE: James Linnigton (Isle-of-Wight).