Fulham on brink of playoff glory
As the afternoon of Saturday, February 4 came to a close, Fulham’s season was looking grim. In midweek they had handily beaten Burton Albion away; yet they suffered unexpected defeat against a Birmingham City team in freefall.
With the limp 1-0 loss, the Championship table made for grim viewing. The Whites sat in tenth position. Six points and four places separated them from the playoff spots. Time was running out for a late run.
What followed was a run like none other. All season Fulham had been criticized for their lack of consistency and failure to string together more than two wins in a row. Over the next month, Fulham went eight matches unbeaten, winning five and drawing three.
Most notably, Fulham dismantled heavyweights Newcastle at St. James’ Park, running out 3-1 winners in a rampant display. Teenage sensation Ryan Sessegnon bagged a brilliant brace and Tom Cairney produced a sensational display in the centre of the park.
March 11 marked the day Fulham truly announced themselves as playoff contenders. The Cottagers embarrassed the big boys in their own backyard, playing the heavy favourites off the pitch. Cries of “the Whites are going up” reverberated from the away end at the top of St. James’ Park. And on that day, that claim no longer seemed ridiculous.
The playoff places were just two points away, and the Whites had a crucial game in hand. All Fulham needed to do was to win their next two matches; both at home, and both against teams in the bottom half of the table. Triumph against Wolves and Blackburn, and Fulham would leapfrog Sheffield Wednesday and return to the top six for the first time in months.
Yet they wouldn’t be Fulham if it was that easy. The next two matches brought a crushing reality check back to SW6. After the unbelievable high of Newcastle away, Fulham conceded a late equalizer to Blackburn. Four days later, they were thrashed 3-1 at the Cottage by Wolves. The Whites had blown their big opportunity. One point and one place still separated them from the playoffs, leaving many wondering if this year was just not meant to be.
The following weekend’s 1-0 win over Rotherham returned hope to the banks of the Thames, if only momentarily. The win finally put Fulham back in sixth position, back in the playoff spots, and back in the promised land.
Yet the optimism was short-lived. Pundits and outside observers took a look at Fulham’s run-in and immediately wrote the Whites off. The final seven matches featured fixtures against Derby, Aston Villa, Huddersfield, Norwich, and Sheffield Wednesday. Few saw the Whites staying in sixth, considering their tough run-in.
The naysayers immediately saw themselves vindicated after Derby dismantled Fulham 4-2 just days after the Rotherham win. Coupled with a Wednesday win, Fulham again fell out of the playoff positions. David Button had made a couple of howlers during the match, and without striker Chris Martin due to the terms of his loan deal, Fulham’s situation again looked grim.
What followed next will perhaps be known as the best run Fulham have gone on since the Europa League campaign of 2009/10.
The following weekend, Fulham dealt with Ipswich Town 3-1 at home, with goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli replacing David Button in goal. This would prove an inspired decision from Slavisa Jokanovic, providing the Whites with much needed confidence boost and the addition of a leader at the back.
Next up was an away match against Norwich City, a side that had just come off a 7-1 win against fellow promotion contenders Reading. Fulham took the lead through Stefan Johansen, and just as the half was winding down, Fulham supporters could relax and reflect on what could prove to be a valuable victory. Yet disaster struck shortly thereafter. While battling for an aerial fifty-fifty ball, Martin throws his elbow out right into the defender’s face. To his horror, Martin is sent off. Not only do Fulham have to play the rest of the match with ten men, their star striker looks set to be suspended for the next three crucial matches.
But instead of succumbing to defeat, Fulham pulled out another season-defining performance. Down a man, the Whites win a penalty early in the second half. Despite their past penalty troubles, Tom Cairney confidently dispatched the spot-kick to give Fulham a 2-0 lead. The next half an hour brought wave upon wave of Norwich attacks, and the Canaries eventually broke through. With twelve minutes to go, Fulham were under the gun. But in the 89th minute, Floyd Ayite brilliantly played a one-two with Lucas Piazon and coolly rounded the keeper. The Whites had secured all three points. It was a famous victory, one that kept the Whites within touching distance.
But Fulham still had to play three matches without Chris Martin, just when they needed their attack the most. A home match against an Aston Villa side in good form beckoned. But again, the Whites defied the doubters and ran out 3-1 winners. Sessegnon slotted back into the starting lineup, and the young star rewarded his place in the side with an opening goal. A slick attacking performance gave the Cottagers hope going into another massive away match: against third-placed Huddersfield Town.
And against a team that rarely loses at home, Fulham got off to the worst possible start. Inside four minutes, a trip from Floyd Ayite gifted the Terriers an early penalty, which they clinically converted. Down 1-0 before the match had even been five minutes old, a momentous 85 minutes were in front of Fulham.
The Whites responded with passion, commitment, and style. Instead of meekly submitting to the seemingly hopeless situation, Fulham stuck to their game plan. Four goals in the next half hour followed. Another superb penalty from Cairney, a cool finish from Scott Malone, and two well-taken strikes from Stefan Johansen gave the Whites the victory.
It was the perfect performance to return Fulham to the top-six, an amazing way to cap off four victories in a row. It encapsulated the unbelievable spirit and verve in this Fulham team, a team that never says die, a team that will fight until the death for each other.
The searing, improbable run of form in the past two months has put the Whites in control of their destiny. Win tomorrow against Brentford, and they will clinch a spot in the playoffs. And once there, few will fancy matching up against the most in-form club in England.