By Morgan Phillips
Already this season I have expressed my dislike of the phrase ‘winning ugly’ both as a cliché and as a philosophy.
Jaap Stam’s Reading team came to Craven Cottage determined to prevent Fulham from playing their usual, fluent football. The disruptive tactics included heavy tackles and constant time-wasting. It seemed improbable that the visitors would finish with 11 men.
Knowing the importance of the match to both clubs the referee Stuart Attwell issued warnings rather than cards, though even he lost patience with John Swift, when the inappropriately named mid-fielder spent an unconscionable time taking a corner.
Swift received his yellow card with pantomime incredulity. Far from heeding the official’s warnings, Reading’s captain Paul McShane was sent off near the end for a knee-high lunge at Kevin McDonald. Jaap Stam presumably saw these sanctions as a price worth paying for holding Fulham to a 1-1 draw.
The Hammersmith Enders roared their support throughout the match but had little to cheer in the first half apart from the courage and strength of Fulham’s defence. The mid-field was cowed, and the few chances were rushed and off target.
It took a Reading goal in the 54th minute and the belated withdrawal of Chris Martin to light Fulham’s spark. The last half hour of the game provided the genuine excitement of a semi-final. After Scott Malone’s cross was fumbled by Al Habsi – the goalkeeper having seen hardly any action in the first hour – Tom Cairney gleefully headed home.
As for the sending off, Paul McShane may have been retaliating for a kick aimed at him, but Kevin McDonald was not the perpetrator. As Reading hastily reorganised their defence and Fulham frantically searched for a winner, Ryan Fredericks came nearest with a cross shot just wide of the post. When Mr Attwell blew for time, Fulham acknowledged the deserved ovation from the fans but the players’ faces betrayed their disappointment.
The second leg, refereed by Martin Atkinson, began promisingly, with both sides producing decent attacking football.
In the 13th minute Marcus Bettinelli spectacularly diverted a Yann Kermorgant effort away from goal, then Al Habsi ‘s alertness enabled him to make a double save from Cairney’s free kick and Aluko’s follow-up. Thereafter, a tense first half was dominated by two strong defences. The deadlock would only be broken by a masterstroke or a misfortune.
The misfortune occurred early in the second half. Tomas Kalas having legitimately won the ball struck it with his arm. Involuntary action (nudged by his opponent) or deliberate handball? Mr Atkinson pointed to the spot. Though Bettinelli correctly anticipated the striker’s intent he left a gap for the ball to penetrate.
Forty minutes remained, and Fulham had the ability to equalise. After Jokanovic sent on Sessegnon and Piazon, both potential game-changers, openings were made and wasted. That was not true of Kevin McDonald, who deserved to score but was foiled by Al Habsi. When Lucas Piazon was grappled by an opponent Mr Atkinson waved away the penalty appeals.
Chris Martin came on as final substitute and, in the closing minutes, even Bettinelli moved forward in search of a goal. The team could not have tried harder but, as in the Saturday match, did not quite attain its best form. The players and the supporters shared the manager’s feelings : ‘disappointed but proud’.
So dreams of Wembley and the Premier League have been shattered. Let us congratulate everyone at Fulham for an exhilarating season.
At a recent match supporters unfurled a banner inscribed ‘Ragnar for President’. I admit ignorance of Icelandic politics but the banner was a useful reminder that many people helped Fulham enabled reach the playoffs – Ragnar Sigurdsson, Michael Madl and Scott Parker among them – without figuring much in the final matches.
Everyone from Tony Khan to Billy the Badger deserves a big vote of thanks. And one last suggestion: let’s forget Wembley next season and settle for second place and automatic promotion.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and unless specifically stated are not necessarily those of Hammersmith & Fulham Council.
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