Buoyant Whites prepare for derby day showdown with Hoops

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Aleksandar Mitrović celebrates scoring. PICTURE: GETTY IMAGES


Morgan Phillips

By Morgan Phillips

After Fulham’s 2-0 victory over Championship leaders Wolverhampton a friend of mine sent me the two-page analysis of the match by the Midlands based Express & Star newspaper. It pulled no punches.

For the fans, John Lalley judged the Wolves players ‘passive, sluggish and all too easily brushed aside’.  Their manager largely agreed: “The team needs to improve in every aspect, both defence and offensive.”

Most telling of all, the Express & Star could not find a single incident worthy of its ‘Best Moment’ feature. Although Wolves are still comfortably placed in the table, the post-match mood was one of apprehension and gloom. The players were anxious to show the manager and the supporters that they were so much better than their performance at Craven Cottage had suggested. Unluckily for them their weekend’s home match with Reading had to be postponed because of the weather.

Fulham on the other hand approached the Derby game with quiet confidence. They had further cause for celebration when the London Football Awards named Ryan Sessegnon as EFL Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year. His manager even suggested his inclusion as a wild card in England’s World Cup squad.

That remains a tantalising possibility. But Fulham fans had more pressing questions. Could the team extend the winning run at Derby County, who were just one point ahead in the table?  Indeed, would the game be postponed because of snow and ice? By Friday it was clear that this vital fixture would go ahead.

Fulham’s newly minted partnership of Sessegnon and Aleksandar Mitrovic once again drove defenders to despair. The Serb scored from a corner as early as the tenth minute and though Derby responded menacingly Ryan Sessegnon planted a similar daisy-cutter past Scott Carson 12 minutes later after an inspired backheel by Stefan Johansen. The Ryan/Aleks duo could have made the game safe before the interval, but Mitrovic was just off target.

The second half ramped up the tension as Kevin McDonald and his Fulham colleagues faced a furious onslaught from Derby. In the 68th minute Tommy Huddlestone eventually put the ball past Marcus Bettinelli, and the Rams sensed that a draw was within reach. Bettinelli, however, could not be beaten again.  From a difficult and bruising match Fulham emerged victorious and moved into fourth place.

The snow and ice had vanished by Tuesday when Sheffield United visited the Cottage. Early in the match a beach ball landed beside me; Fulham supporters are in playful mood. Though United showed strength and determination throughout the match they had little chance of saving a point. True the 3-0 score line would have been improbable without Mitrovic, who struck in the 31st and the 44th minute. His second intervention (a delicate deflection of Johansen’s pass) was so fleet that it was barely visible to us in the Hammersmith End. As a consolation we were treated after the interval to a thrilling goal by Tom Cairney, now fully restored to form and fitness.

Once again this was a team victory. The words defence and attack lost their meaning as every outfield player displayed total commitment to the cause. In my 70 years I do not recall such unity amongst both players and supporters.

Of course the winning run must end at some point. After the Sheffield match I heard a Fulham fan declare: “You’ll see. We’ll beat Preston, then lose to Rangers!”

The first bit of the prophecy came true, thanks to Mitrovic and some inspired substitutions by Jokanovic, marking a 1-2 away victory. Let us hope that the second part is fake news for Saturday’s derby clash at Craven Cottage.

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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