By Morgan Phillips
In April 1900 Fulham FC, a minor but ambitious young professional club, had its first taste of the play-offs. Victory would have meant admission to the top section of the Southern League, but Fulham lost 5-1. The club endured similar defeats in 1902 (1-3) and 1903 (2-7). For the record the opponents were Thames Ironworks (West Ham United), Swindon and Brentford. Jack Head, the regular keeper, conceded 15 goals in those three matches so the play-offs would not have been the happiest events of his otherwise successful career at Fulham.
Those set-backs belong to the distant past but they did set a pattern. The late 20th Century saw further calamities in 1989 (losing to Bristol Rovers) and 1998 (Grimsby), and all Fulham fans will recall last season when an exhilarating surge into the play-offs ended in a tame capitulation to Reading.
Queuing for my ticket for the home play-off against Derby I observed a degree of pessimism amongst fellow supporters caused by past failures and by press speculation about the break up of the team if promotion was not achieved. There were predictions that Slavisa Jokanovic would leave also, followed by almost everyone except Billy the Badger.
The Friday night play-off at Derby seemed to confirm the general gloom. The Rams’ keeper Scott Carson saved two decent attempts by Aleksandar Mitrovic and Tom Cairney, and Kevin McDonald hit the crossbar; but it was a disappointing tally for a team with such flair. The home side’s sole effort on target secured them a 1-0 victory.
This set-back galvanised Fulham’s support and for Monday’s return match prompted the noisiest night at the Cottage that I can recall. It was pointless trying to sit down at the Hammersmith End as spectators were on their feet throughout. The players responded in the first half with determination which may have been unproductive but which gave hope for a happy outcome. Though Mitrovic and Abou Kamara’s shooting failed to trouble Carson, their work rate was impressive and the keeper only just kept out a powerful header by the Serb. Derby relied on a tight defence with occasional breakaways that gave reason for concern.
During the interval Rufus Brevett was one of three former players invited on the pitch (though not given the chance to speak). How impressed he must have been by young Ryan Sessegnon now occupying his old position. Barely had the second half begun when Stefan Johansen directed the ball to the unmarked Ryan, who thundered it into the net. The decibels soared even higher.
I recall that Trevor Brooking at West Ham encouraged Rufus to take the corners. Sessegnon has mastered them also, and in the 66th minute Denis Odoi spectacularly rose to meet his cross and flick the ball past Carson. Fulham might have increased their lead when Kamara had only the goalkeeper to beat, but he chose to imitate the Dying Gaul, and earned a yellow card not a BAFTA.
Derby refused to surrender and during the six minutes of additional time specified by the referee they could have scored and taken the tie to extra time and (oh no) penalties. The final whistle was heard at last and most Hammersmith Enders swarmed onto the pitch despite the efforts of the brave stewards. 118 years of frustration? Anyway it was a great night, and now we’re on our way to Wembley. Will I need ear-plugs and a shooting stick?
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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