Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon and Denis Odoi turn play-off semi-final around to beat Derby and reach Wembley

Fulham 2-0 Derby (2-1 agg): Fulham reversed their curse at Craven Cottage tonight, winning the first play-off match in their history to reach the Wembley final on 26 May

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Craven Cottage
Monday 14 May 2018 21:02
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Fulham celebrate Ryan Sessegnon’s winning goal
Fulham celebrate Ryan Sessegnon’s winning goal

Tonight the dam of doubt finally burst at Craven Cottage, washing away years of bad history and seasons of questions about this Fulham team, their style and their mentality. For the first time ever, as implausible as that might sound, Fulham won a play-off match, beating Derby County 2-0 and booking their place in the Wembley play-off final on 26 May. They reversed their curse with a performance of brave, expansive, exciting football, the way they have played all season, amid accusations that if only they were less principled and more pragmatic to fight their way back into the Premier League.

And when the whistle went and Fulham’s win was complete, the fans poured onto the pitch too, their own pent-up release after years of frustration and disappointment. They swarmed the pitch, paraded the players on their shoulders and only left just before 10pm when the announcer told them they might be denied Wembley tickets if they lingered too long. This was the most fun and loud Craven Cottage evening since the Europa League run eight years ago.

There have been plenty of doubts and anxieties over recent years about whether this Fulham team would ever get back into the top flight. Not just because, before tonight, they had lost all seven play-off matches they had ever played. But because the Championship does not always reward teams who play like this, keeping the ball on the ground, defending high up the pitch. Just look at how Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City, whose football is the exact opposite, managed to grind past them to hold onto second and earn automatic promotion.

A packed Craven Cottage watched Fulham triumph

But here at Craven Cottage Fulham gave a performance to prove all those doubts wrong. They out-played an organised, physical, disciplined Derby County side, sustaining pressure, creating chances, wearing their opponents down until Ryan Sessegnon and Denis Odoi finally broke through early in the second half. It felt like a reward for superiority over two legs, and indeed for all of their impressive football since Christmas. Even Wolves could not live with Fulham when they came here in February.

Derby are not Wolves and they came here with a plan to block Fulham off and slow them down. Five at the back and two holding midfielders in front of them. With a 1-0 lead from the first leg they only had the clock to beat. Every chance they got to steal another few seconds away from Fulham’s possession game, they did. Richard Keogh and Andre Wisdom from throw-ins, Tom Lawrence from a corner, Carson from every goal-kick.

Fulham needed to get through somehow, and had they not wasted a three-on-one counter after eight minutes, Sessegnon shooting at Carson, their whole evening might have gone smoother for them.

Ryan Sessegnon celebrates the opening goal of the night (Getty Images)

The longer a scoreless second half went on, you felt, the harder it might get for Fulham. So what an explosion of noise and relief there was in just its second minute when they finally scored. All of Derby’s rigid organisation when Targett swung in another cross from the left. Johansen beat Curtis Davies to chest it down, Sessegnon evaded Keogh, controlled the ball and thumped it in off the bar.

With that, the atmosphere changed. Belief replaced fear and Fulham’s worries that they might never win a play-off game melted away. The team continued to attack – what else were they going to do – and Mitrovic’s domination of Davies brought them closer and closer to a second, as he mastered the move of holding him off, turning and shooting.

When the second came, it was from a header that Mitrovic or any striker would have treasured. Sessegnon whipped in a corner from the right. Odoi darted forward and leaped up above Craig Forsyth. He skimmed the ball off his forehead, diverting it just enough for it to fly into the far top corner of the goal, but not so much that Carson could do anything about it.

Scott Carson watches Denis Odoi’s header hit the net

From there all the onus was on Derby to come out and score a goal to take this to extra-time but there was no sign of it. Fulham are not a naturally defensive side but they players did enough to hold Derby off and make sure that they will be playing at Wembley in 12 days’ time. Where an even bigger vindication is on the cards.

Fulham (4-3-3) Bettinelli; Fredericks, Odoi, Ream, Targett (Kalas, 76); McDonald, Johansen, Cairney; Kamara, Mitrovic; Sessegnon.

Derby (5-4-1) Carson; Wisdom, Keogh, Davies, Forsyth, Anya (Vydra, 67); Weimann, Huddlestone, Johnson, Lawrence (Palmer, 67); Jerome (Nugent, 75).

MoM Mitrovic. Match rating 8.

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