Given the form Fulham have been in – 19 games unbeaten; six clean sheets at home since January; second highest scorers in the division – any half cogent Reading fan turning up for the night game at Craven Cottage would have been expecting a tanking. I certainly was.
And it’s not just their current form. As we Reading fans know all too well, Fulham may sound like a diddy bunch of elves who live by the river, but they are actually a squad of ruthless dream crushers. Who can forget 2008, and the final day relegation they engineered for us? Or that awful game in 2015 when Orlando Sa put us in the driving seat with a second goal – Piazon, of all people, scored our first – before we parted like the Red Sea on Moses’ command, and allowed them to stroll through the gap and score three goals in five minutes. (That’s Moses in the bible, btw, not Victor Moses who played that blinder against us for Palace in 2009).
So no. There was no reason to feel anything but pessimistic going into the game. And – given that we ended up losing 1-0 – you might think pessimism would be appropriate after the game as well. But you’d be wrong, brother. We gave them a proper go. Could easily have come away with a draw. Might even have nicked it on another day. And when this particular Biscuitman strode out of Craven Cottage into the night – game over, game lost – he did it with his head held high and the shirt buttons on his chest straining from the pride.
Clement, as is his wont, kept the team changes to a sensible minimum. Where Jaap might have switched Aluko to left back, and put Tom Holmes into central midfield, just to surprise us, Clement was content to bring back Edwards for Swift, and continue with Bodvarsson up front. The increasingly solid partnership of Moore and Illori formed a brick wall in front of Mannone. And for the first 25 minutes or so, we had the elves of Fulham by their tiny little nuts. Dadi had one cleared desperately off the line. Barrow blasted a good chance straight at a defender. It was all going so well.
But then Richards, who’d been wobbly, as he was against Preston, misplaced an adventurous pass to Barrow, and Fulham were down our throats. First Sessegnon. Then Targett. A low cross into the box, when everyone was expecting a high one. And there was Stefan Johansen to bundle in a clumsy slider under Mannone. It was their first proper attack.
Piazon, who spent the evening listening to the Reading fans telling him how young she was, with a count down from eight to one, got his revenge by turning to us with upturned fists and gleaming happily like the cretinous Brazilian he is.
The next few minutes felt hairy. Reading unveiled that post-goal state of panic that has been such a prominent feature of the season. But then Edwards, in his best contribution of the night, signalled to his fellow Biscuits to calm down, slow down, stop crumbling, and we saw out the half without much problem.
The second half was basically more of the same. Yes, they began to see more of the ball, especially when Edwards was replaced by the ineffectual Swift in the 58th minute. And yes, our attacks grew blunter and blunter, especially when, after a couple more substitutions, we ended up with a Dad’s Army attack of Martin and Kermogant. But by the end, Fulham were the ones doing the time-wasting.
Man for man, they were not nearly as good as I expected. Fredericks, the Usian Bolt run-alike who terrorised us down our left last season, looks to have lost a yard of pace and hardly put in a cross. On the other wing, Targett from full-back, was more of a threat than the over-hyped Sessegnon, who spent the game sitting in Ilori’s pocket. Poor Tom Cairney is a shadow of the passing genius I remember from last season. And as for Aleksandar Mitrovic, the buffalo-chested loanee from Newcastle who’s been banging them in for fun recently, Moore put a ring through his nose and kept the poor beast tethered for the whole game.
Our own buffalo brain, Leandro Bacuna, managed to get himself sent off in the 93rd minute for hacking down the ineffectual Sessegnon. But even that mad moment could not disguise the fact that Reading made Fulham work really hard for their win, and were generally a decent match for the league’s form team.
Clement has got them organised and passionate in defence. And with the attacking energy they also showed, especially in the first 20 minutes, this was probably the best they have played under him.