Winning play-off semi-finals are always special moments, but they’re made even sweeter when you prove wrong pundits, bookmakers and opposition fans in the process.
As much as it was a surprise to supporters and indeed statisticians, Reading finished third in the Championship in 2016-17, not dropping out of the top six from the end of October onwards. Their tally of 85 points was five more than Fulham, who finished sixth. Of course this means nothing in the lottery of the play-offs, but neither does form, even if you’ve won five of your last six games like Slaviša Jokanović’s side.
But Fulham played attractive, attacking football. Fulham scored lots of goals. Fulham had Tom Cairney and 16 (SIXTEEN)-year-old Ryan Sessegnon. There was no way they were going to lose to Reading. They were getting promoted, and there was nothing any other team could do about it.
No one told Jaap Stam’s side that. Or maybe they did, because the Royals navigated the tie expertly, coming away with a respectable draw from the first leg away from home before emerging victorious at the Madejski Stadium.
The game at Craven Cottage is certainly up there as one of the great away days of the decade. Reading sold out their allocation in West London, and supporters saw their team go ahead through one of our own as Jordan Obita popped up on the left-hand side with a superb strike that cannoned off the post and into the back of the net. Tom Cairney equalised for Fulham, but the Royals held on for a draw despite Paul McShane’s red card with ten minutes to go.
A Yann Kermorgant penalty decided the second leg in Berkshire - the Frenchman exorcising his own demons having missed a spot-kick in the play-offs for Leicester City seven years previously. It capped a remarkable season for Kermorgant, who at 35 years old had his best goalscoring campaign with a final tally of 19. Another key veteran, Ali Al Habsi, made a number of vital saves to deny Fulham a route back into the tie. A special shout out to George Evans too, who had one of his best games in a Royals shirt, shutting down the visitors’ threat in the middle of the park.
It was clear from the scenes at full time just how much it meant to all players - they gave absolutely everything that night to defy the odds and progress to the final. There’s something about the Madejski Stadium under the lights in crucial games that sees unforgettable memories created.
Ultimately that night would prove to be the peak of the Jaap Stam era, as heartbreak at Wembley would follow before a difficult second season for the Dutchman culminated in his sacking in March 2018.