Neil Redfearn’s opinion of Fulham is that in spite of their sorry predicament in the Championship, the London club have not done much wrong.
He might be right. Dominant and creative at Craven Cottage, they were beaten by a Leeds United side who smashed and grabbed with a true robber’s touch.
At the moment when Sam Byram first picked Fulham’s pocket, with 41 minutes played, Redfearn would have been more than happy to retreat from London with a result of any sort but this is clearly not Fulham’s year.
One club needed the points last night. The other club took them home.
They will call Leeds fortuitous, and perhaps Leeds were, but Redfearn’s squad have learned to turn and edge games in a way that Fulham can’t.
It’s at least one reason why United are in the top half of the Championship while their hosts lose sleep at the bottom.
Byram’s goal – a simple header in the midst of fierce Fulham pressure – paid Leeds back for digging in and keeping themselves alive, however much they trusted to luck.
That luck was complemented by the reflexes of Marco Silvestri, a stoic figure for the umpteeth time this season.
The goalkeeper dealt with chances from Ross McCormack and Matt Smith, the strikers sold by United for almost £12m last year, before Byram scored and Fulham hanged themselves with a series of glaring misses.
Leeds were barely in the first half but they found themselves in front at the end of it and, true to recent form, the advantage did not escape them.
Sol Bamba added a second goal three minutes into the second half and with that, the contest was done.
Craven Cottage had resigned itself to Fulham’s fate when left-back Konstantinos Stafylidis incurred a red card on 53 minutes for a second bookable offence and Mirco Antenucci came off the bench to wrap up a 3-0 win at the end of normal time.
The night became desperate for Kit Symons, as many others have.
Fulham conceded five times against Bournemouth on their previous home outing, a barrage of goals which gave Redfearn no reason to be shy or reserved.
United’s boss voiced more support for Steve Morison, his barren striker, before yesterday’s fixture but Byram’s return from injury came at the cost of Morison’s place, filling the right wing with an actual winger.
Redfearn’s only change was an obvious one.
Leeds had the added bonus of a mobbed away end and a ‘neutral zone’ nearby, an area which might as well have been the away end. They should also have thrived on a slick and well-kept pitch, unlike the swamp they will contend with at Blackpool on Saturday. Instead, possession ran away from them.
Fulham appreciated the surface more and they passed up the opening goal for the first time after six minutes, gifted the sort of chance that McCormack used to score in his sleep at Elland Road.
The striker had time to bring the ball down with one knee after Giuseppe Bellusci nodded a weak clearing header into his own box but a low volley sailed too close to Silvestri, who dropped down and parried the ball away.
The goalkeeper’s fingertips knocked a Brian Ruiz lob over the crossbar during Fulham’s next attack and then nudged wide a slick strike from Stafylidis.
By the time the 12th minute arrived, Smith’s header had drawn another good save and the resulting corner from Ruiz was careering off the bar.
Amid that fierce onslaught, Leeds did well to survive.
Indebted to Silvestri, they drew the sting from the game as rapidly as Fulham turned the screw.
McCormack seemed to be conscious of the scale of the opportunity missed by him in the opening minutes and never properly settled.
The away crowd kept at him with chants of “greedy b******”, a reminder of how acrimonious his departure from Elland Road last summer had been.
It did not change the fact that most of the pressure materialised at Silvestri’s end of the field.
The Italian could have done little about a diving header from Smith which bounced inches past his far post on 19 minutes and a 40-yard volley from Bellusci – stroked into the safe hands of Marcus Bettinelli – said everything about United’s struggle to knock on the door at the other end.
In the centre of the pitch, Scott Parker shook off the cobwebs and gave Redfearn’s young midfield a short lesson.
It took half an hour for United to back Fulham up and force a bit of anxious defending inside the home box.
But Leeds relied on an offside flag to deny McCormack after the forward side-footed a header from Smith past Silvestri with the defence in front of him looking stretched and disorganised.
It remained that way for most of the first half.
Yet to Fulham’s bemusement and no doubt deep concern, they reached the interval a goal behind.
Gaetano Berardi, United’s left-back, stole the ball with an aggressive tackle on the wing and produced a hanging cross which Fulham failed to read and Byram nodded calmly into an exposed net.
Fifteen thousands hearts inside Craven Cottage sank.
They sank further two minutes into the second half when Alex Mowatt’s corner bounced through the box and asked for only a careful headed touch from Bamba. The centre-back provided it, nodding through the hands of Bettinelli, and Fulham were finished.
Stafylidis was not and two bookings in as many minutes – the second for a stupid kick at Byram – ended his appearance early.
Without him, Michael Turner hit a post, Silvestri pulled off another excellent save from Ryan Tunnicliffe and Smith’s finishing did everything to justify the decision to move him on from Elland Road.
Antenucci, by comparison, volleyed home his first opportunity in the 89th minute, continuing the story of the night. Leeds saw out theirs to the sound of olés.
n Lewis Cook has been shortlisted for the Football League’s Championship apprentice of the year award.
The 18-year-old, who is nearing the end of his first season as a professional at Leeds United, is one of three players in contention for the annual prize alongside Charlton Athletic’s Joe Gomez and Millwall’s Fred Onyedinma.
Cook has been a shining light in a difficult campaign at Elland Road, making 36 league appearances and earning himself an England Under-19 call-up earlier this week.