Chris Wood was missing but Tim Ream did for Leeds United what Wood normally does and the play-offs were beckoning with seconds to play in London.
Yesterday’s game at Craven Cottage was a gripping test of nerve but having failed one inside five minutes, Fulham passed another with the last kick of the night.
Injury left Leeds without Wood a few days after the striker became the Championship’s leading scorer but any advantage Fulham hoped for on a pivotal evening was blown apart by the worst own goal the Championship has seen all season. Ream scored it with four minutes on the clock and Leeds clung to that gift until the depths of injury-time, seconds away from putting themselves a long way from Fulham’s reach.
Eleven points was the gap between the clubs in those moments, with Leeds in fourth in Fulham in seventh, but Tom Cairney – the former United academy player and ever a thorn in their side – dramatically equalised on 96 minutes, finding the corner of Rob Green’s net with a curling finish from the edge of the box. Green had stood up to everything before then but Cairney’s nerveless precision was the equivalent of sinking a 20-yard putt on the last hole of a major.
Fulham, who were denied a win in similar circumstances at Elland Road in August, were worth their goal and the contest prior to Cairney’s intervention, the decisive moment in an epic finish, disguised the eight-point margin separating the teams, a lead which still looks overwhelming in United’s favour. Leeds missed crucial chances and lost Kalvin Phillips to a 90th-minute red card but the strokes of luck fell more often in their favour until Fulham’s last role of the dice.
Fulham are, in the estimation of Garry Monk and others, the most accomplished team United have played this season, despite their position in the table, and that opinion was barely altered by a breathless match on the banks of the Thames. Fulham tore into Monk’s side after taking time to recover from Ream’s brainstorm, striking the crossbar with a 24th-minute shot from Neeskens Kebano which crossed the line but wasn’t given. They attacked at will but came no closer until Cairney found a way through. After a night of ridden luck at Birmingham City last Friday, it must have felt to Monk like the stars were aligning.
Leeds had smashed and grabbed at Craven Cottage two years earlier; heavily outplayed in the first half under Neil Redfearn but clinical enough to leave the Smoke with a 3-0 win. That result was a moral victory rather than a scoreline of any importance but three points yesterday in a game where Leeds might have accepted a draw beforehand would have put the Elland Road club on the brink of a top-six finish. With 10 matches to go, the effect of Cairney’s equaliser is perhaps no more severe than to put automatic promotion beyond them.
It was to Leeds credit that they made Fulham sweat without a full squad or anything like it. Wood was left out with a calf strain and Luke Ayling took paternity leave as he became a father for the first time, forcing changes in two positions across Monk’s defence. Leeds forced the first goal regardless and were denied a second when Alfonso Pedraza hit a post 17 minutes from the end. There are almost no circumstances in which Leeds cannot conjure something.
The implications of losing Wood have been discussed for months without becoming a meaningful reality. Leeds took three points from the only other league game he has missed, a 1-0 win over Brentford before Christmas, and the club have not been made to answer for their failure to sign another out-and-out centre forward in either transfer window. Wood’s prolific finishing made the argument superfluous.
His absence was unfortunate nonetheless, coinciding with the one game which had most potential to open up the play-off zone. That alone would have been enough for Monk but Ayling was given the night off to be present at the birth of his daughter, Maisie, and Eunan O’Kane was missing too. That O’Kane might have been dropped after the struggle in midfield at Birmingham last week did not change the fact that Monk’s resources were trimmed to the bone.
In the midst of five changes, Leeds were almost unrecognisable from the line-up fielded by Monk at St Andrews; no Pablo Hernandez and Charlie Taylor included at left-back for the first time since the last Championship game Wood missed. In the circumstances, Monk gratefully took the bonus that came Leeds’ way in the fifth minute.
Kyle Bartley posed a small question with a quickly-taken free-kick into the box but Ream read the delivery and Souleymane Doukara’s run towards it. The defender attempted to clear with a swing of his left boot but sliced the ball horribly beyond goalkeeper David Button who had strayed to the left of his goal. Button could only stand and watch it trickle in.
A concession so bad had an inevitable consequence and a rattled Fulham lost the next 20 minutes to a flush of misplaced passes, some straight into touch, and regular breaks in communication. Monk’s players pressed as he wanted them to, forcing those mistakes, but Fulham settled as the pace of the game raged. Cairney was inches away from finding Rob Green’s net after Hadi Sacko drew a yellow card for a clumsy foul on Scott Malone and Kebano was closer again with 24 minutes gone.
The winger made space for himself 14 yards out and cracked the ball against the underside of Green’s bar with an effort which gave United’s goalkeeper no chance. Fulham screamed for a goal but referee Lee Probert looked to his assistant before ruling that the ball had not crossed the line. Replays showed it bouncing at least a foot over.
The rest of the half followed the same theme without any comparable near misses. Leeds were backed up by Fulham’s pace and movement but threw legs and bodies in where it mattered and Pedraza almost struck against the run of play six minutes before half-time when he burst into Fulham’s box and drilled a shot against Button.
Leeds found a way of redressing the balance in the second half as the the game shed all of its inhibitions. Fulham stretched themselves, giving United the chance to counter, and Monk sent Mo Barrow on for Sacko on the hour after the winger wasted a series of opportunities to deliver from the right. In Fulham’s better moments, Phillips blocked a goalbound header from Chris Martin and Green was well placed to gather a deflected shot from Sone Aluko.
Driven on by a mass bank of away fans behind Button’s goal, Leeds’ resistance threatened to wear Fulham down and Pedraza should have made the final stages a procession when a loose ball found him unmarked 10 yards out.
The Spaniard sized up Button but stuck the base of his near post, giving Fulham a reprieve which, like Phillips’ 90th-minute dismissal, seemed to have counted for nothing until Cairney, after two excellent saves from Green and a shot from Aluko which flew past the far past, picked out the top corner of the net with a curling finish as deadly as Ream’s was bizarre.
The Championship will not see a better game next season and these two clubs have plenty of life in them yet.