Parker relieved after Fulham resist fightback to reach final
Cardiff City 2
Nelson 8, Tomlin 47
Fulham win 3-2 on aggregate
It had been done before. In fact, it had been done as recently as this year by Northampton at Cheltenham, but coming back from losing the home leg of a play-off semi-final by two clear goals always looked a step too far for Cardiff, against a Fulham brimming with Premier League quality. So it proved, but only just.
As predicted, Fulham will meet Brentford at Wembley on Tuesday for a seat at the top table, but they were given a fright last night. Once they took the game to their punch-drunk hosts in the second half, Cardiff won this battle. With a touch more fortune, and a less adept goalkeeper than Fulham’s Marek Rodak facing them, Cardiff might have won the war.
“I’m gutted, but also very proud,” Neil Harris the Cardiff manager, said. “So close, so close. No ifs, no buts, we’ll be straight at it next season. We’ll take what we’ve done here and we’ll be better.”
Scott Parker, the Fulham head coach, was a relieved man at the end. “We had control and structure in the first half, but in the second we did what we had to do to reach a final,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s not about technique, it’s about mindset and tonight we had that.”
For Cardiff, there was no plan B, other than to hammer at Fulham’s door and hope it could be prised open. Joe Ralls slung in a corner from the right after eight minutes and Curtis Nelson rose above Cyrus Christie’s half-hearted challenge to head his first goal since November past Rodak. Game on.
Alas for Cardiff, the would-be fairy tale turned grim just 24 seconds later. Fulham swept downfield, Bobby Decordova-Reid crossed low and Neeskens Kebano, without a goal since 2017 before scoring against Sheffield Wednesday 12 days earlier, swept home his fifth in four games. As you were.
The deluge galvanised Fulham. Even without Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose hamstring had not healed enough to tempt Parker into offering the Serb as much as a berth on the bench, they oozed menace, but Cardiff reached the break with hope, if not expectation.
Lee Tomlin emerged for the second half and within two minutes he had scored. Fulham could not deal with a long throw until Rodak athletically turned aside Nathaniel Mendez-Laing’s header. Tomlin pirouetted and smashed the loose ball into the goal, Game, once again, on.
This time Fulham did not rally instantly and, with Mendez-Laing offering power and precision, Cardiff began to exert real pressure. When Danny Ward failed by millimetres to connect with Leandro Bacuna’s cross, Fulham began to look rattled and the seemingly impossible began to look distinctly possible. Yet when Alex Smithies saved brilliantly from a fearsome Aboubakar Kamara shot, and then the same player beat Smithies but not the inside of the post, natural order seemed to be restored.
Cardiff, though, were far from finished and, in one hell-for-leather scramble, Rodak saved from Mendez-Laing and then Will Vaulks. Parker soon sacrificed Anthony Knockaert for defender Denis Odoi and Fulham stumbled over the line. Just.
Fulham (4-5-1) Rodak; Bryan (Le Marchand 90), Hector, Ream, Christie; Cairney, Onomah, Reed, Kebano (Kamara h-t), Knockaert (Odoi 76); Decordova-Reid.
Subs Bettinelli (g), Johansen, McDonald, Cavaleiro, Sessegnon, Mawson. Booked Decordova-Reid, Rodak, Christie, Onomah.
Cardiff City (4-5-1) Smithies; Bennett, Morrison, Nelson, Bacuna; Pack (Tomlin h-t, Whyte 84), Vaulks, Ralls, Hoilett (Mendez-Laing h-t), Murphy (Paterson 81); Ward (Glatzel 71). Subs Etheridge (g), Sanderson, Paterson, Bamba, Smith. Booked Morrison, Bacuna, Vaulks, Ralls. Referee Paul Tierney (Wigan).
Close call: Impressive Fulham goalkeeper Marek Rodak saves a goalbound shot from Cardiff City midfielder Nathaniel Mendez-Laing