Town left chastened but lifted by demise of rivals
NOT since the famous May afternoon when Barnsley goalkeeper Luke Steele dribbled round his own penalty area unchallenged for the final two minutes of the season to chants of ‘Yorkshire’ has there been such a sense of entente cordiale at the home of Huddersfield Town.
‘Leeds, Leeds are falling apart again….’ sang the Terriers fans first, as news filtered through that Garry Monk’s side had fallen behind at Burton Albion.
Fulham’s 1,500 or so strong travelling contingent immediately joined in to the tune of Joy Division’s seminal classic, underlining the importance of events at the Pirelli Stadium in the race for the play-offs.
Moments later, an even bigger cheer – and one that rivalled the one that greeted the final whistle in 2013 as Barnsley and Town secured their Championship status at the expense of Peterborough United via a 2-2 draw – signalled Burton had doubled their advantage.
For Huddersfield, news of their neighbours’ stumble was a welcome distraction from the hiding their side had received from Slavisa Jokanovic’s side in the first half.
Fulham, meanwhile, were just elated to have opened a three -point lead over United ahead of the final two games.
That, though, is likely to be the end of the common consensus between those who made up Town’s 12th highest attendance at their home of 23 years.
Ask either set of fans, for instance, if a re-match in the playoffs between these two clubs would be a good idea and chances are the responses will be very, very different.
The Fulham faithful, after seeing their side net nine times in two games against the Terriers this season, would surely lap up such a prospect. Those whose loyalties lay with Huddersfield, however, are unlikely to be very keen at all.
Town were simply swept aside in a first half that began amid promise as the hosts took an early lead through Chris Lowe’s penalty but ended in disarray.
Lowe suggested afterwards that three of Fulham’s four strikes had been akin to own goals, such was the self-inflicted damage Town wrought on themselves by making basic errors.
That, though, did a disservice to a visiting team who beat Huddersfield at their own game.
With both full-backs pushed forward in a manner similar to how David Wagner employs Lowe and Tommy Smith, Fulham’s high-pressing game forced the hosts into error after error.
Tellingly, heads went down as a result – suggesting it would be better for the Terriers to face anyone but Jokanovic’s in-form Londoners once the play-offs get under way next month.
Wagner’s difficult task is to ensure there is no hangover from either this hammering or the 5-0 defeat Town suffered at Craven Cottage in October.
Judging by Sean Scannell’s comments following his return to action after almost five months out through injury, the German may be able to elicit a response from his players if the two clubs do meet again this season.
“We want to play Fulham again because they have beaten us twice,” the second-half substitute told The Yorkshire Post. “We know we are better than that.
“If we get them again, we will play better and be stronger. We have shown all season that we are better than these performances.
“Sometimes, it just happens in football. You will get results that go against you but the key is bouncing back. We will put this game behind us.”
Words of defiance and ones that Huddersfield must heed ahead of their final three league games, never mind any possible rematch with Fulham.
Certainly, Wagner’s men can afford to repeat neither the individual errors nor the generosity that allowed Fulham to take such an iron-grip on proceedings.
Town actually started on top, Lowe’s fourth-minute penalty after the left-back had been flattened by the otherwise excellent Floyd Ayite a deserved reward for their early endeavour. At that stage, the victory required to guarantee a play-off place seemed very much on.
Fulham, however, had other ideas. Once over the shock of falling behind, the Championship’s top scorers got to work.
Scott Malone, afforded the freedom of Town’s right flank throughout the first half, equalised by latching on to Ayite’s through ball and finishing past Danny Ward.
Then Ayite, having ridden one unwise nibble from Rajiv van La Parra, was tripped by Jonathan Hogg and Tom Cairney did the rest from the penalty spot.
Had Huddersfield, who lacked the usual control of Aaron Mooy due to the Australian playing in a more advanced role, been able to stabilise then there could have been a way back into proceedings.
Instead, Stefan Johansen netted twice in nine minutes before the interval to seal a victory that continued Fulham’s upwards tra- jectory after being 10th as recently as February.
The Norwegian’s first came after Ryan Sessegnon, the precocious 16-year-old who has so lit up the Championship this term, had seen his initial shot blocked.
Hogg was then culpable for Johansen’s second, the midfielder allowing himself to be dis- possessed and then only able to watch as Ward was beaten with aplomb.
A chastening afternoon for Huddersfield, though one whose damage was mitigated by defeats for not just Leeds but also Reading to ensure tomorrow brings a second chance to seal play-off qualification.
SPOT ON: Chris Lowe’s early successful penalty kick, top, was the one bright spot for Huddersfield Town as they failed to clinch a Championship playoff place by losing 4-1 at home to Fulham. Collin Quaner, left, and Rajiv Van La Parra, right, could find no way through.