A scoreline to prompt delight on the banks of the Thames and Tyne alike, perhaps, but it brought dismay in the shadow of the Pennines. “What’s going on?” came a plaintive cry from the Revell Ward Stand, bemusement greeting Fulham’s brilliance as Huddersfield, imperious at home for much of this season, found themselves 4-1 down before the break. The day they could have guaranteed a play-off place produced disappointment, mitigated only by Leeds’s loss which means they still require two points to clinch a top-six finish.
“This club was waiting 45 years for a situation like we have at the minute,” said the Huddersfield manager, David Wagner, seeking to restore an air of optimism and laughing off questions about automatic promotion. Yet his team may have eased Newcastle’s passage back to the Premier League. Beat Preston on Monday and Rafa Benítez’s side will be up. They could be joined by Fulham. Tenth in early February, Slavisa Jokanovic’s team capped their well-timed surge with a stunning response to a fourth-minute deficit. They eviscerated Huddersfield with their excellence. They scored four; it could have been more.
They have momentum, that most priceless of qualities. “My team starts to believe they are a good football team,” said Jokanovic wryly. “I believe many months ago but they start to trust now.” As others feel the pressure, Fulham play with flair and freedom. They have 13 goals in four games, 36 in 15. They are the division’s most prolific team, which is all the more remarkable as they were stripped of last season’s 36-goal strike partnership of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembélé. Now the many goals are shared around. In the absence of the suspended top scorer Chris Martin, Stefan Johansen assumed that mantle with two goals. Tom Cairney’s penalty means arguably the classiest central midfielder in the division is definitely the most productive. Scott Malone added a sixth of the campaign from left-back.
He and the precocious Ryan Sessegnon, who would have scored but for a fine save from Danny Ward, gave Huddersfield a traumatic time on their right flank. The teenager was a captivating presence but if anyone epitomised Fulham, it was Floyd Ayité, and not merely because he lent pace and incision. The Togolese winger was culpable when they went behind. He made amends swiftly and emphatically. A man who gave a penalty away won one after a redemptive solo run. He also teed up Malone as he contrived to contribute to three goals in a frantic opening 20 minutes.
Left-backs began by trading strikes. Like his close friend Jürgen Klopp, Wagner has a penalty-taking full-back. Chris Lowe established himself as the John Smith’s Stadium’s answer to James Milner by both earning and scoring a fourth-minute spot kick after Ayité tripped him.
His counterpart responded in kind, Malone angling in a leveller when Ayité found him after a searing overlap. When Ayité was fouled, Cairney put Fulham ahead from 12 yards. Then Johansen added two goals in nine minutes, the first after Sessegnon’s shot was blocked, his second completing an unwanted double for Jonathan Hogg. The midfielder had conceded a penalty and was then caught in possession by Johansen when the Norwegian strolled through to score.
Wagner described defensive mistakes as “three half own goals,” arguing they suffered from a surfeit of excitement. “We were surprised by how great we started and got over-motivated and over-euphoric,” he said. After beating Huddersfield by an aggregate score of 9-1 this season, elation should be confined to the Londoners, but Jokanovic countered that a play-off spot is not yet secured. “Mathematically, it is so simple,” he said. “At the moment we don’t do nothing.”