Fulham 2, Barnsley 1
A multi-million pounds take-over may have given Barnsley hope for the future, but of more immediate concern is how to prevent being overtaken by the four teams below them in the Championship table.
A winless run of eight matches, six of which have ended in defeat, has left the Reds a mere two points above the drop zone, and alarm bells are ringing.
This latest set-back, while coming as no surprise, provided little evidence of a desperately-needed revival, although it did include the team’s first goal in open play since November 18.
Two home games in the space of five days – Preston on Boxing Day and Reading next Saturday – offer an opportunity to bring some belated Christmas cheer, but it would seem that a busy transfer window in January is the best chance of bringing a change of fortune.
The spine of the team – striker, midfield play-maker and central defender – is particularly in need of strengthening with experienced players, who can help the youngsters who have the potential but lack the know-how that only comes with an accumulation of games at this level.
Head coach Paul Heckingbottom, not for the first time in recent weeks, made reference to this in his post-match interview.
“We’ve got lads in our group,” he said, “who have never played league football before and we’ve thrown them into the Championship.”
He added: “I’m disappointed for the players, who had the effort, the organisation and the belief. I definitely thought we deserved something out of the game. We just lacked that little bit of quality when we were in good situations.”
In truth, one tends to agree with Fulham head coach Slavia Jokanovic, when he opined that his side had dominated the game, but that in no way detracts from the merit of Barnsley’s defensive performance against a good side and it was a freakish goal which decided the issue after the Reds had shown great character in fighting back to equalise after falling behind in the second half.
Fulham exerted plenty of pressure in the first half, and only some spirited defending kept chances to a minimum. Adam Davies made a superb one-handed save, turning a Sheyi Ojo curler over the bar, and Aboubakar Kamara headed wide from six yards just before the break, otherwise there was little end-product to the home team’s far superior possession.
Indeed, the Reds could, perhaps, feel a little aggrieved that they were not awarded a penalty when Harvey Barnes went down under a challenge from Kevin MacDonald, and the same player brought a save from Marcus Bettinelli after his initial attempt had been blocked.
It was much the same story of Fulham control at the start of the second half and with nine minutes gone the home team finally made the breakthrough when Floyd Ayite, for once given too much time and space, marked his comeback from injury with a gem of a goal from 25 yards.
Heckingbottom made a double substitution in the 61st minute, sending on Adam Hammill and Loyd Isgrove in place of George Moncur and Mamadou Thiam, and five minutes later the Reds were level.
Andy Yiadom broke clear down the left, swung over a tempting cross and leading marksman Tom Bradshaw (pictured) was there to head home. It might have been against the run of play, but it opened up the possibility of a satisfactory second successive away draw in London after the Reds had earned a share of the spoils at Brentford the previous week.
However, only five more minutes had elapsed before Fulham snatched what proved to be the winner. It came from an intended cross by Ojo which looked to be going over the bar, but dipped at the last minute to deceive Davies and end up in the back of the net after rebounding off the far post.
In the closing stages Gary Gardner set Hammill free, but the latter failed to hit the target and the same fate befell Bradshaw, but otherwise Fulham saw out the game fairly comfortably.
Fulham: Bettinelli; Fredericks, Kalas, Ream, R Sessegnon, Johansen, McDonald, Cairney, Ojo (Norwood, 87 mins), Kamara (da Roche Fonte, 81 mins), Ayite (Kebano, 70 mins).
Barnsley (4-4-2): Davies; McCarthy, Pinnock, Lindsay, Yiadom; Moncur (Hammill, 61 mins), Gardner, Williams, Barnes (Ugb0, 78 mins); Thiam (Isgrove, 61 mins), Bradshaw.
Bookings: Ojo (Fulham), Yiadom, Gardner (Barnsley).
Referee: James Linnington.