Sheffield United miss out on a chance to go top of the Championship as a Ryan Sessegnon hat-trick helps Fulham come from behind to record a 5-4 win and their first victory in seven matches.
Two goals in as many first-half minutes cancelled out Leon Clarke’s tenth goal of the season in a match that saw the Blades fail to overtake top-of-the-table Wolves before the Wanderers play their home match against Leeds United on Wednesday night.
Clarke’s leveller six minutes before the break looked to have allowed for United to draw breath at the break, but Sessegnon had other ideas, sending Fulham into a 3-2 lead at the interval.
United refused to lay down and sent wave after wave of attacks, but they were ultimately dealt the hammer blow after Sheji Ojo put the visitors out of reach.
James Hanson, a late substitute, looked closest to pulling the Blades back into the match when his header was cleared off the line, but Sessegnon fired in his third to send Fulham back to west London with three points.
Samir Carruthers’ goal four minutes from time appeared to be little more than damage limitation until Clarke’s hat-trick in stoppage time made 5-5 a possibility.
It perhaps came a couple of minutes too late even though it was a tale of two hat-tricks, Clarke’s will mean little as United were forced to succumb to the defeat.
United boss Chris Wilder cut a frustrated figure at the full-time whistle after going so close and said: “To concede five goals at home you are not really going to give you an opportunity to win a match.
“The last two goals were me, I changed formation and left ourselves open.
“I’m pleased with the manner that we go about our games. We have pride in our shirt.
“The players went right to the end and asked the questions of a talented Fulham side.”
John Lundstram was deemed to have done enough to take over the spot vacated by Paul Coutts thanks to his season-ending injury, and with the team work that has been instilled at Bramall Lane this season it’s clear the squad wanted to get a win for the first-rate midfielder who suffered a leg break in their 3-1 win over Burton on Friday.
While Coutts’ injury may have taken the shine off that impressive three points away from home, this match provided them with the perfect platform, in front of a home crowd, to show their togetherness and resilience after having to watch their teammate keel over in agony.
And it was a chance for Lundstram, who got the nod ahead of Carruthers, to stake his claim in the starting line-up and repay Wilder for the faith shown in him this time around.
It took just six minutes for the Blades to edge themselves in front as Clarke netted his tenth goal of the season. A neat lay-off from Mark Duffy to John Fleck gave space for the midfielder to drive towards goal and arrow a stinging effort that David Button could only parry into the path of Clarke.
On his current form there was no way he was going to pass up the chance for his sixth goal in three games, coolly slotting home the loose ball from six-yards out.
Perhaps guilty of letting concentration briefly slip, Fulham crafted a chance straight from kick-off, but as Ojo sent a header towards goal Jamal Blackman managed to tip it around the post at full stretch.
Despite Fulham’s poor run of results this term that left them languishing in 17th prior to the match, Slaviša Jokanović is no Championship novice having guided Watford to the Premier League in the 2014-15 season and narrowly losing out to Reading in May’s play-off semi-final.
Something hasn’t quite clicked this time around, although the interchanging front three of Floyd Ayite, Sessegnon and Liverpool loanee Ojo had other ideas.
It was the latter who stunned Bramall Lane just prior to the half-hour mark when he slotted home one-on-one with Blackman, profiting from a stray pass by Cameron Carter-Vickers to burst through the rearguard.
Things then went from bad to worse as Sessegnon steered the hosts in front in what was a frenetic couple of minutes, curling an effort that flew into the far corner to give United a wake-up call in a quick change of fortunes.
It was now a test of United’s resilience and willpower to fight back, and they replied in terrific style. With Clarke’s boots on fire after a rich vein of form, when the ball dropped to him on the far side of the box there was only one result. The front-man rifled in his seventh goal in three matches, hammering a driven effort inside the far post to send the home faithful into delirium.
A sense of both belief and relief rung around the stadium as half-time approached.
The euphoria was short-lived.
Ojo got the better of Jack O’Connell on the left-hand side to cross in to Sessegnon and, as the winger peeled away from his man at the back-post, he was left to prod home into the empty net to regain Fulham’s lead and net his third of the season. A regroup at half-time was necessary for Wilder’s men who needed a breather after a hectic first-half.
United didn’t appear to have the same zip or dominance in possession that you would associate with their performances this season, although to their credit they continued pressing forward against a well-drilled back-line.
On came David Brooks, fresh off his first Wales start, and Carruthers in an attempt to inject some creativity into a United team who were beginning to frustrate themselves.
But a low shot from Ojo took a slight deflection off Lundstram on its way past Blackman, beating the United keeper at his near post to send the Cottagers 4-2 in front twenty minutes from time.
The last throw of the dice for Wilder saw Hanson introduced, and it almost paid instant dividends as he leapt highest at the back post to see his header cleared off the line from a set-piece.
The night didn’t belong to Sheffield United.
As Sessegnon fired in for his hat-trick, drilling low past Blackman from a tight angle, it looked as if United would have to settle for defeat.
Carrurthers did, however, attempt to start a revival in the remaining five minutes when he netted his first of the season, curling in from inside the area and arching a shot that deflected into the far corner.
Then up-popped the unmarked Clarke to head in his hat-trick to give United a fighting chance of a share of the spoils in added time.
It was a valiant effort from United but they were punished for a poor defensive performance.
A sign that in the Championship you can’t afford to ship five goals and expect a result, but similarly Fulham will feel they need to tighten up after letting the Blades back into the match.
A win is a win, though, and Fulham’s Jokanović said that his team need to be more consistent in order to build on this result.
“It is a crazy game. It’s great entertainment for the supporters but less for us,” he said.
“They are full of confidence. They are strong and a team who play with a little bit of quality.
“We make life complicated [for Sheffield United] tonight, but they still show great spirit to try and chance the situation.
“We have to be more solid and we can’t expect to score five goals to win a game.”
Next up for Sheffield United is a home tie against Birmingham City on Saturday, 5:30pm kick-off.
Sheffield United: Blackman; Carter-Vickers (Brooks, 58’), Wright (Hanson, 75’), O’Connell; Basham, Lundstram, Duffy (Carruthers, 60’), Fleck, Stevens; Clarke, Sharp. Subs not used: Moore, Donaldson, Stearman, Lafferty.
Fulham: Button, Fredericks, Kalas, Ream, Odoi, Cairney (C), Norwood, McDonald (Johansen, 83’), Ayite (Kamara, 68’), Ojo (Forte, 74’), R Sessegnon. Subs not on: Bettinelli, Kebano, De La Torre, Edun.
Referee: James Linington
Scorers: Sheffield United: Leon Clarke (6’, 39’, 90+1), Samir Carruthers (86’)
Fulham: Sheyi Ojo (28’, 69’), Ryan Sessegnon (30’, 43’, 79’)
Bookings: Sheffield United: Billy Sharp (33’), John Lundstram (45+4’)
Fulham: Ryan Fredericks (33’), Floyd Ayite (45+2’), Denis Odoi (73’)
HT Score: 2-3
FT Score: 4-5
Man of the Match: Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham)