Chelsea’s unbeaten season at Under-18 level came to an end on Wednesday after a pulsating lunchtime fixture away to West London neighbours Fulham.
Goals from Moussa Dembele and Muamer Tankovic proved enough for Fulham to become the first team to take maximum points from the Blues this season, but Connor Hunte’s strike in response sparked a fight back which was so nearly completed on a number of occasions.
With local pride and their record at stake, it was a predictably strong team selection from manager Adi Viveash, with starts for Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Alex Kiwomya, whilst Dion Conroy made his full comeback after suffering a concussion at Middlesbrough. Viveash himself wouldn’t take charge of the Blues though, instead handing over the reigns to Under-16 coach Joe Edwards.
Much of the first half had an end-of-term feel to it, with the football on offer generally sloppy and below the standards usually exhibited by both clubs. Perhaps the players were distracted ahead of the holiday season, or maybe the sub-quality playing surface inhibited their ability to play.
Conroy was quickly back into the swing of things and was handily placed to keep Dembele’s close-range shot out, making a timely goal line clearance. The hosts would not threaten Ben Killip’s goal again until much later in the first half.
Instead, Chelsea took a firm grip over proceedings and began to probe. They didn’t quite get through to test Billy Granger in the home goal though, and were instead left wondering by a series of close moments. Hunte’s lively endeavour down the left looked the most dangerous outlet and the schoolboy had a good shout for a penalty fall on deaf ears from an official who has has better games.
The longer the opening 45 minutes went on, however, Fulham grew in confidence. The effervescent Tankovic led the way with some impressive touches and it was he who laid on the opening goal, showing touch and craft to set up Dembele for a close-range volley which Killip couldn’t keep out. The home team thus took a single-goal advantage in to the dressing room at the break.
If Chelsea were to stand a fighting chance of maintaining their streak they needed a strong start to the second half. Instead, they found themselves two goals behind when Tankovic pounced on a loose touch from Kevin Wright and unleashed a quite wonderful strike into the top corner, leaving Killip with no chance.
The goal could have had a majorly negative impact on the visitors but instead they reacted brilliantly; immediately stepping up the tempo and seeking a way back into the game.
Hunte and Kiwomya both had sights of goal which never found their way through to Granger, whilst Mitchell’s claim of a foul on him inside the box by Stephen Arthurworrey was not one shared by the man in the middle.
2-0 became 2-1 shortly before the hour when Jordan Houghton played a perfectly executed through ball to release Hunte, who finished excellently into the bottom corner. He could, and really should, have doubled his tally moments later from the same position, but put too much force behind the shot and saw it sail over the bar.
Fulham had certainly been rattled but manager Steve Wigley wasn’t in a panicking mood, and momente after Conroy had made a goal-saving tackle on Dembele he bravely sent on three schoolboy debutants, including goalkeeper Magnus Norman. Edwards introduced an Under-16 of his own in Charlie Colkett in relief of the tiring Tom Howard.
As Chelsea pressed relentlessly for an equaliser, they inevitably left gaps at the back. Jordan Evans screwed one chance wide before forcing a save from Killip, whilst Lyle Della Verde hit the post and Donnelly saw his header superbly tipped away by the Chelsea custodian.
The majority of the action was at the other end though, but the hosts were just able to hang on by hook or by crook. Tom Richards cleared Houghton’s header off the line from a corner before Mitchell won a free kick which Hunte saw blocked. Ambrose Gnahore’s arrival as an impact sub only served to add to the freneticism of the play but despite regularly seeing openings in the Fulham defence, Chelsea always found their path blocked by resolute defending.
Colkett was the only player to work Norman and only did so with a tame low shot, and so the Blues’ twelve-game unbeaten run in league and cup was ended. A mistake-ridden first half gave way to a thunderously exciting second with no shortage of incident and good performances. Both teams have already progressed to the Elite Group of competition in the new year and will fancy themselves amongst the favourites to be national champions come April.
Fulham: Granger (Norman 65), Sheckleford, Arthurworrey, O’Reilly (c), Richards, Donnelly, Della Verde, Tankovic, Evans (Leacock-McLeod 65), O’Halloran, Dembele (Redford 65)
Subs not Used: Roberts, Martin
Goals: Dembele 44, Tankovic 48
Chelsea: Killip, Dabo, Ssewankambo, Conroy, Wright, Houghton, Loftus-Cheek (c), Howard (Colkett 63), Mitchell, Hunte, Kiwomya (Gnahore 75)
Subs not Used: Beeney, Starkey, Kandi
Goal: Hunte 56