It may well have been the coldest night of the year (or at least since February) but the few hundred souls who turned up at Griffin Park for the West London Reserve Derby were treated to a six-goal thriller featuring end-to-end action, full-blooded tackles and a hell of a lot of promise. Goals from Fulham’s Nordic (apt) duo of David Elm (twice) and Toni Kallio were countered by strikes from Billy Knott, Daniel Sturridge, and Milan Lalkovic to take a deserved share of the points.
With international call-ups depriving Steve Holland of key components in the form of Conor Clifford, Jacopo Sala, Fabio Borini and others, the team took on a young look once again. Schoolboy Danny Mills started at centre-half once again, with first-years Josh McEachran, Milan Lalkovic and Knott also starting. The selections of Ross Turnbull and Daniel Sturridge looked to add some experience to the team, with Nikki Ahmed in a rare return to central midfield, whilst Fulham were able to feature internationals in the form of Kallio, Simon Davies and goalkeeper Pascal Zuberbuhler. The Cottagers themselves did, however, also feature a sprinkling of youth, handing starts to promising defenders Chris Smalling, Matthew Briggs and Keanu Marsh-Brown.
Billy McKinlay’s boys were to take the lead inside the opening two minutes, and in desperately easy fashion. Michael Uwezu was allowed time and space in the area to knock a ball back towards Elm, and the lanky Swedish forward simply opened his body and curled an effort beyond the sprawling reach of Turnbull. It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts, but fortunately the Blues bounced back instantly and were level within two minutes themselves. Sturridge dropped a ball over the top of the Fulham back line and Knott ran onto it, composed himself and drilled an effort into the bottom corner. It marked his sixth goal in six consecutive games, five for the Under-18 team, and he was thoroughly delighted with his first effort at this level.
Inside the next five minutes the home team got even younger. Michael Woods was making his first start since September but suffered a knee injury in a tough challenge and was unable to shake it off on the sidelines. His night over prematurely, Billy Clifford became the fifth youth team regular to be on the pitch, playing in the anchor role of the diamond. He started positively, using his energy and drive to move the ball quickly and look to build through the middle of the park, with Holland ever his encouraging self. Lalkovic showed his first signs of life in sending a rasping drive across the face of goal, but Zuberbuhler was down well to save.
Ahmed and Lalkovic both had sights of goal as the half ticked on and will feel they should have done better, and just after the half hour mark Fulham made them regret their profligacy by taking the lead for the second time. Some untidy defending from Chelsea – particularly Mills – left Elm free twelve yards from goal, and he was able to beat Turnbull for the second time. In response, the hosts built a good move which ended up out wide on the right, and Ofori-Twumasi’s cross landed on the top of the crossbar before skidding to safety. The lead held out until half time, perhaps an unfair representation of a game which Chelsea had very much been in control of for the better part of proceedings.
There could not have been a more marked difference to the start of the second half to what had gone before, as the quality of the game nose-dived. Perhaps a re-introduction into the freezing Brentford night caused everybody to seize up, but the midfield play on both sides was poor, and attacks constantly broke down. Turnbull was awake though, and showed it in flying outside of his area to close down Uwezu, heading wide of the goal in behind. The ex-Middlesbrough stopper crashed into the Ghanaian and was fortunate to only receive a booking for his trouble.
The onwatching crowd had to wait until just before the hour mark for the next moment of interest, but it was worth waiting for. Good approach play from Ahmed fed McEachran, who slid an inch-perfect ball in for Sturridge to run onto. He beat Zuberbuhler to the ball on the edge of the box, rounded him and slotted into the back of the net to restore parity and wake everybody up. It was a classic pass and a composed finish from two of Chelsea’s brightest talents. The team were far less convincing at the other end though, and inside three minutes Fulham had their third lead of the night. A deep free-kick to the far post saw a mis-match against opponents in white and Smalling was able to head across goal for Kallio to beat Turnbull from close range. The Finnish defender had scored in this fixture two years ago and was making his mark once again.
It was Fulham’s turn to rise from their slumber and Luca Moscatiello went close to sealing the win with a scorching drive from distance which dipped just too late and went over. Turnbull continued to leave every Chelsea fan nervous when his poor kick fell to Elm 25 yards out, but Bruma managed to get in the way of his effort on the open goal left by the dubious goalkeeper. With the clock running towards the final fifteen minutes Sturridge had a goal disallowed for offside and Knott was booked for the second of two big up-endings of Marsh-Brown. He was soon withdrawn for Daniel Philliskirk, having played 90 minutes on Saturday and almost all of another days later.
With five minutes of normal time remaining Chelsea equalised for the third time, and it was through the goal of the night. Philliskirk started the move, spreading the play out to the left where Sturridge picked it up and gave it short to Ben Gordon. He played the ball down the line for Sturridge to return to, and the forward stood the ball up to the far post, where Lalkovic rose like a salmon to head past Zuberbuhler and into the back of the net for his first reserve team goal. In the closing stages two spectacular efforts almost won it for the home team, first Philliskirk’s dipping volley landed on the roof of the net, followed by a howitzer from Clifford, who hit the back stanchion of the net from at least 35 yards out. But it was Fulham who came closest to nicking all of the points, as centre-back Chris Smalling powered his way through a tired defence down the right, beat Turnbull, but was denied by the near post.
In the end the 3-3 draw was a fair result and another positive performance in places for such a young side. The midfield quartet worked well for the most part, with McEachran pulling the strings and looking ever more comfortable at this level. Knott had an outstanding first half an hour but faded from that point, with mistakes creeping into his game, but after 90 minutes on Saturday he may be forgiven somewhat. Bruma had one of his harder games at this level and looked less comfortable than in games previous, but Billy Clifford was a positive for the most part in the anchor role, using the ball well and keeping the play going more often than not. He held onto the ball too long at times, but it was a good midfield display from a player who hasn’t always looked at his best there. More than enough to take from the game to keep you warm, which was most necessary on this night.
Team: Turnbull, Ofori-Twumasi, Bruma (c), Mills, Gordon, Woods (B. Clifford 8), McEachran, Knott (Philliskirk 80), Ahmed, Lalkovic, Sturridge
Goals: Knott ‘5, Sturridge ’58, Lalkovic ’85