Fulham Under-18s held on despite a stirring fightback from Sunderland to secure their place in the Academy Final with a 4-3 win at Motspur Park on Wednesday evening.
The Whites were seemingly cruising after two goals in each half gave them a four-goal cushion, only for the Black Cats to strike three times in the last 13 minutes to create a nervy finale for the home side.
Moussa Dembele had set Fulham on their way early on, with Cauley Woodrow doubling the advantage midway through the first half. Strikes from Patrick Roberts and Stephen Arthurworrey looked to have wrapped things up but Sunderland had other ideas, with efforts from George Honeyman, Victor Zapata-Caicedo and Carl Lawson hauling them back into the contest.
The Whites just about held on though to set up a showdown with Reading as they look to defend their Academy crown.
Wigley named an attacking line-up for the encounter, with forwards Muamer Tankovic, Woodrow and Dembele all handed starting berths, while exciting wideman Roberts provided another offensive outlet for the Whites.
A slick through ball from Woodrow with just five minutes on the clock almost sent Dembele through one-on-one, but the pass had too much pace on it for the Frenchman as the Sunderland keeper came out to collect.
Fulham weren’t allowing our guests any time on the ball and Emerson Hyndman tried his luck a minute later but his effort from 20 yards was harmlessly deflected into the grateful arms of Joel Dixon.
The Whites were making home advantage count and on seven minutes captain Woodrow skipped a challenge on the edge of the area before hitting a sweet effort that flew a yard wide of Dixon’s post.
Their dominance meant it came as no surprise when Fulham took the lead two minutes later. A lofted ball forwards was met by an excellent Woodrow flick-on to put the ball over the top of the backline and Dembele had the legs on the two centre-backs to burst through before controlling and confidently firing beyond Dixon.
A handball just outside the area on 13 minutes from Liam Agnew handed Fulham another opportunity to put the Wearsiders’ goal under siege, but while Tom Richards’ dead ball was well struck, it was too close to Dixon to cause him any real concern.
A sublime move on 19 minutes then almost saw Fulham double their lead. Hyndman fed Roberts on the right-wing and the England youth international jinked inside before poking a cute ball through to Woodrow. The Whites skipper took a touch before smashing in a goalbound shot which Dixon did brilliantly to smother.
It was a matter of seconds before Fulham scared the Black Cats once more when Josh Passley burst forwards from his right-back spot, looked up and bent a delicious low cross in towards Dembele. The striker’s outstretched boot made contact with the delivery but, unfortunately, it sailed just over the bar.
Wigley’s side were in absolute control of the fixture and fully deserved their second goal on 23 minutes. Passley found Roberts in the box and the tricky winger showed immaculate skill to beat two men in close proximity before playing a ball across the face for Woodrow. The 18-year-old didn’t make the cleanest of contacts but got enough on it to loop his shot over the stranded Dixon and into the back of the net.
Not content with a two goal advantage, Fulham continued to press, and Woodrow went close once more when his first time left-footed effort from Tankovic’s cutback took a crucial deflection that sent it over the bar.
More good work from Roberts just after the half hour mark ended with him finding Woodrow in the six yard box, but the striker was unable to get the ball under control with Dixon for company as the keeper collected.
Dembele had the ball in the net on 39 minutes but it was ruled out after Arthurworrey had unfairly challenged Dixon in the build-up after the defender had marauded forwards to try and get on the end of a free-kick.
Neat work by Tankovic then saw the Swede find space with Roberts for company. His pass found the winger whose wicked shot was tipped around the post for a corner by Dixon – the save all the more impressive considering the attempt took a nick on its way through.
Sunderland had barely had a look in during the opening 45 minutes and so they opted for a double change at the interval, with Lawson and Zapata-Caicedo taking the places of Jaz Sukar and James Stinson.
If the visitors were hoping for a prompt way back into the match, though, they were to be sorely disappointed as Fulham made it 3-0 less than four minutes into the second half. Hyndman robbed his man 30 yards from goal and marauded forwards until playing Roberts in at the opportune moment. Roberts then showed great composure to flick a first time lob over the onrushing Dixon with the ball dropping perfectly under the crossbar.
There was a first hairy moment for the Whites minutes later, though, when Marek Rodak attempted to dribble his way out of the trouble. The Fulham stopper was tackled by Zapata-Caicedo but luckily Arthurworrey was on hand to mop up the danger.
And the towering centre-back almost made a difference at the opposite end on 54 minutes when he headed marginally over after meeting Hyndman’s pinpoint corner from the left.
Dembele saw another goal disallowed soon after following great dribbling skills once again by Roberts – the frontman had strayed a fraction offside when Roberts played him in.
A hopeful ball over the top on 63 minutes gave Zapata-Caicedo the opportunity to stretch his legs and it looked as though the substitute would burst through one-on-one, only for Liam Donnelly to make a superb intervention to deny him the chance.
But it was Fulham who grabbed the game’s fourth goal minutes later. Hyndman’s corner dropped to Arthurworrey who didn’t panic as he took a touch before rifling a thunderbolt beyond the helpless Dixon.
Hyndman had grown in confidence as the game progressed and it was his precise through-ball that sent Dembele in on goal in the 71st minute. The striker had Woodrow for company but opted for the shot, with his driven effort narrowly fizzing past the far post.
Wigley than opted to make his first change of the game on 73 minutes when the mercurial Roberts was replaced by Jordan Evans – Roberts going off to great applause from the gathered fans.
Sunderland pulled one back on 77 minutes with their first effort of the match – and some goal it was too. Honeyman didn’t seem to have much on 25 yards from goal and he justified his decision to shoot when his bending effort with the outside of his right boot beat Rodak and curled just inside the far post.
A minute later Fulham made their second change, with Lyle Della Verde replacing the influential Hyndman.
Lawson had a chance to launch an unlikely comeback with nine minutes remaining when he found himself clean through after Richards and Arthurworrey had both failed to incept a hopeful forward pass. Luckily Rodak read the situation perfectly, rushing out and making himself big to smother the substitute striker’s poked effort.
Sunderland did reduce the deficit further though when Zapata-Caicedo put the ball in from a yard out after Martin Smith had sliced Honeyman’s cross towards the far post to ensure the last five minutes were nervier than they should have been for the Whites.
The Black Cats thought they’d grabbed a third on 88 minutes when the predatory Zapata-Caicedo slotted home from close range following a corner. Thankfully the striker was ruled to have been in an offside position from the flick-on that found him.
As 90 minutes arrived, the visitors did make it 4-3 when Lawson curled in a delightful effort from 20 yards out that left Rodak with no chance.
Sunderland pushed for the equaliser but ran out of time as Fulham held out to progress to the Final against Reading who had beaten Everton 4-0 earlier in the day.
Fulham: 1.Rodak, 2.Passley, 3.Richards, 4.Donnelly, 5.Arthurworrey, 6.Sambou, 7.Roberts, 8.Hyndman, 9.Woodrow, 10.Tankovic, 11.Dembele
Subtitutes: 12. Oberschmidt, 14. Burgess, 15. Baba, 16. Della Verde, 17. Evans
Sunderland: 1.Dixon, 2.Cartwright, 3.Sukar, 4.Agnew, 5.Ledger, 6.McNamee, 7.Honeyman, 8.E.Robson, 9.Stinson, 10.Smith, 11.T.Robson
Substitutes: 12. Lawson, 13. Strykjet, 14. McCarthy, 15. Zapata-Caicedo, 16. Greenwood