Reading have reached the 2017 Championship play-off Final thanks to a hard-fought victory over Fulham on a memorable night at Madejski Stadium.
Yann Kermorgant’s second-half penalty was enough to seal the win for Royals, who beat their London-based opponents 2-1 on aggregate to set them up for a Wembley showdown with either Huddersfield Town or Sheffield Wednesday on May 29.
It was far from plain sailing for the hosts, who were indebted to some incredible Ali Al-Habsi saves to preserve his clean sheet but, after five minutes of added time, Reading had sealed a spot at Wembley as the fans spilled onto the pitch.
Reading, forced to make two changes to their starting XI with the suspended Paul McShane and injured Jordan Obita dropping out, made the first inroads when Chris Gunter won a corner after his cross was deflected off Floyd Ayite. Joey Van den Berg’s short delivery to John Swift was clipped into the box but was then flicked well wide of Marcus Bettinelli in the Fulham goal.
Scott Malone then came down the left for Fulham and played in a low cross which Liam Moore cleared out for a corner. Ayite’s ball in was a dangerous one but Royals left wing back Tyler Blackett challenged well in the air to clear the ball to safety.
Shortly after Royals top scorer Yann Kermorgant had a great attempt on the turn palmed away one-handed by Bettinelli for a corner, who did exceptionally well considering the ball came through a crowd of players.
Pacey Fulham right back Ryan Fredericks then bombed down the wing and cut inside to fire a shot at Ali Al-Habsi who had to get down sharply and gather on the second attempt to prevent the Cottagers taking the lead.
The visitors came again as Fredericks won a free-kick just outside the Royals’ box and captain Tom Cairney curled in towards the top corner but Reading player of the season Al-Habsi clawed the ball out before reacting brilliantly to save Sone Aluko’s follow up. Fulham continued to keep up the pressure as Ayite escaped his marker at the back post from a corner and poked just wide.
The home side looked to respond when Lewis Grabban, under pressure from Tomas Kalas, fired a tame shot on the spin straight at Bettinelli. Grabban had another great chance just moments later when Swift’s surging run played in the Bournemouth loanee, but Grabban could not catch hold of the volley so the two teams, both vying for the play-off final headed into the break all square.
Royals sprinted out of the block after the restart when Kermorgant was released down the right flank and he crossed in towards Grabban who headed.
On 47 minutes Kalas handled the ball in the Fulham penalty area and referee Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot. Kermorgant stepped up and fired home to move Reading in front (2-1 on aggregate) and send the Royals fans to cloud nine.
Reading immediately looked to double their lead and almost did when Grabban broke through but the forward’s effort was well stopped by Bettinelli. The chances came in quick succession as Gunter on the overlap fizzed in a peach of a cross to Swift who from only a few yards out could not convert the tap in. The Royals playmaker instead played the ball straight into the willing arms of the Fulham keeper.
Former Royal Lucas Piazon came on for the Cottagers and nearly made an instant impact as he got on the end of a low Frederick’s ball in but the Royals defence blocked his effort out for a corner as the game really began to open up at both ends.
Reading then launched a counter-attack through Gunter who played the ball up to Danny Williams and the American’s shot fell to Kermorgant who fired wide from range. Kermorgant was then busy at the other end making two defensive blocks, with his head and also a sliding intervention to deny Fulham an equaliser.
The Cottagers ramped up the pressure with only 15 minutes left with Aluko cutting in on his left foot and firing just over the bar. Yet another sublime Al-Habsi save kept the Royals in front when Kevin McDonald’s effort was tipped over by the Oman international after Aluko had got the better of Van den Berg.
Royals held on, however, for a monumental victory to reach their first play-off final since falling to Swansea in 2011.
READING: Al-Habsi; Gunter (c), Ilori, Moore, van den Berg, Blackett (McCleary 66); Evans, Williams, Swift (Kelly 75); Grabban, Kermorgant (Mendes 89).
Subs not used: Jaakkola, Gravenberch, Kelly, Popa, Beerens, McCleary, Mendes
Goal: Kermorgant (pen) (49)
Yellow card: Kermorgant (51), Moore (52)
FULHAM: Bettinelli; Fredericks, Kalas, Ream, Malone (Martin 73); McDonald, Cairney (c), Johansen; Aluko (Piazon 58), Ayite (Sessegnon 58), Kebano.
Subs not used: Button, Odoi, Parker, Cyriac.
Yellow card: McDonald (38), Johansen (58), Malone (65)
Referee: Martin Atkinson