If Antonio Conte wanted lessons in how to win hearts and minds inside a football club’s boardroom, he should have taken the short walk to Craven Cottage last night.
Both Sheffield United’s Chris Wilder and Slavisa Jokanovic, the combative manager of victors Fulham, have found themselves grappling with political issues this term.
Yet, unlike Chelsea’s irritable Italian, they have focused their energies on creating effective, attack-minded teams rather than picking public fights with the powers-that-be.
This match, which was often more keenly contested than the scoreline suggests, confirmed the wisdom of their decision and Conte’s folly.
Fulham, who saw Aleksandar Mitrovic score twice before Tom Cairney stretched their advantage, are fast, fluid and serious challengers for automatic promotion.
United, despite failing to record the win which would have seen them remain level on points with sixth-placed Middlesbrough, returned home bitterly disappointed but knowing they had, in Wilder’s parlance, given it a damn good go.
Their contribution was recognised by the travelling supporters and the 50-year-old himself although he expressed frustration that a purposeful start had not produced any goals.
"I've got to admit, I didn't think that was as one-sided as perhaps people might come away and think," Wilder said.
"In fact, I thought we could, probably should, have gone ahead inside the first 10 minutes. But in the big moments, the key moments that ultimately decide things, they've got that quality to make the difference. A quality, with all due respect, few others in this division have."
Two passages of play, squeezed into 60 first-half seconds, demonstrated the difference between these two sides.Clayton Donaldson, United’s £50,000 capture from Birmingham City, went close at one end with a miscued volley before Mitrovic, who earns that in a week, produced an immaculate finish to stretch Fulham’s lead.
The Serbia centre-forward, whose arrival from Newcastle has turbo-charged Jokanovic’s already powerful side, commanded a £13m fee when he moved to St James’ Patk three years ago. Players of that calibre are beyond Wilder’s reach but his inexpensively assembled squad punch way above their financial weight.
Still, they were powerless to prevent Cairney from consolidating Fulham’s top two credentials and extending their unbeaten run to 10 games.
Despite noting the opposition’s firepower and technical prowess, Wilder pledged United would attempt to pose some questions of their own on the north bank of the Thames. “You see teams on the box, even in the Premier League, who don’t try and win,” he said, before boarding the train to London. “But not us.”
It was a message which clearly resonated with his players who, aware of the talent at Fulham’s disposal, were nevertheless intent on demonstrating they possess plenty of their own.
That attitude, which has made a huge contribution to their successes since last season’s promotion, also guaranteed an absorbing spectacle for the fans.
But amid attempts from Billy Sharp and Chris Basham, there were also reminders about the threat Fulham posed. Stefan Johansen, their Norwegian midfielder, twice tested Jamal Blackman during the first period while Mitrovic, a loan signing from Newcastle, was a predictable menance.
Given his international and top-flight pedigree, it inevitably proved costly when United failed to track the former Partizan Belgrade marksman’s run towards the edge of the six yard box to meet Ryan Fredericks’ cross.
Mitrovic, who has now scored five times in his last four outings, stretched Fulham’s advantage moments before the interval and provided them with the breathing space to showcase their full repertoire of tricks.
With Leon Clarke failing a late fitness test yesterday morning, Donaldson was tasked with partnering Sharp in a forward line enhanced by David Brooks’ return to the bench following a back complaint.
Sharp, the United captain, spent the final moments before kick-off gesticulating furiously to his colleagues and, exactly as he had implored, they made a positive start with Basham forcing Marcus Bettinelli to save.
Mark Duffy’s persistence and spatial awareness also troubled Fulham during the opening skirmishes before Mitrovic, despite earlier requiring treatment from the physios, recovered to win a corner he nearly converted at the far post.
As the fixture unfolded, Jokanovic’s men inevitably found their rhythm. Johansen sent Jamal Blackman scrambling across his area after unleashing a shot which proved too powerful to gather at the first attempt.
United’s goalkeeper, again preferred to the more experienced Simon Moore, was called upon again soon after when a delighftul touch sliced open United’s rearguard and the 27-year-old signing from Celtic saw another drive spiral awkwardly towards the net after taking a deflection.
If Mitrovic’s first was simple his second - caressing the ball beyond Blackman in a flash after ghosting across a defender - was a thing of beauty. United, with Brooks’ creating another half-chance for Donaldson after being introduced at the break, did their best to discover an escape route but ended up conceding a third when Cairney pounced.
Fulham: Bettinelli, Fredericks, Sessegnon, Odoi, McDonald, Johansen (Norwood 65), Cairney, Ream, Ojo (Piazon 59), Targett, Mitrovic Fonte 87). Not used: Norman, Ayite, Christie, Kamara.
Sheffield United: Blackman, O’Connell, Stearman, Basham (Brooks 46), Stevens, Baldock, L Evans, Fleck, Duffy, Sharp (Holmes 65), Donaldson (C Evans 65). Not used: Moore, Lundstram, Leonard, Lafferty.
Referee: Keith Stroud (Hampshire). Attendance: 18,400. Star Man: John Fleck