Fulham’s season ended in gut-wrenching anti-climax as a penalty early in the second half ended their ambitions of making it to Wembley and the Premier League.
The Whites have never won a play-off – having failed in two previous attempts in 1989 and 1998 – and that unwelcome statistic was one they simply could not shake off during another frustrating 90 minutes against the Royals.
As at Saturday at Craven Cottage, there was not much in it, and Fulham played the better football. But that will not ease the pain of a bitter 2-1 aggregate defeat that has torpedoed a season of great promise.
At the end, several distraught red-shirted Fulham players were on their haunches or sat on the turf, wondering how all their possession – and they had plenty of it over the two legs – had come to nothing.
But for all their excellence this season, they could not quite summon the incisiveness they needed when it mattered most against a more physical Reading side.
Fulham’s fate was effectively sealed on 48 minutes when Tomas Kalas, under pressure from the ever-dangerous Yann Kermogant, fatefully flicked up an arm to guide the ball away from the Reading striker as the pair contested an awkward bouncing ball.
Unfortunately for the Whites’ defender, ref Martin Atkinson spotted the movement of madness, and Kermogant himself gratefully swept the resulting penalty past Marcus Bettinelli’s right hand.
It very nearly become much worse, when a cross from the right found John Swift five yards out with the goal at his mercy. There were huge sighs of relief from the visitors as the Fulham keeper blocked the effort to keep his side in the game.
A double substitution just before the hour was almost instantly rewarded, with Lucas Piazon – on for Neeskens Kebano – almost converting a Sone Aluko cut-back.
Then, second sub Ryan Sessegnon had an effort from distance, after being release by Aluko’s athletic pass into inviting space down the left channel.
With time starting to run out for Slavisa Jokanovic’s side, Chris Martin entered the fray in place of Scott Malone to try and lend the attack a greater focal point, but the best chance in the final flurries fell to Kevin McDonald.
Aluko’s dancing feet got him past Joey Van den Berg inside the area and it looked odds-on that McDonald would tuck away the opening from eight yards – but Al-Habsi somehow tipped over and it immediately felt like the story of Fulham’s fate had been written.
The warnings of a difficult night ahead were there from the outset, with Bettinelli having to be at his best to get down low to his right to keep out a full-blooded drive from Kermogant.
Ryan Fredericks lifted spirits with a good run into the area, cutting in from the right before arrowing a left footer towards the near post which tested Al-Habsi.
And the Whites, so slow to find their feet at first, almost took the lead when Tom Cairney arced a free-kick over the wall to test the reflexes of Al-Habsi – who also did well to keep out the follow-up from the busy Aluko.
Lewis Grabban had a chance at the start of the second half – heading a cross goalwards but without the direction or pace to seriously trouble Bettinelli. But in Reading’s next serious attack, Kalas gave away the spot-kick which gave the hosts the upper hand that they never relinquished.
Fulham: Bettinelli; Fredericks, Kalas, Ream, Malone (Martin 73); McDonald; Kebano (Piazon 58), Cairney, Johansen, Ayite (Sessegnon 58); Aluko. Subs not used: Button, Odoi, Parker, Cyriac