2015/16: Capital One Cup Third Round – Fulham v Stoke City
My League Cup adventure had taken me to two new grounds in the previous rounds – Carlisle United and Hull City – but today it was a return to much more familiar territory, that of my own team Fulham for their Third Round tie with Stoke City.
Stoke had come through the Second Round after beating Luton Town 8-7 on penalties, whilst Fulham had reached this stage of the competition after a First Round 1-0 win at Wycombe Wanderers and a Second Round 3-0 victory over Sheffield United.
With the League Cup games played in midweek it was a dash after work to catch the train from Leeds down to London. Attending games ‘suited and booted’ always has a strange feeling and this sensation was reinforced arriving at Kings Cross in rush-hour and blending in with the other ‘suits’ in travelling on the tube to Putney Bridge.
It really didn’t feel like a match-day as I emerged into Bishops Park for the walk to the ground with very few others making their way to Craven Cottage. Indeed it was a very subdued atmosphere in the stadium as I grabbed a beer and watched the sunset over The Thames.
By kick-off time just over 9,000 fans had congregated for this game with the travelling contingent from Stoke making themselves heard from the first whistle.
As is the trend these days in the cup competitions, Premier League Stoke made wholesale changes to their line-up with experienced squad players Shay Given, Steve Sidwell, Peter Odemwingie and Peter Crouch getting a rare first-team start.
The opening half-hour produced very little in terms of real opportunities for either side. Fulham were neat in possession but had no cutting-edge in the last third, whilst Stoke were reduced to an effort that Odemwingie dragged well wide of the Fulham goal.
On thirty three minutes Stoke made the breakthrough although there was a touch of fortune about it. Crouch collected the ball and looked to play a one-two with Odemwingie, as the Stoke player looked to make the return pass, Fulham’s Ben Pringle made the challenge and diverted the ball back into the path of Crouch who coolly finished past Lewis.
The goal provoked a response from the Whites and the crowd rallied as Pringle had an effort on goal and Burn hit the post from a header, although it was flagged offside.
Stoke led 1-0 at the break in what had been a pretty tight opening forty five minutes.
During the interval there was time to wander back out to the riverside amongst those queuing for half-time refreshments and take in the sights, sounds and smells. Reassuringly, these never seem to change, with optimistic talk of a second-half comeback floating in the air, mingling with the steam of hot drinks and the smell of fried onions.
Soon though it was time to return to our seats with a chilly wind following us from the Thames.
Fulham started brightly in the second period with an early effort from Pringle whistling over the bar. As the half continued, Stoke continued to be resolute at the back, but began to concede a number of free-kicks in and around their penalty box. However, McCormack could not make them count, with his efforts striking the visitors wall.
Just past the hour mark Fulham looked to ring the changes with a double substitution as Kacaniklic and Woodrow were replaced with Tunnicliffe and Dembele. Still they continued to press and create chances with McCormack unable to convert a Pringle cross and Dembele volleying over.
As the game entered the last fifteen minutes, Stoke were still clinging onto their slender lead and should have sealed the victory as Odemwingie was played into the box after Affelay had broken down the left, but the Nigerian international contrived to fire over the bar.
Fulham made their last substitution with eight minutes remaining in what was to prove a dramatic finale. First Christensen produced a long range lobbed effort from a poor clearance from Given, which ultimately dropped wide. Then with ninety minutes on the clock, Fulham were unable to clear and Stoke substitute Arnautovic with plenty of time and space curled his effort wide.
The fourth official indicated five minutes time added on and the Stoke faithful howled derisively. Fulham threw everything at the Potters, with Given making a great save from Christensen. Then with barely seconds left a header from Burn caused havoc in the Stoke defence and after a ricochet eventually came back to him, this time he crashed a shot against the bar. It had been a grandstand finish from Fulham, but Stoke had survived to progress 1-0.
Given that it was a small attendance tonight the exit was swift from the ground and within minutes walking back through the park along by the river the crowd had thinned and once again the feeling that it didn’t feel like a match-day returned. Across the river, the bright lights of the Star and Garter dazzled and voices enjoying an evening drink echoed over the water.
Back on the underground I was just another a weary looking commuter, although this one still had the delights of the last train North and arrival in the early hours in Leeds to navigate.