August is fast becoming a month of disappointments for Slavisa Jokanovic. The Serbian coach’s furrowed brow at the final whistle said it all after Ellis Harrison’s first half strike proved enough for League One Bristol Rovers to send Fulham crashing out of the Carabao Cup at the second round stage – and leave the questions piling up for the Whites ahead of Saturday’s trip to in-form Ipswich Town.
Harrison’s timing was impeccable as this was his first Rovers goal away from the Memorial Stadium since he scored in Fulham in the same competition last season – against Chelsea. The lively forward, a menace all evening, kept his composure after collecting a clever reverse pass from the excellent Liam Sercombe to go through on goal, rounded a helpless Marcus Bettinelli and slid the simplest of finishes into an empty net. The former Exeter and Oxford skipper was clearly three yards offside when he surged onto a Chris Lines pass to continue a swift Rovers counter-attack, but the flag stayed down and the visitors profited.
This was far from a smash and grab raid from Darrell Clarke’s impressive side who fully merited their victory. Billy Bodin might have made it two when he bundled past Tayo Edun and into the box but miscued his strike and captain Tom Lockyer squandered a great chance from a corner just before the break when, after a bout of pinball in the Fulham area, his powerful shot was repelled by a fine reaction save from Bettinelli, who should have been given little chance from point-blank range.
Fulham, who changed their eleven entirely after Saturday’s first defeat of the campaign against Sheffield Wednesday, made little impression in the first period. The disappointing Neeskens Kebano, who did little to suggest that Jokanovic had been wrong to use him only as an impact player in the opening games of the season, sent a low cross towards the back post from a promising position but Lee Brown cleared the danger under pressure from Aboubakar Kamara, who was too often isolated up front – but also opted for intricacy instead of precision when the openings presented themselves.
The home side were restricted to hopeful efforts from distance by a disciplined and well-organised Gas defence. Liverpool loanee Sheyi Ojo sent one skidding wide from just outside the box on his Fulham debut, whilst Oliver Norwood – who laboured in a deep-lying playmaking role at the base of the midfield – saw a deflected side easily fielded by Sam Slocombe right on the stroke of half-time.
Fulham found more energy and carried a greater threat after the interval but couldn’t turn their plentiful possession and pressure into more clear-cut chances. Kebano fashioned the first opening for himself, cutting inside onto his right foot from the left angle of the box, but drove a rather tame effort straight at Slocombe when he could have shot across the goalkeeper. Young Matt O’Riley and Kamara saw efforts blocked at source, whilst referee Dean Whitestone inexplicably failed to card Ryan Sweeney for raising his hands to the French forward and pushing him over inside the box after an off-the-ball scuffle.
The visitors might have made the game safe when substitute Rory Gaffney sent Tom Nichols haring through on goal with a delightful outside of the foot through ball that represented his first touch after replacing the goalscorer Harrison. Gaffney got to the ball before Bettinelli, but the Fulham goalkeeper – making his long-awaited first start of the season after recovering from a hamstring injury – made himself big and got a vital touch to the ball with his body after advancing outside the box and Nichols was eventually crowded out.
Jokanovic sent on Ryan Sessegnon for the final ten minutes as Fulham finally put the Rovers goal under some concerted pressure, but the visitors held firm. Kamara bundled his way through a host of physical challenges and through sheer persistence found Kebano in the box, but the Congolese winger’s venomous shot clear the crossbar. It was Kamara who wasted the best chance at the death – sending a free header from Kebano’s cross agonisingly wide of the far post in stoppage time.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; S. Sessegnon, Edun (R. Sessegnon 81), Madl, Djalo; Norwood, Cisse, O’Riley; Ojo, Kebano, Kamara. Subs (not used): Button, Odoi, Kalas, McDonald, R. Fonte.
BRISTOL ROVERS (4-3-3): Slocombe; Bola, Brown, Lockyer, Sweeney; Lines, Sercombe, Sinclair; Bodin (Nichols 61), Moore (Broom 81), Harrison (Gaffney 68). Subs (not used): Andre, Burn, Telford, Broadbent.
BOOKED: Gaffney, Slocombe, Sweeney.
REFEREE: Dean Whitestone