This was a good old-fashioned Cup tie to rival the first installment of an intriguing battle between one of football’s esteemed elder statesmen, Roy Hodgson, and one of the game’s up-and-coming managers, Roberto Martinez. Fulham could consider themselves quite fortunate to even got as far as a replay after being outplayed in the 1-1 draw at the Liberty Stadium a week and a half ago and it took us a long, long time to turn our dominance into the goals that carried the Whites through to a quarter-final meeting with Manchester United.
Hodgson picked the side that most Fulham fans would have predicted, choosing to rest Andy Johnson, who had picked up a muscle strain in midweek, and captain Danny Murphy with Saturday’s tough test at the Emirates in mind. That meant Olivier Dacourt came into midfield and Erik Nevland got a start up front alongside Bobby Zamora, but Nevland’s wasteful finishing looked like it might have cost Fulham a place in the last eight.
Roared on by 3,500 followers from south Wales, Swansea aimed to repeat their fine display in the first game. They kept the ball magnificently and stayed true to the principles laid down by Martinez, who always looked too classy a player to be languishing in the lower leagues of English football with Wigan whenever I came across him. Fortunately, the Championship side were required to do a lot more defending tonight than in the first game as Fulham tried to put them on the back foot.
An early goal would have given the Whites a real boost and they nearly got one. A Simon Davies corner founded Nevland in space at the back post and, in the ensuing scramble, Fulham came close to taking the lead.
Swansea served notice of their threat on the corner attack moments later, though, when Jason Scotland’s shot surprised Mark Schwarzer and Brede Hangeland had to be alert to deny Guillem Bauza a chance of profiting from the rebound. Fulham’s big Australian goalkeeper produced another good save from the impressive Jordi Gomez but the home side finished the stronger.
Nevland was denied the opening goal when his blistering volley was brilliantly kept out by Dorus De Vries and then Hangeland hit the woodwork for the second game in succession when his header bounced back off the crossbar from a Davies corner.
Any words of warning from Hodgson at half-time were hardly heeded as Swansea produced the perfect start to the second period by taking the lead. Fulham were more than culpable for the goal, though, as Nevland surrended position, Davies struggled to win it back and both Aaron Hughes and John Pantsil failed to close down the dangerous Scotland, whose shot crept Schwarzer at his near post. It wasn’t the sweetest strike in the world but that didn’t stop the Swans in the Putney End from going absolutely beserk.
Dacourt, whose lack of match fitness was really showing, was replaced by Murphy, who I felt really made a difference from the bench. He was the presence we had previously lack driving the side forward from central midfield, even if Roy’s second substitution withdrawing the ineffectual Nevland in favour of Zoltan Gera seemed a little baffling.
We continued to knock at the door and found it ajar, but couldn’t clamber through it. Zamora, who kept going throughout, fluffed a couple of decent chances, one from about five yards when he hit it straight at the goalkeeper, who then dived forwards to deny Davies before collasping laughably in apparent agony inside his six-yard box once the ball had gone out of play for a throw.
Dempsey, who by this time had switched to join Zamora in attack, was finding more room in front of the Swansea defence than he had out wide. He played in Davies, whose shot was well saved by De Vries, but the combination worked a treat from a left-wing corner just when our patience was beginning to run out. Davies swung the ball over and white shirts converged on the ball as it flashed across the six-yard box. Dempsey seemed to be falling as he headed it towards the far corner but got the perfect connection to put it out of the reach of the goalkeeper.
The relief was tangible. Dempsey might have had a quickfire brace soon afterwards had De Vries not made an outstanding stop with his outstretched leg after Zamora had sent the American clean through on goal with a lovely slide-rule pass. The Hammersmith End didn’t have to wait long to acclaim the winner as a thing of real beauty arrived barely 60 seconds later.
Davies did brilliantly to outfox his man down the right and whipped over an inviting cross which Zamora headed majestically into the far corner with relish. Perhaps the Welshman was right when he said the floodgates might open for Bobby after Sunday’s opener against West Brom. The little piece of skill Davies completed before sending over his cross really was sublime and there was no doubting how much this victory meant to him as he joyously thumped his Fulham badge after the goal. Perhaps he’s back to his best as well.
I simply can’t finish without a word of contempt for Mark Halsey, who gave a first-class demonstration of why he’s not fit to be a Premier League referee. He was ridiculously fussy, missed countless bouts of shirt-pulling and obvious free-kicks, and booked Etuhu for the first foul of the game when it was nothing more than a clumsy challenge. He threatened to ruin what was an absorbing game.
We should also spare some time to give credit to Swansea. With a little bit of luck, it could have been them in the quarter-finals instead of us. They are a credit to Martinez and play attractive football with two wide players, who really are wingers, hugging the touchline. We certainly could not have had any complaints had they beat us in the first game – and they came close to going through tonight. They may well be back next season if they can replicate those performances in the remainder of their Championship fixtures.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Dacourt (Murphy 60), Etuhu, Davies, Dempsey (Kamara 90); Zamora, Nevland (Gera 60). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Baird, Kallio, Milsom.
GOALS: Dempsey (77), Zamora (81).
SWANSEA CITY (4-5-1): De Vries; Rangel, Tate, Williams (Bessone 90), Serran; Britton, Gomez, Bauza (Butler 72), Gower (Tudur-Jones 55), Dyer; Scotland. Subs (not used): Cornell, O’Leary, Orlandi, Collins.
GOAL: Scotland (47).
REFEREE: Mark Halsey (Lancashire).