FA Cup third round day is one of my favourite football afternoons of the year. That might have something to do with the fact that the third round draw was always the stage when the big boys entered the Cup when I was growing up as a Fulham fan. Reaching the third round was always considered a Cup run in the pre-MAF days and, in recent years, we’ve gone from being giantkiller to giantkilled.
From horrible defeat in the rain by Hayes to Micky Adams scoring two late penalties to save us at Ashford, Fulham have never been far from a Cup shock or two. A glorious Cup run under Kevin Keegan saw us lose out at Old Trafford (and, no, I still haven’t forgiven John Salako) but as a Premier League side, Fulham’s Cup fortunes have been closer to humiliation than glory. True, Roy Hodgson did guide us to the quarter finals last year – just a round short of Jean Tigana’s semi-final defeat by Chelsea when the Whites returned to the top flight – but Fulham were walloped by Manchester United in front of the ITV cameras.
Early defeats by lower-league sides have been more commonplace than trips to the last eight in recent years. Chris Coleman prioritised the league over the domestic Cup competitions and Fulham were well beaten by Leyton Orient at this stage in 2006. Bristol Rovers almost repeated the trick a couple of years later only for a late Danny Murphy equaliser to force a replay. Fulham were eventually beaten on penalties at the Memorial Ground after a goalless draw.
The FA Cup would usually be the competition that sides like Fulham would target, feeling confident that, should they progress through the early rounds and the draw open up a little, they may have a chance of reaching the latter stages as Tigana’s side did. But Fulham’s continued participation in the Europa League and their relatively strong league position means Hodgson might use tomorrow’s tie to give a mixture of promising youngsters and fringe players a run.
He’ll have to get the balance right, though. Swindon sit sixth in League One, in the last of the play-off places, and, roared on by a large travelling support, will pose plenty of problems should Fulham not take them seriously. Top scorer Billy Paynter, with twelve goals in total, should lead the line whilst Danny Wilson’s side could also include the highly-rated Billy Sharp and former Fulham midfielder Michael Timlin, who was one of the youngsters tipped to break into the first team by Coleman, but never quite managed it.
Hodgson’s team selection will be interesting. If there wasn’t a tough trip to Stoke on Tuesday, the side would surely have less of an experimental look to it. David Stockdale will probably replace Mark Schwarzer in goal and it is also reasonable to expect young Chris Smalling, so unfortunate at Chelsea on Monday, to keep his place at the back. The injury to John Pantsil, on which we are still waiting for conclusive news, will mean a change at right back. Stephen Kelly didn’t feature in the squad at Stamford Bridge so this could be an ideal stage for Keanu Marsh-Brown to step up from the reserves.
The midfield might also show some changes too. Bjorn Helge Riise looked lively in his five minutes of derby action and could come in down the right side, whilst Wayne Brown is eligible to feature for the first team again. Hodgson handed Brown a first-team debut in that replay at Bristol Rovers a couple of years ago and the midfielder was very impressive on loan at TPS in the summer. It’s not beyond the realms of probability that he might get some more playing time tomorrow.
Up front, the Zamora-Johnson partnership might be reprised as our ex-England striker proved his fitness as a substitute at Chelsea. A predatory display would be just the kind of reminder Roy could be looking for as we head into a potentially hectic spell of league and European fixtures.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-2): Stockdale; Marsh-Brown, Konchesky, Hughes, Smalling; Brown, Murphy, Riise, Duff; Zamora, A. Johnson. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Baird, Kallio, Dikgacoi, Gera, Dempsey, Nevland.