In recent years, the early rounds of the League Cup have been a time for nerves and worry at Craven Cottage. Half-strength sides have succumbed to lower league ambition and the usual platitudes about concentrating on the league were trotted out afterwards by a succession of managers. Mark Hughes resisted the temptation to mess about with the side that showed such fortitude against Manchester United on Sunday, reckoning that the confidence gained from that draw would be best maintained by the safe negotiation of what might have been a tricky banana skin and a strong Fulham side rewarded him with a comfortable 6-0 win.
The three alterations to the side that matched Manchester United saw Matthew Briggs step in for Liverpool-bound Paul Konchesky at left back, Moussa Dembele make his first start in place of Clint Dempsey and Zoltan Gera replace Simon Davies. Both relative newcomers fully justified their selections. Briggs, highly thought of at Motspur Park since stepping off the bench with such calmness as sixteen year-old at Middlesbrough back in 2007, displayed such assurance during his hour on the pitch that it isn’t too much of a stretch to see him as a long-term successor to Konchesky. The England under-19 international displayed a real appetite to attack from the off and delivered a teasing cross for Zoltan Gera to head the home side into a tenth minute lead. Dembele, impressive in a brief cameo on Sunday, had already extended Stuart Tomlinson in the Vale goal prior to doubling Fulham’s lead with an angled drive from 20 yards that clipped the far post on the way in.
Former Fulham manager Micky Adams, afforded a rapturous reception on only his fourth return to Craven Cottage since being sacked at the start of Mohamed Al-Fayed’s riverside reign didn’t send his League Two side out to man the barracades. Having embarassed big-spending QPR in the first round, Vale had ambitions of causing another shock and had they had a little more luck in front of goal they might have capatilised on a lively start. David Stockdale failed to collect a Sean Rigg cross and Adam Yates’ header was deflected wide. Only a desperate defensive scramble cleared the danger as Justin Richards bore down on goal, but once Fulham got their noses in front, Vale couldn’t live with the Premier League side’s sharper passing and swift tempo.
Dembele might have doubled his tally when Briggs floated over another inviting cross and Tomlinson did well to fist away a Zamora volley, but Fulham’s third wasn’t long in coming. Bobby Zamora, who was plucked from Bristol Rovers’ reserves when Adams was in charge at Brighton & Hove Albion, cleverly dummied a Briggs pass before lashing a Gera ball into the far corner from an almost insanely tight angle at the near post. Gera added a fourth as half-time approached, taking full advantage of the amble space a hesistant Vale defence afforded him inside the box to chip Tomlinson with a little help from the underside of the crossbar.
Adams did manage to tighten things up in the second half which was played at a slower pace partly due to the torrential rain that swept across the ground. Tomlinson spread himself well to deny substitute Clint Dempsey and the American reprised his memorable chip against Juventus only for the Vale keeper to prove himself equal to the task of stopping it. The visitors had chances of their own but both Marc and Justin Richards failed to find enough room in which to fashion a shot.
Two late goals added made the scoreline more convincing for Fulham. First, Zamora expertly curled a free-kick around the wall into the far corner of the net from 23 yards and then Dempsey drilled a long-distance drive past Tomlinson to make it six. Vale, backed by a boisterous support of around 1,000 fans, kept playing until the end and deserved a goal that almost came their way after a defensive mix-up that saw Stockdale parry a Marc Richards’ shot and Stephen Kelly hook the rebound to safety.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Stockdale; Pantsil, Briggs (Kelly 57), Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu (Greening 57), Murphy, Gera, Duff; Dembele (Dempsey 45); Zamora. Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Baird, Riise, E. Johnson.
GOALS: Gera (1o, 45), Dembele (26), Zamora (36, 66), Dempsey (70).
PORT VALE (4-4-2): Tomlinson; Yates (R. Taylor 13), McCombe, Owen, Collins; Griffith (Bell-Baggie 45), Rigg, Roberts (Frazer 45), Dodds; J. Richards, M. Richards. Subs (not used): Martin, T. Taylor, Morsy, Malbon.
REFEREE: Andy Penn (West Midlands).