This wasn’t the fairytale start Slavisa Jokanovic was after. Fulham’s new head coach rung the changes despite watching his new side triumph over Rotherham United in midweek, but a more organised and offensively threatening Sheffield Wednesday showed the Serbian the size of the task he has taken on at Craven Cottage. Ross Wallace, the scourge of Kit Symons’ side at Hillsborough back in September, went one better than delivering the dangerous balls by smashing an unstoppable, dipping effort past Andy Lonergan from thirty yards. Were it not for Lonergan’s second half heroics, the scoreline could have been far more convincing.
Even the inside knowledge of Stuart Gray, in charge of the visitors until last June, couldn’t help Fulham unlock a disciplined Owls defence that showed little signs of being depleted this afternoon, despite the absence of Tom Lees through injury, and their slick passing through the likes of Barry Bannan, Fernando Forestieri and Wallace set up several dangerous counter attacks. Fulham, set up with three central midfielders and the Finnish international Sakari Matilla guarding their vulnerable back four, were combative and determined but found fashioning clear-cut chances frustratingly difficult.
It was Carlos Carvahal’s side who threatened first. There were only two minutes on the clock when Gary Hooper, who nearly joined Fulham on loan from Norwich at the end of the summer transfer window, crept goalside of Dan Burn to reach a hopeful ball forward from Liam Palmer but the striker’s header looped just wide. Vincent Sasso then tricked his way past Tim Ream and sped threateningly along the by-line but his shot was smothered behind by a combination of Jamie O’Hara and Lonergan.
Fulham’s best periods of play came through their midfield triumvirate. Matilla’s shooting left a little to be desired but he was busy in front of the hosts’ defensive line, releasing Alex Kacaniklic with a fine through ball, only for Jamie O’Hara to drag his shot wide. Emerson Hyndman brought a fine diving save from Joe Wildsmith before O’Hara bent an effort just wide from long range. Moments later, the visitors were in front – having weathered Fulham’s pressure to score a goal of outrageous beauty. There appeared little danger as Wallace came forward down the right, but he was afforded the time and space to cut inside onto his stronger left foot, and his superb strike beat Lonergan at his near post and went in via the underside of the crossbar.
Jokanovic’s side gamely pressed for an equaliser – which they briefly thought they had found when Ross McCormack thumped home a clever pass from Moussa Demebele only to denied by an offside flag – but they lost their disciplined shape in the second period, and could have been dead and buried long before the final whistle. Ten minutes into the second half, Bannan played a delicious ball through the heart of the Fulham defence only for Lonergan to scamper off his line to deny Hooper. The former Bolton keeper got his angles right to turn away a venomous drive from Atdhe Nuhiu and the Albanian striker then played in Hooper only for Lonergan to make a splendid one-on-one stop.
Fulham sent on Scott Parker, Luke Garbutt – and belatedly Tuesday’s two-goal hero Cauley Woodrow – in search of a leveller. For all their possession and probing, Jokanovic’s side only created one genuine opportunity, with Woodrow sending a free header over the bar from Jazz Richards’ measured cross. The new head coach couldn’t muster the perfect start, but he will have learnt plenty about his new side – and their opponents – ahead of a rematch in the FA Cup third round at Hillsborough in seven days time.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Lonergan; Richards, Ream, Stearman, Burn; Matilla (Garbutt 71), O’Hara (Parker 63), Hyndman; McCormack, Kacaniklic (Woodrow 77), Dembele. Subs (not used): Lewis, Hutchinson, Christensen, Smith.
BOOKED: Burn, McCormack.
SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY (4-4-2): Wildsmith; Palmer, Pudil, Loovens, Sasso; Lee, Bannan, Wallace (Sougou 76), Forestieri (Helan 90); Hooper, Nuhiu (Joao 89). Subs (not used): rice, Hutchinson, Josè Semedo, Wiggins.
GOAL: Wallace (29).
REFEREE: Kevin Johnson (Somerset).