Following the euphoria of a dramatic derby win over Brentford, this was akin to an outing after the Lord Mayor’s show for Fulham. Marco Silva’s supine side were dumped out of the League Cup by a courageous Crawley Town team, who showed all the desire their illustrious Premier League visitors lacked and no little creativity either, and in truth Kevin Betsy’s men were probably deserved a much greater margin than the 2-0 scoreline they triumphed by. Silva’s inclusion of a combination of a new signings and youngsters in an experimental eleven ended up looking disrespectful – both to opponents with a proven Cup pedigree and the competition – after a display that was easily the worst of his thirteen month tenure at Craven Cottage.
But any account of an ignominious Cup exit has to probably credit Betsy, a former Fulham winger and academy coach, for his boldness. It hasn’t been easy for the popular 44 year-old, widely regarded within the game as one of the country’s most progressive coaches, after he stepped up to replace John Yems in his first managerial role. The Reds have picked up just one point from their first five league matches and sit second bottom of League Two, but a combative and energetic home side set about their opponents from the off – reflecting their manager’s sense of adventure after Betsy switched systems to play an enterprising 3-4-3.
A fluid forward line, comprising ex-Exeter academy graduate Tom Nichols, the experienced Ashley Nadesan and Liverpool loanee James Balagizi, utterly embarrassed Fulham’s new centre backs. Issa Diop and Shane Duffy, starting a competitive game for the first time, looked like they hadn’t met one another and poor Marek Rodak, put back in goal having been replaced by Bernd Leno at the weekend, also betrayed plenty of nerves with early error-strewn kicking. Fulham’s academy talent, including seventeen year-old Luke Harris – who lasted only 45 minutes – and an out of position Marlon Fossey, failed to impose themselves on proceedings, but plenty of experienced heads, including Joe Bryan and Nathaniel Chalobah, were well off the pace as well.
Betsy – as well as being a sports journalism graduate, who wrote his thesis on youth development – is a meticulous planner, having studied the methods of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and travelled to Brazil to watch Santos at close quarters and used drones to deliver pre-season training, but even he marvelled at how well his own second string executed the Crawley game plan. They started at a terrific tempo and Fulham, barring an early Bryan raid that produced a wild shot, could barely get out of their half. Warnings of what was to come went unheeded. Nichols nodded a fine cross from Jayden Davis into the arms of Rodak, before Kevin Mbabu nearly turned a set-piece into his own net and Harry Ransom headed the ensuing corner over the bar.
Fulham’s passing, so crisp and incisive in the early stages against Brentford at the weekend, was embarrassingly erratic here. Nothing encapsulated that more than when Tom Cairney’s ball out from the back hit Chalobah’s heels and put the Londoners in peril. Jack Powell burst away from static white shirts to feed Nick Tsaroulla, whose ball in was perfectly weighted for Nadesan. The former Fulham season ticket holder laid it off to Nichols, who controlled impeccably and sent a venomous volley under Rodak and into the far corner. It was no more than Town deserved and they should have been further in front by the break. Balagizi burst into the area after being released by Nadesan but went looking for a penalty before, only seconds later, nearly surprising Rodak at his near post with a low drive following fine approach play from Nichols.
Silva made two changes during the interval, sending on Martial Godo and Terry Ablade for Harris, who was unfortunate to be hooked on his debut having been given little opportunity to influence proceedings from the left flank, and Bryan. The pair were both bright on the rare occasions that Fulham reached the final third, but the Portuguese coach’s stern half-time team talk did little to alter the pattern of the first period. Crawley were once again the sharper side and doubled their lead within four minutes after Tyrese Francois gave away possession. Powell pounced again, playing in Nichols, who made the most of Diop’s disinterest in covering, by finding Balagizi, whose assured low finish sparked delirious scenes on the terrace behind the goal.
Fulham finally roused themselves with Godo very unlikely not to pull a goal back with an audacious overhead kick from Stansfield’s superb cross that whistled fractionally wide of the far post and Duffy, determined to take matters into his own hands, hammered an effort over from outside the area, before heading a couple of set plays off target late on. In between, Nadesan had a great chance to cap an outstanding display with a goal of his own, but Rodak repelled his drive after a free-kick had broken kindly for the striker in the area.
The hosts, who endured seven minutes of stoppage time after a mysterious succession of injuries, were fully deserving of a place in round three, even if a beaming Betsy was trying to refocus attention on the weekend trip to Rochdale following a pitch invasion after the final whistle. Crawley added Fulham to their Cup scalps, having beaten Leeds in the third round of the FA Cup last year and Norwich City at this stage of the League Cup in 2019, and it is probably understating it to suggest nobody drafted in to this Silva side will have given the head coach pause for thought ahead of Saturday night’s showdown with Arsenal, currently the country’s in-form outfit.
CRAWLEY TOWN (3-4-3): Addai; Johnson, Ransom, Ogungbo; Davis (Adebowale 87), Tsaroulla (Omole 45), Powell, Hessenthaler; Balagizi (Marshall 90+3), Nichols (Wells 77), Nadesan (Bremang 87). Subs (not used): Telford, Appiah, Grensall, Tilley.
GOALS: Nichols (16), Balagizi (49).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Mbabu, Bryan (Ablade 45), Diop, Duffy; Chalobah, Francois; Fossey, Harris (Godo 45), Cairney; Stansfield. Subs (not used): Gazzaniga, D’Auria-Henry, C. Robinson, McAvoy, Pajaziti, O’Neill.
REFEREE: Lee Swabey (Devon).