By Morgan Phillips
My first ever FA Cup tie was a 3rd Round match at Craven Cottage against Walsall, on Saturday 8 January 1949.
It started at 2pm because floodlights had not been introduced and an allowance had to be made for half an hour’s extra time.
In my schoolboy’s innocence I was confident of victory: the Whites were fourth in the old Division 2, and had only once lost at home that season. Walsall were 14th in Division 3 (South). Boldly I had deleted in my diary the League match scheduled for Saturday the 26 February, which would have conflicted with a 5th Round tie.
Despite having one of the best five-man forward lines in the club’s history Fulham could not score against the team from a lower division. Walsall won by the only goal.
After that apparent set-back Fulham went on to secure the Championship of the Second Division, losing only three of the remaining 18 fixtures. Was there a deliberate decision to lose against Walsall? That would never have been admitted in the days when the FA Cup held such prestige. Now there is more candour.
As Alan Smith stated in the Evening Standard: ‘No-one expects Fulham to win the FA Cup. It’s all about surviving in the Premier League.’
He qualified that with the observation that a home defeat by Oldham would not be great for morale, and indeed on Saturday the managers of Cardiff and Huddersfield looked far from overjoyed when their teams succumbed to supposedly weaker opposition.
Fulham, playing the bottom tier’s Oldham Athletic the following day, should have heeded the warning.
No-one questions Claudio Ranieri’s decision to rest some key players and promote Marcus Bettinelli, Neeskens Kebano and Floyd Ayite, all of whom have performed well in the past; but the reorganised team did not seem to have enough desire for victory.
Neither side rose above the mediocre in the first half (even that was an improvement on the Huddersfield match). Ayite headed wide on two occasions and Kebano worked hard though his performance was marred by a pathetic dive. Bettinelli, like his Oldham counterpart, had little to do.
With the visiting fans in splendid voice the second half was more of a cup-tie. In a team devoid of strikers Denis Odoi took advantage of Kebano’s centre to open the scoring. It was great to see his back flip celebration once again. Kebano could have settled the match and enhanced his reputation in a one to one with keeper Daniel Iversen, but shot wide.
Ryan Sessegnon, coming on in the 73rd minute, conceded a penalty almost immediately for a tussle with Clarke. Sam Surridge put his team level.
After Tom Cairney’s tumble in the opponents’ box the referee awarded Fulham a penalty, though it required a protracted debate with the Video Assistant. To the naked eye both penalty decisions looked harsh.
Aleks Mitrovic, brought on specially to take the kick, lacked his customary venom, and Iversen saved well. The missed penalty syndrome is back again! Perhaps it compensates for the diving fad.
In the 88th minute with a replay almost certain an unmarked Callum Lang headed the ball past Bettinelli to give Oldham victory.
Fulham’s verdict: ‘Our lads played well below their usual League standard and we must try and forget Saturday 8 January, and now concentrate on improving our League position.’
Sorry, that was 1949. Seventy years on Ranieri castigated the players who had been given the chance to impress. Was it their fault that they were short of practice?
The manager seemed to disclaim any responsibility for the defeat: “I put my ideas across about the Premier League (being a priority), but of course I didn’t want to lose the match.”
Perhaps we should all ‘try and forget’.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and unless specifically stated are not necessarily those of Hammersmith & Fulham Council.
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