Fulham's miserable season took another depressing lurch last night when they were dumped out of the FA Cup in traditionally embarrassing circumstances. Bristol Rovers, two divisions below but vastly superior in terms of both adventure and endeavour, deservedly took their place in the fourth round when prevailing on penalties.
The goalkeeper, Steve Phillips, was the hero, making the only save in the shoot-out. It sent the Memorial Stadium wild and cast yet more gloom on the beginning of Roy Hodgson's reign at Fulham. He is now five games in and without a win, although he probably had only himself to blame. Hodgson made six changes to the side who were defeated by Arsenal on Saturday and confessed afterwards where his priorities lie. "We did leave one or two out," he said. "But we do have our battle against relegation starting again next Tuesday at Bolton."
A shock, of sorts, then, but that this replay took place at all was a minor miracle in itself. Since last week's replay was called off the ground staff had been working around the clock and £45,000 was invested in a cover. But it was a still a quagmire and when Fulham squelched out they were only too aware of the challenge ahead.
Rovers fairly sprang through the glue, with Chris Lines lively down the left. It was the winger's fine work that set up the first half's best chance when working the ball to David Pipe in the six-yard box, but Tony Warner proved equal to the midfielder's tame effort in the 42nd minute. Two minutes later, Andy Williams' shot was even weaker when played in by a deft chip over by his strike partner, Ricky Lambert.
They were both let-offs for Fulham, who were in desperate need of them as their own contribution was largely negligible. Jimmy Bullard, making his first start since September, 2006, tried manfully to justify the gulf in salaries and his crisply hit right-foot shot from 30 yards deserved better than to drift wide. On the hour mark a David Healy volley called on Phillips to perform an acrobatic leap and soon after the Ulsterman's clever touch sent in Dempsey yet once again the American fell short.
Heading into the final throes of normal time, Rovers reasserted. Lines was twice unlucky, first when a goal-bound effort was deflected off his team-mate Lambert and then when another strike was cleared off the line by Volz. In extra time, Lambert came closest and Fulham's problems intensified when Dejan Stefanovic was sent off.
Then followed the shoot-out and when Bullard's opening penalty was repelled by Phillips the surprise was on. A famous night for Rovers, who will now fancy their chances against Barnet on Saturday; another winless match for Fulham. That is now 13 without a victory. The new signings cannot start performing soon enough.
Bristol Rovers (4-4-2): Phillips; Lescott, Hinton, Elliott (Disley, 21), Jacobson; Pipe, Campbell, Coles, Lines; Williams (Rigg, 97), Lambert. Substitutes not used: Walker, Igoe, Carruthers.
Fulham (4-4-2): Warner; Baird, Hughes, Stefanovic, Bocanegra; Volz, Bullard, Brown (Seol, 90), Konchesky; Healy, Dempsey. Substitutes not used: Batista (gk), Davis, Milsom, Leijer.
Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).