Lawrie Sanchez's fear that "usually you only get one bite at a Premiership side" proved to be a correct hunch in the end, although his Wycombe Wanderers side, FA Cup semi-finalists last season, bared their teeth and nibbled away at Fulham for more than an hour before succumbing in their third-round replay last night.
Two minutes from victory a week ago, before Steve Marlet's equaliser, the Second Division team again raised their game, but caused their own downfall this time with a defensive error for Barry Hayles' goal, followed shortly by the dismissal of their centre-half Jason Cousins.
Fulham's assistant manager Christian Damiano, not enjoying his first taste of plucky FA Cup underdogs with bite as well as bark, felt that the referee, Graham Barber, should have flourished his red card as early as the 15th minute; Louis Saha, about to burst clear from the centre circle, was caught by a kick in the face from Chris Vinnicombe, the last defender, that ended the French striker's participation in the game.
"Saha's nose is broken and the sanction should be a red card," Damiano said. "The referee needed to act more quickly and give the right application of the laws. Wycombe were too physical."
Having given Saha a bloody nose, they set about doing the same, metaphorically, to his team and had as many or as few chances in a dull first half. Jermaine McSporran, whose pace had been compared by Fulham's Steve Finnan to Thierry Henry's, demonstrated it on a couple of occasions early on but did not have the finish to match when the best opportunity materialised; errors by Sean Davis and Zat Knight, both diverting the ball back towards their own goal, let the former Arsenal trialist in to drag a disappointing shot wide of Maik Taylor's goal.
The goalkeeper's near-namesake at the other end, Martin Taylor, was barely troubled as Wycombe defended with vigour. Cousins and two team-mates were booked by half-time as well as Fulham's Rufus Brevett for a dive that added to the bad feeling and by the interval the home side had not managed a shot on target. "When you come to a Premiership ground, the idea is to nullify the opposition," said Sanchez's assistant, Terry Gibson. His side achieved that until after half-time, though it did nothing for the tie's entertainment value.
There was some work to do at last for the goalkeepers soon after the break, the two Taylors having to save low down from Stuart Roberts, a Wycombe substitute, and Steed Malbranque respectively. The hard-working Malbranque, the most forward point of Fulham's midfield diamond, volleyed wide after having his first effort blocked and Marlet was given offside as he turned Knight's mis-hit shot over the line.
The tide was slowly turning and in the 69th minute it brought a goal. Steve Brown dwelled on the ball, allowed the industrious Malbranque to dispossess him and feed Hayles, who shimmied this way and that before hitting a fine low shot just inside a post.
Six minutes later Wycombe's hopes diminished further with an unarguable second yellow card for Cousins, who again crashed into the back of Hayles, and it took three fine saves from Wycombe's Taylor to prevent further damage. Fulham will now provide a welcome pay-day for the impoverished York City at Bootham Crescent in the fourth round.
Wycombe's consolation, apart from being able to hold their heads up in front of their noisy supporters at the Putney End in a poor crowd of less than 12,000, is that they have not lost anything like as much ground in the league as last season, when they began a famous run in sixth position and finished it 20th, fighting relegation.
Fulham (4-1-3-2): Maik Taylor; Finnan, Melville, Goma, Brevett; Knight (Stolcers, 67); Davis, Malbranque, Boa Morte; Hayles, Saha (Marlet, 20). Substitutes not used: Hahnemann (gk), Betsy, Trollope.
Wycombe Wanderers (4-3-1-2): Mark Taylor; Carroll (Roberts, 43) Rogers, Cousins, Vinnicombe; Bulman, Simpson, Brown (Lee, 70); Currie; McSporran (Devine, 80), Rogers. Substitutes not used: Osborn (gk), Johnson.
Referee: G Barber (Tring).
* A High Court judgment is expected tomorrow on whether Fulham can go ahead with the redevelopment of Craven Cottage next season without the full public inquiry being demanded by local residents.Reuse content