The odds on Kit Symons surviving until the end of the season are diminishing by the week.
Sheffield United handed Fulham’s beleagured manager, whose side prevailed courtesy of two Ross McCormack strikes, some sort of lifeline at Craven Cottage last night.
But, despite failing to reach the third round stage, the visitors seemed destined to claim a moral if not sporting victory until substitute Jose Baxter’s rash challenge on fellow substitute Tom Cairney earned him the first of two late red cards.
Despite their struggles in the Championship, the Capital One Cup brings out the best in Fulham.
Unfortunately for the Londoners, who entered this match having not lost a home tie against lower league opposition for 25 years, it seems to agree with United too.
With Nigel Adkins utlising the full array of options at his disposal, this fixture became a test of depth and desire.
So United, lacking the same financial resources and parachute payments enjoyed by the opponents, should take heart from the fact it took an £11m signing to break their resolve. Any comfort United’s manager was set to take from that, however, quickly disappeared when Baxter and Kieran Wallace were both dismissed during four mad minutes which also saw the previously profligate Moussa Dembele score.
Poor old Symons. The former Wales international has been a faithful servant to Fulham both as a coach and a player but, since replacing Felix Magath at the helm, can testify that sentiment is no longer enough to win over hearts and minds. The calls for Symons’ head, which have formed a discordant soundtrack to much of his reign, were muted until Dembele, unaware the assistant referee’s flag has been raised, dragged tamely wide just before the hour mark.
The jeers turned to cheers, however, when McCormack converted from the spot after Dean Whitestone adjudged he had been impeded by Craig Alcock. The decision looked terribly harsh on the full-back who, supported by several of his team mates, argued he had been guilty of nothing more than standing his ground.
No so Baxter who, after the Scot had claimed his second of the evening, whipped it away from Cairney’s feet after inexplicably losing his composure as they battled for the ball. Adkins, who has made no secret of the fact that promotion is United’s priority this term, will not lose too much sleep over the result.
But losing Baxter, who has made an impressive start to the campaign, did affect his mood during the post-match inquest. Possibly United’s plans in the transfer market too.
“There wasn’t a bad tackle in the game so it was a bit of a strange thing to do,” Symons said. “But fortunately our lad is okay.”
United had ended the first-half unscathed thanks, in no small part, to Harrison McGahey who twice thwarted the Frenchman during a frenetic opening. George Long, under intense scrutiny following a suspect display at Gillingham nearly three weeks ago, also delivered a convincing performance between the posts after being preferred to Mark Howard.
With one eye on Saturday’s League One fixture against Swindon Town, Adkins left nearly every member of his squad expected to enjoy a prominent role at the County Ground on the bench. Fulham, by contrast, made four changes with former Rotherham midfielder Ben Pringle and Ryan Tunnicliffe, once of Barnsley, among those handed reprieves.
McGahey, recovered from the pelvic injury which has forced him to miss United’s opening five matches of the new campaign, showed good positional sense and a sharp turn of pace to twice deny Dembele clear sights of goal during the early skirmishes.
But the young centre-half, whose colleague Che Adams officially agreed an improved and extended contract before kick-off, was powerless to prevent Tunnicliffe unleashing a powerful drive from the edge of the penalty box as Fulham discovered their rhythm. Fortunately for United, on this occasion, the crossbar intervened.
Adkins will not have been surprised to his team take a while longer to find theirs. Nevertheless, despite some inevitable miscommunications, they carried a threat themselves with Martyn Woolford harassing his marker into an error before flashing an angled drive wide.
Dembele continued to appear Fulham’s most likely route to goal although, as the half progressed, so United’s influential grew. Michael Higdon, enjoying his first start since January, used his strength well to chest the ball into Diego De Girolamo’s path but the youngster was eventually crowded out. James Wallace, handed the captain’s amband in Jay McEveley’s absence, brought bite to the midfield.
Indeed, it was a sign of United’s growing confidence that, as the interval beckoned, Alcock chose to set-up camp on the edge of Andrew Lonergan’s penalty area rather than keep hunting Pringle down.
Another well constructed move, instigated by De Girolamo and embellished by Alcock, ended with Woolford seeing a close-range attempt deflected behind for a corner.
But it was Fulham who broke the deadlock when, just past the hour mark, McCormack converted the penalty he had won. The former Leeds centre-forward beat Long with a low shot soon after before Dembele turned home after Baxter and Wallace had departed. The latter’s sending-off coming after he had hauled the Frenchman down as he bore down on goal.
Fulham: Lonergan, Richards, Kacaniklic (Cairney 62), Ream (Bodurov 79), Voser, Pringle, Tunnicliffe, Christensen, Dembele, Burn, McCormack. Not used: Lewis, Woodrow, Hyndman, Kavanagh, Cole.
Sheffield United: Long, J Wallace (Dimaio 66), McNulty, Woolford, Alcock (Adams 84), Reed, Higdon, De Girolamo (Baxter 66), McFadzean, K Wallace, McGahey. Not used: Howard, Freeman, Sammon, Edgar.
Referee: Dean Whitestone (Northamptonshire)