No fifty-year fairytale and no extended cup run to compliment a promising league campaign, but this defeat was as much about attitude, pride and commitment as it was about technical quality and ruthlessness.
Tony Mowbray’s side were beaten but not disgraced by their Premier League opponents, but this five-goal game was entertaining, lively, and more than a little bit crazy.
Mowbray’s team selection certainly showed respect to the competition and to Fulham, with the ever-improving midfield axis of Edouard Michut and Dan Neil retained, the imposing figures of Dan Ballard and Danny Batth in defence, and a start for the exciting Abdoullah Ba.
With three games to play over the next seven days, striking the balance isn’t easy but in fairness to Mowbray, he clearly wanted to maximise our chances of progress and for that he deserves credit.
Fulham, in contrast, were much-changed and it felt as though Marco Silva was prioritising the Cottagers’ Premier League top six bid over progress in the cup. However, they could still call on the likes of Tom Cairney and this was still a decent team.
The first incident happened less than ten seconds in, as Patrick Roberts took a whack in the face but was soon on his feet and ready to carry on.
Early on, the balance was fairly even.
Fulham were seeing plenty of the ball but posing no major threat until Manor Solomon got onto the end of a raking Duffy pass, but Ballard was able to make a solid challenge to snuff out the threat. Shortly afterwards, Dan Neil tripped Harry Wilson but the resulting free kick came to nothing.
However, the deadlock was soon broken.
Wilson was the man to make the breakthrough as his outside-of-the-boot shot from the edge of the area evaded the grasp of Patterson to nestle in the bottom corner and give the visitors an early lead.
A poor defensive header from Roberts in the buildup made it all the more frustrating, but it showed that lapses will always be punished, and especially against top flight opposition.
The challenge now was for the Lads to respond, but Fulham’s retention of the ball was impressive and we were chasing shadows as we tried to build some momentum.
We looked fairly disjointed and unable to string any sequences together, but a driving run from Ba almost led to an opening as he played Amad in.
At the other end, a loose pass from Roberts set Wilson away, but his tame shot was easily smothered by Patterson, and after Neil lost the ball cheaply from our own throw-in, the Welshman shot wide after a good run.
Was there a gulf in class? Without a doubt. Was it entirely surprising? No, but a well-struck shot from Amad let the visitors know that we weren’t out of the contest.
Indeed, we continued to pose an increasing threat, the likes of Ba and Jack Clarke were starting to see more of the ball and as the half ended it was finely balanced.
Fulham’s introduction of Andreas Pereira and Aleksandar Mitrović at the break felt quite ominous, but with a one-goal deficit, we weren’t out of it by any means. However, when Ba decided to run towards his own goal with three Fulham attackers on his case, we almost paid a heavy price.
At the other end, a slaloming run from Clarke ultimately led to nothing before an arcing shot from Neil drifted wide of the post. Thirty seconds later, Roberts was unable to find a finish after great play from Clarke and a good save from Marek Rodak.
The chances were coming but we just couldn’t convert them, and eventually the visitors took advantage. Mitrović’s shot was well-saved by Patterson, but he was able to hook the ball back into play and Pereira had the easiest of tap-ins.
Cruel? Possibly, but that’s the difference that quality players can make- they can and will change the dynamic of a game.
However, there was a major boost for Sunderland when Clarke curled home a beauty with fifteen minutes left. It was the least we deserved after our admirable persistence and a great moment for a player who’s taken some outrageous criticism this season.
Fulham eventually made it 3-1 through a close-range volley from Layvin Kurzawa, but we struck the final blow when Jewison Bennette curled home a neat finish to ensure that we had the last word.
A great game to watch, an invaluable learning experience for our young players, and a sign of the progress of recent times. If we’re disappointed to be exiting the cup at the hands of a a Premier League team, that’s not a bad place to be.