Former Fulham forward Andrew Cole came back to haunt his old club as Manchester United ended the Second Division side’s stunning FA Cup run at Old Trafford this afternoon.

Kevin Keegan beamed with pride after watching his side restrict the champions to mostly speculative long-range shots after Cole’s 25th minute close range strike, which needed a deflection to beat Maik Taylor. The former Liverpool favourite, who was serenaded by United fans with chants of ‘Keegan for England,’ was disappointed not to take the Red Devils to a replay at Craven Cottage after John Salako missed a glorious chance to equalise midway through the second half.

The Whites kept going until the end and there was no disgrace in the narrowest of defeats at the Theatre of Dreams. Fulham’s bread and butter remains securing promotion back to the second tier, which would leave them a step closer to realising Mohamed Al-Fayed’s dream of establishing his club as the Manchester United of the south. Such comparisons don’t appear quite as preposterous after watching the Cottagers go toe-to-toe with England’s most famous side and emerge with credit.

Fulham, who had already knocked Southampton and Aston Villa out of this competition, were true to their word of fearing nobody. They came to Old Trafford determined to take the game to their illustrious hosts and, after surviving a fierce fifteen minute onslaught from United, probably had the better of a forgettable contest. Without the services of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, Alex Ferguson resisted the temptation to rotate with Arsenal in town on Wednesday – but United’s display was pretty pedestrian by the Scot’s high standards.

Dirk Lehmann spurned a couple of early chances to test the United rearguard before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer offered the hosts’ first real riposte. The Norwegian, part of an ultimately ineffectual front three alongside Cole and Dwight York, saw his first cross-cum-shot cleared by the commanding Chris Coleman. But Fulham’s relief was short-lived with Cole stabbing home from a Solskjaer cross to give the Red Devils the lead.

Cole celebrated a fortunate strike against a Second Division side with real zeal having been perturbed by the unveiling of a banner proclaiming him to be a ‘Fulham reject’ by the travelling supporters. The teenage striker, then on Arsenal’s books, managed only four goals in fifteen games at Craven Cottage and clearly didn’t see the funny side of the Cottagers’ humour. But if his strike was meant to open the floodgates, Fulham hadn’t read the script.

The visitors might have had an equaliser inside sixty seconds when Lehmann looked to have tripped inside the United box by Gary Neville and were then indebted to Taylor, who made a sprawling save down to his right to keep out Yorke’s effort after the Trinidad and Tobago international fired a Solskjaer flick goalwards. United kept up the pressure at the start of the second period, but Fulham fashioned the clearer chances.

Steve Hayward had a free-kick charged down but Steve Finnan’s follow-up tested Peter Schmeichel from range. Keegan replaced Lehmann with Kevin Betsy on the hour and the visitors should have been level shortly afterwards. Finnan drove towards goal again, with the Danish goalkeeper unable to gather the effort – and former England winger Salako somehow found Schmeichel’s hands when it seemed easier to score from five yards out.

Taylor kept the Cottagers in the contest after superb saves from Yorke and Beckham as United sought the killer second goal. But their nervousness about their slender lead was betrayed with two minutes left when Ferguson replaced Cole with centre half Ronnie Johnsen to protect United’s advantage. Fulham’s fight was commendable – even if they ultimately failed to force another fairytale.

MANCHESTER UNITED (4-3-3): Schmeichel; G. Neville, Irwin (Greening 45), Berg, Stam; Butt, P. Neville, Beckham; Solskjaer (Blomqvist 65), Cole (Johnsen 88), Yorke. Subs (not used): van der Gouw, May.

GOAL: Cole (26).

FULHAM (4-4-2): Taylor; Finnan, Brevett, Symons, Coleman; Smith, W. Collins (Uhlenbeek 87), Hayward, Salako (Trollope 74); Hayles, Lehmann (Betsy 59). Subs (not used): Arendse, Brazier.

REFEREE: Jeff Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).