A beaming Chris Coleman declared this victory as the best of his managerial career after his fabulous Fulham side outplayed Manchester United to record a first win at Old Trafford since 1963. The Londoners were in total command from the outset, encouraged by an opportunist early strike from captain Lee Clark, and shrugged off the setback of conceding to Diego Forlan on the stroke of half time to dominate the second period and deservedly claim all three points thanks to goals from Steed Malbranque and Junichi Inamoto.
All the elements of Fulham’s remarkable start to the campaign under Coleman were in evidence here. There was a clear gameplan, looking to use the gifts of lone striker Louis Saha to unsettle the United defence and alongside the artistry of Malbranque and Luis Boa Morte, there was plenty of midfield industry and defensive diligence. United, watched from the directors box by a bemused Sir Alex Ferguson, fell to third in the table and could have no complaints after being comprehensively outplayed.
The hosts were perhaps unfortunate that a very presentable early chance fell to Gary Neville of all people but they failed to recover their composure after Fulham clinically punished an error from Mikael Silvestre. The French defender presented possession to Malbranque in a dangerous area and Clark stroked home a controlled finish at the near post having ghosted into the area.
As if to prove that their early lead was no accident, Fulham upped the tempo and continued to create chances. Mark Pembridge crashed a 20-yarder against the crossbar and the lively Saha, whose positioning and pace posed problems for the home defence all afternoon, was denied by a brave block from Tim Howard. It is no exaggeration to say that United barely had a sniff for the first 25 minutes.
The hosts eventually got a foothold in the contest with Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs going close, although their equaliser right on the stroke of half time still came significantly against the run of play. The goalscorer was unlikely but Diego Forlan’s first goal of the season was a fabulous finish. The Uruguayan striker showed wonderful poise and technique in latching onto Nicky Butt’s through ball and finding the bottom corner from the right side of the penalty area.
After the break, Forlan should have put United ahead but he shot wastefully wide when through on goal and, as time ticked by and Fulham began to put promising passes moves together again, the visitors’ belief that they could get a result visibly grew. United failed to heed the warning signs when Saha looked set to wriggle free of their backline, only for John O’Shea to come up with a fine saving tackle.
Just three minutes afterwards, Fulham took the lead again. Rio Ferdinand failed to clear Luis Boa Morte’s cross, allowing Saha to artfully tee up Malbranque, who finished clinically past Tim Howard. Ferguson sent on Paul Scholes in a desperate bid to engineer a comeback and, although O’Shea went close with a header, the visitors began to exploit the space left for them as United poured forward. Malbranque was again the architect of Fulham’s decisive third lifting a brilliant ball from the left into the path of the onrushing Inamoto, who chipped the advancing Howard, to complete a famous win.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): Howard; G. Neville, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Silvestre (Fortune 45); Djemba-Djemba (Bellion 80), Butt, Ronaldo (Scholes 69), Giggs; Forlan, van Nistelrooy. Subs (not used): Carroll, Fletcher.
BOOKED: Forlan, Djemba-Djemba, Fortune, Giggs.
GOAL: Forlan (45+2).
FULHAM (4-3-3): van der Sar; Volz, Bonnissel (Djetou 74), Goma, Knight; Pembridge (Inamoto 32), Clark, Legwinski; Malbranque, Boa Morte (Hayles 86), Saha. Subs (not used): Crossley, Melville.
BOOKED: Inamoto, Knight.
GOALS: Clark (3), Malbranque (66), Inamoto (79).
REFEREE: Mike Riley (West Yorkshire).