A crestfallen David Moyes, soon to be put out of his misery as Manchester United manager, told the press that ‘it doesn’t get any worse than this‘. His reaction was understandable – anyone who had watched the Sunday afternoon live game from Old Trafford would have considered one of the most remarkable results of the weekend – after bottom of the table Fulham resisted 81 crosses, a whole barrage of United pressure and then claimed a precious point thanks to Darren Bent’s injury time equaliser.
Whilst Moyes was left to lick his wounds following what was widely lamented as the nadir of his spell in the home dugout at Old Trafford, this result marked the high point of former Manchester United coach Rene Meulensteen’s brief spell in charge of Fulham. The Belgian followed this draw with a gut-wrenching injury-time defeat by Liverpool at Craven Cottage and, after a far flatter performance saw the Whites eliminated from the FA Cup in a fourth round replay by League One Sheffield United, Meulensteen was replaced by the eccentric Felix Magath in a doomed attempt to preserve the club’s Premier League position.
Meulensteen had sprung a surprise on his return to Old Trafford by handing Fulham debuts to Jonny Heitinga and Ryan Tunnicliffe, the Heywood-born midfielder who had captained United to FA Youth Cup success and left for London only ten days earlier on transfer deadline day, whilst teenage forward Muamer Tankovic made his league debut. The new coach preferred Dan Burn to Brede Hangeland in the centre of defence, with the young defender making headlines in days following the game by comparing United’s constant crossing with the type of attacking he faced during his non-league days.
Fulham absorbed home pressure from the off, but stunned Old Trafford by taking the lead against the run of play twenty minutes in. Little Lewis Holtby dinked a delightful ball over the United defence and there was Steve Sidwell sliding in to steer a finish past the stranded David de Gea. Robin van Persie, who had already been denied by a fine Sascha Riether tackle, should have equalised almost immediately but lifted Rafael’s cross over the bar at the back post. The visitors had another lucky escape when Maarten Stekelenburg parried Michael Carrick’s effort before Sidwell bravely blocked van Persie’s follow-up.
The visitors should have made it two before the break, when they hit United on the counter attack. The impressive Tankovic, looking far from overrawed on the big stage threaded a ball through for former United utility man Kieran Richardson, but the ex-England international fired over the bar. Had Tankovic opted to play the ball right rather than left, Tunnicliffe would have been free for a tap in. As it was, Fulham would still have considered themselves fortunate to head in ahead at half time.
The same pattern continued after the interval. Stekelenburg made a sensational save to keep out Wayne Rooney’s effort from a van Persie cross and it was soon all-out-defence from the man in white. Jon Arne Riise got in the way of a venomous van Persie drive and substitute Scott Parker also produced a block tackle on Rooney, when the England skipper looked certain to score. When Fulham’s defence was breached, they caved in twice within the space of two minutes. First, a tiring back four could only clear Patrice Evra’s cross as far as Juan Mata and van Persie poached the equaliser from two yards and then Michael Carrick’s deflected drive from the edge of the box wrongfooted Stekelenburg to put the hosts ahead.
It looked for the world as though Fulham’s brave rearguard action would count for nothing, but that assessment reckoned without the late drama. Bent, who had been something of a spectator in the final third having replaced Tankovic at half time, stopped to head home the equaliser in the fourth minute of added time after David de Gea could only push Richardson’s shot up into the air, sparking wild scenes of celebration in front of Fulham’s travelling supporters.