Twenty two years ago today, little old Fulham made the football world sit up and take notice. They had been the moneybags of the lower leagues for a little while, with Mohamed Al Fayed’s takeover at Craven Cottage and a sprinkling of star dust of big names sparking a push for promotion from the Second Division, after the harsh dismissal of cult hero Micky Adams made way for Ray Wilkins and Kevin Keegan – but a January trip to Premier League leaders Aston Villa in the FA Cup had the Whites firmly in the footballing spotlight.
A visit to Villa Park was particularly special for two Fulham stalwarts. Simon Morgan, who had toiled away as a tenacious utility man for more than a decade in the club’s darkest days, grew up as a massive Birmingham City supporter. He was inconsolable as a youngster when John Mitchell’s late winner settled the 1975 FA Cup semi-final replay in Fulham’s favour and was never going to miss the chance to take on Villa, even if he hadn’t played since December having injured his calf. There was something written in the stars about how he soared effortlessly to head home Steve Hayward’s corner after just eight minutes.
Hayward, a star of the Carlisle side that had earned promotion alongside the Londoners from the Third Division, became a regular fixture in the Whites’ midfield for a few years – an understated but classy performer alongside far more prominent names – was a boyhood Villa fan, who trained with the club as a youngster before beginning his professional career with Derby County. He had spent the week organising tickets for an assorted cast of friends and family and there’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that you can see some of them celebrating his deflected free-kick in the Holte End, where Hayward stood as a youngster, that doubled the lead on the stroke of half-time.
The whole day was had a dream-like quality about it. The masses of Fulham fans heading to the Midlands by train, car and coach then staring disbelievingly as their yellow-shirted heroes completely outplayed John Gregory’s league leaders. It was the day that you felt the Whites were finally going places. Keegan’s tactical masterstroke – switching to a back three to mirror Villa’s own system – worked so flawlessly that Maik Taylor was only seriously troubled once, when Julian Joachim raced clear but couldn’t convert. Morgan slotted in alongside Chris Coleman and Kit Symons, whilst the likes of Hayward, Wayne Collins and veteran Paul Bracewell swarmed all over Villa from first whistle to last and kept the ball with the poise of a Premier League outfit themselves.
It was also an afternoon where several Fulham stars proved they could play at the highest level. We weren’t in ‘Horsfield for England’ territory just yet, but the big ex-bricklayer posed all sorts of problems for Gareth Southgate in the air and dovetailed brilliantly with Paul Peschisolido up front – in the typical little and large partnership. Both had chances to add an even more convincing look to the scoreline only for the now-England manager to produce last-ditch tackles. Steve Finnan, not long previously who had been a forward with Notts County, and Rufus Brevett shone as wing-backs long before the positions were in vogue and it was no exaggeration to reflect afterwards that the Whites controlled proceedings throughout.
The post-match headlines were dominated by the fact that Stan Collymore, soon to have his own underwhelming loan sepll at the Cottage, had been a no-show for the Villains. Gregory could still pick most of the side that had carried Villa to the top of the table that season and there was no tarnishing this triumph for the delirious travelling support. Fulham’s Cup run, almost improbably ended by Leigh RMI in round one, would finish agonisingly at Old Trafford in round five as speculation about Keegan’s departure for national service gathered pace but this was one of the finest away afternoons in the club’s unique history.
ASTON VILLA (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Watson, Hendrie, I. Taylor, Scimeca, Wright (Vassell 59); Merson, Joachim. Subs (not used): Rachel, Grayson, Ferraresi, Hughes.
BOOKED: Ehiogu, Hendrie, Watson.
FULHAM (3-5-2): M. Taylor; Symons, Morgan, Coleman; Finnan, Collins, Bracewell, Hayward, Brevett; Peschisolido (Smith 82), Horsfield. Subs (not used): Arendse, Trollope, Salako, Hayles.
BOOKED: Finnan, Smith.
GOALS: Morgan (8), Hayward (45).
REFEREE: David Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill).