David Platt was here, sitting not too far from the Aston Villa chairman, Doug Ellis, but Villa supporters should not get too excited yet. While Platt would undoubtedly consider a return as manager to the club he graced as a player, he has a European Championship Under-21 finals in May to negotiate first.
With the Southampton left-back Wayne Bridge a possible to be called up next week by Sven-Göran Eriksson for the friendly against Holland in 10 days, Platt was checking on Villa's promising Jlloyd Samuel, a useful performer yesterday, for the Under-21s.
With Graham Taylor having turned down the chance to return as caretaker manager to succeed John Gregory, Villa could certainly do with some leadership, judging by this latest limp performance, mirrored by Fulham's.
Gregory's decision to leave Villa Park and take the Derby job remains baffling, even allowing for victory in his first game, against Totten ham. He may well have found it frustrating trying to prise transfer funds out of Ellis, but Villa still have enough quality - much of which he bought - to trouble the top teams.
Indeed, it would not take too much to make them one themselves. Gregory was always a cautious coach, and a more ambitious, adventurous approach to empower players too used to being in a comfort zone for too long would go a long way.
That they are stuck in their ways was again evident yesterday. With their captain Paul Merson again prompting from wide on the left, they often outplayed a Fulham side lacking in confidence, especially in front of goal, and Edwin Van Der Sar was quickly the more troubled goalkeeper. Ruthlessness was distinctly lacking, however.
Juan Pablo Angel had an excellent early chance, after Merson had sent in Moustapha Hadji for a low cross, but he sliced wide from a mere eight yards out. Van Der Sar then clung one-handed to a deflected shot from Hadji before saving Steve Staunton's free-kick low down.
It took Fulham 35 minutes to fashion a threat on Peter Enckelman's goal. Zat Knight crossed from the left and Steve Marlet headed down only for Louis Saha, illustrating his barren spell in front of goal, to lob into the goalkeeper's arms.
There was more urgency to Fulham at the start of the second half, and Enckelman did well to fingertip Knight's low drive round a post, but soon Villa re-established the pattern: controlling the ball, assembling some neat approach play, but finishing as limply as their opponents.
Vassell played a neat one-two with Angel but his shot, with only Van Der Sar to beat, hit the goalkeeper's legs.
The Fulham manager, Jean Tigana, called for his team to increase the tempo and start pressing Villa more.
It almost paid dividends when Steed Malbranque ran at the heart of the Villa defence and slipped a pass to Barry Hayles, whose shot was again well saved by Enckelman.
Next, Hayles latched on to Van Der Sar's wind-assisted long kick, only to lob the ball over the goalkeeper but on to the roof of the net.
At the death, the Finn saved again excellently at Hayles's feet. It was appropriate that a goalkeeper should be man of the match with neither side able to buy a goal.
THE LAST time these two sides met in the top flight at Craven Cottage, in 1966, Fulham won 5-1, a season after Villa had scored a 6-3 victory here. No such luck yesterday. A second goalless draw for Villa since the departure of John Gregory nine days previously only emphasised the frustration their former manager felt - although when it came to finishing yesterday, Fulham had the greater reason to despair.
No fewer than four times in the last 20 minutes or so Barry Hayles seemed poised to score only to be denied by Villa's defensive vigilance or his own shortcomings. Six Premiership games without defeat is at least something for the new Villa manager to build on, but goalscoring will remain a problem as long as chairman Doug Ellis keeps his hand in his pocket.
Their former manager's debut win at Derby earlier in the afternoon had clearly fired Villa, judging by the determined manner in which they began this game. Fulham, still without Sean Davis and Lee Clark in midfield, were now without John Collins, too, and they were over-run in that department in the first half, as much by Villa's numerical advantage of five to three as any individual superiority.
They broke with pace and the Fulham defence, in which Jon Harley was making his first League start since the opening day of the season, were at full stretch.
Juan Pablo Angel, Villa's record signing, is almost unrecognisable as the player who once looked like he might lead to Gregory's sacking rather than his resignation. Bursting with confidence, his burgeoning right-wing partnership with Mustapha Hadji almost produced a goal after nine minutes but the cross from the Moroccan skimmed off the Colombian's toe. A few minutes later, Edwin van der Sar did well to cope with a deflected shot by Hadji.
It was 33 minutes before Fulham seriously threatened. A ball knocked forward by Zat Knight was headed down by Steve Marlet for Louis Saha, but the young Frenchman just failed to lob Peter Enckelman. Saha's frustration must have got the better of him because, eight minutes later, he was booked for diving after he went down under a well-timed challenge from Olof Mellberg.
Fulham began the second half with greater purpose and Enckelman, who was standing in for the injured Peter Schmeichel, did well to save low down from Knight. Villa were soon back the offensive only for their lack of clinical finishing to resurface. Darius Vassell, playing a one-two with Angel, was left with only Van der Sar to beat but the Dutchman saved with his legs.
The arrival of Bjarne Goldbaek for Knight after 63 minutes coincided with a change in the pattern of the game, if not in the fortunes of Hayles. First the excellent Mellberg denied him with another well-timed interception; then Enckelman distinguished himself again with another difficult low save. And when finally he escaped the clutches of defender or goalkeeper he chipped over the bar. Finally, in the last minute, Enckelman went down bravely at his feet.
The team John Gregory left behind ground their way to a second drab goalless draw since his departure, following Wednesday's shell-shocked effort at home to Everton with a more confident, though no more exciting performance at Craven Cottage. Only briefly, in the second half, were Villa under any great pressure, Barry Hayles' misses emphasising why Fulham, bursting with goals last season, have now scored fewer than one per game in the Premiership.
"We want Ellis out" was heard as soon as the game began from the visiting supporters and immediately it finished. The man himself, searching for the 13th manager of his 27 years in charge of the club, stood beaming in the directors' box next to Mohamed Al Fayed, with Roy Hodgson, who had touted himself for the Derby County job, not far away. Unlike Al Fayed, the Villa chairman wisely declined a scarf-waving tour of the pitch.
Both men had more to think about than shout about after a poor afternoon's entertainment, which, as is usually the case, satisfied the away team more than their opponents. "We're getting on the bus disappointed not to have the three points," said Stuart Gray, who, with John Deehan, is temporarily running the show after Graham Taylor had made it clear on Friday that he was not keen to take the job on a short-term basis.
Fulham's followers, growing used to unbroken success, were all the more disenchanted that such a meagre showing should come immediately after a dismal 1-0 defeat at Ipswich that, according to the players, brought a rare outburst from their normally composed manager Jean Tigana. He dropped Bjarne Goldbaek, with Hayles returning to a front three who interchanged regularly but with little success.
One excellent Scandinavian goalkeeper deputised for another for Villa, the injured Dane Peter Schmeichel making way for the Finn, Peter Enckelman, who had nothing to do for more than half an hour as Villa made much the more confident start, profiting from the home side's costly habit of giving the ball away.
Fulham's followers, initially noisy, soon quietened down and had their patience tested by the team's carelessness on a soft, sandy pitch which, admittedly, does not help their passing game. Apart from Louis Saha getting a toe to Steve Marlet's headed flick to give Enckelman a comfortable catch, the only real talking point of a wretched first half was yet another yellow card for a Fulham player for diving; this time Saha was the offender.
Mercifully, the second half was brighter, with genuine chances at either end. Within two minutes of the restart, a powerful low drive by Fulham's lanky Zat Knight demanded a fine save from Enckelman, pushing it round a post. Villa soon responded, Darius Vassell playing a neat one-two with Juan Pablo Angel and forcing Edwin van der Sar to save with his foot as Lee Hendrie stepped out of the way to avoid being given offside.
It was a little hard on Knight to be taken off just after the hour, but Tigana wanted to change the shape of his misfiring team and get Goldbaek out wide on the right. Coincidentally or not, Fulham continued to improve; Hayles had a shot beaten out by the goalkeeper after being set up by Steed Malbranque's storming diagonal run and passed up another chance eight minutes later as Tigana's cultured side took the most direct route to goal imaginable. Van der Sar pumped a huge kick downfield, which Hayles controlled but lobbed over the bar.
Villa's supporters booed the substitution of Angel, but Paul Merson, moved forward, almost created a winner for their team with his pass to Vassell; the striker wastefully shooting straight at Van der Sar. It all ended in jeers for the home side and, predictably for their opponents, more of "We want Ellis out".
A BITTER wind blew off the Thames and the first half was as dismal as the weather. If the second half was equally barren of goals, at least the tempo increased, Fulham raised their game and but for the prodigies of Aston Villa's Finnish goalkeeper Peter Enckelman, they would surely have won.
Not that this in any way consoled their French manager Jean Tigana, who merely reflected that there were two goalkeepers in action. He said: "We created chances, but it was a problem to score.
We have the best team defensively, but we need to score, to work to give the confidence to the players. We need more determination inside the box."
Indeed, Fulham find it notoriously difficult to get goals, but against a lesser keeper than Enckelman they would surely have had one or two yesterday. The first of his four exceptional saves came after 35 minutes, and also represented the first Fulham strike at goal.
It was expertly, if somewhat surprisingly, set up with a cross from the left wing by the towering Zat Knight. Steve Marlet headed on Knight's centre, his French compatriot Louis Saha tried to loft it over Enckelman's head but the keeper grasped it, probably the easiest of his saves.
The second came shortly after half-time, and Knight again was crucially involved. This time, he drove in a powerful right-footed shot from outside the penalty-box, at which Enckelman dived, to turn it, one-handed past his left-hand post.
The third save, one-handed again, and still more spectacular, came on 67 minutes. A dazzling run by Steed Malbranque on the inside-left position ended with a crisp pass to Barry Hayles, who hit the ball hard and true, but again Enckelman flung himself at it to turn it aside.
Finally, in the 89th minute, with Fulham definitively calling the tune, Hayles outstripped the Fulham defence and thundered towards goal, only for Enckelman to beat him to the ball on the edge of the box.
Villa were under the temporary management of Stuart Gray, formerly in charge at Southampton, with John Gregory having abruptly and unexpectedly jumped ship last month. Although Gregory led Derby to victory yesterday at his first attempt, they are splashing about in the shallows, while Villa, although hardly exceptional, look capable at least of ending halfway up the table.
The word is that Gregory, who didn't take a penny on his departure, could no longer abide the relationship with his chairman, Doug Ellis, though he was publicly at pains to insist that all was sweetness and light between him and the Villa board.
Ellis is reported to be after the former German star Lothar Matthaus, now coaching Rapid Vienna, as a permanent replacement for Gregory. Matthaus confirmed that Villa had approached him. He said: "I have a contract with my present club, but I have always wanted to manage in England."
Juan Pablo Angel might have given Villa the lead early on yesterday from Mustapha Hadji's pass, and Hadji himself forced Edwin van der Sar to clutch a shot above his head, but there wasn't much more to Villa's supposed domination.
Darius Vassell had a couple of opportunities in the second half. First, when having exchanged passes with Angel, he hit a shot which van der Sar saved with his legs.
Secondly, on 81 minutes, when the ever active and inventive Paul Merson, who by then had come in off the left flank, played him through, Vassell was just ahead of the pursuing defence, but he couldn't beat the big Dutch goalkeeper.