Wycombe Wanderers, semi-finalists last season, came within two minutes of another FA Cup upset here last night as Fulham almost became the fourth Premiership side to go out of the competition to supposedly inferior opposition in the third round.
Second Division Wycombe came from behind, first equalising with a penalty, then taking the lead. But Fulham, who were ultimately forced to abandon their refined movement and sophisticated passing, made it 2-2 on 88 minutes when Steve Marlet scored with a downward header from the substitute Barry Hayles' cross.
Then, in the last seconds, Fulham's substitute Sean Davis almost scored the winner. Martin Taylor, in the home goal, produced a magnificent save to partially atone for the weak punch that led to Marlet's goal. The sides will replay at Craven Cottage on Tuesday.
Lawrie Sanchez, the Wycombe manager, looked downbeat afterwards when he said: "You normally get only one bite at a Premiership club. I'm delighted with our effort but it's always disappointing when you concede a late goal.
"But we stopped them passing. In the end they were playing the long ball and looking for knockdowns and we were the ones passing it around. I thought we had changed clubs. Andy Rammell won plenty of headers and Jermaine McSporran caused them all sorts of problems with his pace, winning a penalty and then scoring another goal."
Fulham's manager Jean Tigana thought Wycombe's Danny Senda should have been sent off for a late challenge on Hayles, but said: "We played a good team tonight. They tried to play all the time. They have good spirit."
This was Sanchez's 19th Cup tie in his three years at Adams Park and last year he led the side into the last four, where they were beaten by the eventual winners Liverpool. Sanchez, of course, scored the winner for Wimbledon against Liverpool in the 1988 final.
In the first half it was Fulham who played most of the good football and had more of the clear-cut chances. They might have scored as early as the seventh minute, when Steed Malbranque shot just wide of the right post, and again a minute later when Louis Saha's header went close.
Having weathered all this, Wycombe fell behind in the opening minutes of the second half. Sylvain Legwinski's first effort was blocked on the line by Mark Rogers but he scored from the rebound.
Wycombe pushed upfield, however, and won a penalty in the 57th minute when McSporran's speed provoked a foul from Alain Goma. Steve Brown scored from the spot.
McSporran put Wycombe ahead nine minutes later with a shot on the turn after some confusion between Goma and his keeper, Maik Taylor. Wycombe appeared to be on course for another upset before Marlet brought belated sanity to the evening.
WYCOMBE boss Lawrie Sanchez was an agonising two minutes away from writing another chapter in his amazing FA Cup fairytale.
Sanchez, a Cup final match-winner during his Wimbledon playing days, saw his players revive memories of last season's heroics by going so desperately close to humbling Fulham's millionaire stars.
Big-spending Fulham were just two minutes away from joining Leeds and Derby as Premiership victims of the giant-killers. But striker Steve Marlet finally repaid some of his £11.5million transfer fee by getting his team out of jail with only his second goal for the club.
Sanchez's team reached last season's semi-finals - and it was not hard to see why as they battled back from a goal down.
Wycombe, roared on last night by a record crowd of 9,921, simply never know when they are beaten.
And what they lack in class they make up for in sheer grit, determination and spirit.
Fulham had charge of the first half and the lively Steed Malbranque went close while also laying on good chances for Zat Knight and Louis Saha as Fulham settled down quickly.
But Wycombe have built up their reputation through their never-say-die attitude and refused to be intimidated.
Furthermore, Fulham simply never took advantage of their possession as their strikers Marlet and Saha lack cutting edge.
It is no surprise that manager Jean Tigana wants to sign a new forward because a natural goalscorer would surely have finished off Wycombe without the need of any of last night's dramas.
Fulham finally made a 47th minute breakthrough when the lively Malbranque's pass caused chaos in the Wycombe penalty box. Defender Chris Vinnicombe failed to clear and Legwinski pounced before seeing his shot heroically hacked off the line by Mark Rogers.
But Legwinski was not to be denied and latched on to the loose ball which he then blasted into the roof of the net from close range. It looked all over for brave Wycombe - until Premiership referee Graham Barber gave them a 57th minute lifeline with a hotly-disputed penalty award.
Fulham defender Alain Goma looked to have got more of the ball than the man when his sliding tackle upended Jermaine McSporran and the visitors were enraged as Barber did not even hesitate.
Steve Brown stepped up and fired his spot kick virtually down the middle and keeper Maik Taylor got a hand to the ball but could not stop it crossing the line.
Nine minutes later the Wycombe fans were in dreamland as Dannie Bulman's cross was not cleared and McSporran latched onto the ball, turned sweetly and fired into the bottom corner.
McSporran missed Wycombe's attention-grabbing ties last season through a serious knee injury, but looked to have written his own headlines.
But that was until Marlet - who cost more than 100 times more than former non-League man McSporran - finally showed his class to earn a replay for the right to play either York City or Grimsby.
Substitute Barry Hayles sent over a cross from the left and amid frantic scenes in the penalty box, Marlet rose to head home from close range.
THE dream lives on. Wycombe Wanderers, last season's FA Cup semi-finalists, carried on from where they left off at Villa Park nine months ago, refusing to acknowledge the gap in class between themselves and their supposed superiors. Jermaine McSporran, a £75,000 capture from Oxford City, gave them a tantalising lead midway through the second half of an enthralling third-round tie last night and Fulham only survived for a replay when Steve Marlet, an £11.5 million acquisition from Lyons, headed in three minutes from time.
With a tie away to either York City or Grimsby Town in the fourth round, the Nationwide League second division side, who held Liverpool goalless for 78 semi-final minutes before losing 2-1 last April, could have been forgiven for believing that they were set for another memorable adventure. They may well still be. In the meantime, however, it is Wrexham away on Saturday.
"At least we can say we made Fulham look like an English side," Lawrie Sanchez, the Wycombe manager, said. "We made them knock it long and we stopped them passing. At one time I thought we must have swapped shirts."
The replay will be next Tuesday and Sanchez is realistic. "I don't want to be unduly pessimistic, but it's going to be very difficult," he said. "You only get one bite at a Premiership side."
Where Leicester City, Wimbledon and Wolverhampton Wanderers succumbed last season, Fulham so nearly followed. Although Fulham, who reside 45 league placings above their humble opponents, dominated by far the majority of the meaningful possession, Sanchez's players lack nothing in resolve and came within sight of the finishing line.
Marlet, who was on the point of being rested after struggling to adapt to the pace of the English game following a broken leg, had only previously scored once since arriving at Craven Cottage in September. But he enamoured himself to his new team-mates when, with Wycombe intent on repelling anything that came near their goal, he nodded a centre from Barry Hayles in off a post.
Fulham had taken the lead 68 seconds into the second half, through Sylvain Legwinski, before Steve Brown, the man sent off for taking his shirt off in celebration in the quarter-final triumph at Filbert Street last season, levelled when McSporran was felled by Alain Goma. Wycombe were making a swift dash back towards dream land when the striker, who turned 25 on New Year's Day, pounced in the 66th minute. There was, however, still time for reality to kick in.
"At 2-1 I was very worried," Jean Tigana, the Fulham manager, said. "From that, it went good. We showed good spirit; we have played a good team. Marlet is not ready yet and he needs more time after being out injured for so long."
Wycombe have strengthened since last season and sit only two points off the play-off zone with games in hand. Yet after overcoming Hayes and Notts County to land this glamorous draw, not even the mild-mannered folk of leafy Bucks could avoid contracting cup fever once again. Neither the postponement of the tie on Saturday, nor last night's 15-minute delay due to traffic congestion, could keep pulses down in High Wycombe.
An expanded Adams Park, a legacy of last season's lucrative Cup run, housed a record attendance but in truth the first half was an anti-climax. Fulham may have been unable to add a new £8 million striker to their ranks on Monday, when John Carew, the Valencia and Norway forward, failed a medical, but Wycombe were simply glad to have their £75,000 leading goalscorer, Andy Rammell, fit again. Of course it should have been an ill match: Fulham's starting line-up cost £29,700,000, Wycombe's £565,000.
Wycombe's best chance in the first period came when McSporran, who missed the Cup glory last season after being ruled out for the second half of the season with cruciate knee ligament damage, chased down an ill-advised back-pass from Steve Finnan. Maik Taylor's clearance ricocheted off McSporran's backside and squirmed barely a hard wide.
Fulham's territorial supremacy brought them shots from distance, from Steed Malbranque and Marlet, before they finally penetrated at the start of the second period. Malbranque's pass eluded Chris Vinnicombe to release Sylvain Legwinski and, although his initial shot was cleared from the line by Mark Rogers, the French midfield player was not about to turn down a second invitation, walloping the ball high into the net.
Sanchez is a manager whose own Wembley match-winner, for Wimbledon against Liverpool in the 1988 Cup Final, has fuelled him with the belief that any dream can be fulfilled. He promptly replaced Rammell with Keith Ryan, one of Martin O'Neill's old boys, who had scored against Liverpool in the semi-final, and the home side were galvanised. Unbeaten in the league at Adams Park this season, belief started to pervade their play, especially once they went behind.
McSporran, whose pace unnerved Fulham all night, ran at full pelt into the area where Alain Goma's mistimed tackle earned Wycombe a penalty in the 57th minute. Brown struck a poor penalty but, to the sound of several thousand sighs of relief, Taylor's one-handed effort could not prevent the ball from going over the line.
Wycombe's tails were up; nine minutes later they were ahead. Dannie Bulman centred low from the right and when the Fulham defence failed to clear their lines, McSporran commandeered possession. With his back to goal, he span and shot low and true beyond Taylor's left hand.
Hayles went close to equalising eight minutes from time before supplying Marlet for the heart-breaker. Only a fantastic save in stoppage time from Martin Taylor, the Wycombe goalkeeper, prevented Sean Davis earning Fulham the victory. At Craven Cottage next Tuesday, the Premiership side know they have a contest on their hands.
THE accountant at Adams Park must be rubbing his hands with glee. Lawrie Sanchez and his Wycombe warriors are off again.
After last season's FA Cup heroics, we all thought Sanchez would take a backseat in this famous old competition and let someone else bask in glory for a change. Not a bit of it.
Last night, Sanchez once again revved up his bunch of Second Division bargain buys and they more than matched the mega-money men from the Cottage.
Only a late goal from Steve Marlet - his second since arriving from Lyon for £13million in August - saved Fulham manager Jean Tigana from embarrassment.
Yet Wycombe, who bounced back from Sylvain Legwinski's opener with goals from Steve Brown and the outstanding Jermaine McSporran, are still in with a shout.
Of course, next Tuesday's replay in West London should be a home banker.
Tigana has so far spent £34m while Sanchez - despite making his club £1m from their journey to the semi-finals last season - has been given just £300,000 to spend.
But as Wycombe proved yet again, there is a lot to be said for pure British guts even against the most skilled French feet.
Fulham manager Tigana admitted he was relieved to be leaving the leafy Buckinghamshire ground still in the competition.
And he felt that the goal will do Marlet little harm as he looks to bounce back from being out for two months with injury.
Tigana said: "It was good to come back and get the goal - and I thought we deserved it. But it was a tough game and you have to give Wycombe great credit. They showed a lot of spirit and made life difficult for us.
"But we got the goal and I am pleased for Steve. He is not yet fully fit and will take another month before being fully ready. But that will be good for his confidence."
Amazingly, this was Sanchez's 19th cup game since taking over at Wycombe nearly three years ago. Ironically, his first game in charge was against Fulham, ending in a 1-1 draw.
Of course, things have changed at Fulham from those days in Division Two. Yet for the majority of last night's game, there was little to choose between the two.
Fulham's shining light was the outstanding Steed Malbranque in midfield. Yet Wycombe also had their own little marvel in McSporran, a £75,000 bargain from Oxford City 18 months ago.
He spent most of last year crocked with a knee injury but, as he proved last night, he is a massive talent.
Malbranque released Legwinski and his effort was blocked on the line by Mark Rogers. Yet Lady Luck smiled on Legwinski and the ball fell for him to belt into the corner from 12 yards.
But in the 57th minute, McSporran was sent flying by Alain Goma and Steve Brown - one of the true heroes from last year's semi-final run - saw his penalty creep into the net despite the attempts of Maik Taylor to claw the ball away.
Yet McSporran, a handful throughout, gave Wycombe their unbelievable 66th-minute lead.
He pounced with a low drive into the corner after Dannie Bulman crossed following a mix-up between Goma and keeper Taylor.
Yet with the Wycombe crowd screaming for the final whistle, Marlet completed an otherwise average performance with a golden touch.
Keeper Martin Taylor failed to punch the ball clear, sub Barry Hayles hooked the ball across goal and Marlet nodded in from a couple of yards.
Taylor, admittedly, made amends with a terrific late save from Sean Davis and it would have been an injustice had it gone in.
Yet Tigana feels Fulham were hard-done-by at the end when referee Graham Barber showed only a yellow card to Danny Senda for a tackle on Hayles.
He said: "It should have been a red card."