Exactly 17 years ago to the day, York City enjoyed their proudest FA Cup moment when Arsenal were dumped out in the fourth round. History declined to repeat itself as Fulham, whose squad was being bought at a cost of £28 million last summer in readiness for the Premiership, visited closure-threatened Bootham Crescent yesterday.
Sadly for York, who could fold if a buyer does not come up with the £4.5 million purchase price by the end of March, they were comfortably defeated this time round and the urgently needed cash injection from a Cup run has been denied them.
Frenchman Steed Malbranque deservedly put Fulham ahead in the first half and, after latching on to a huge punt from Edwin van der Sar, his compatriot, Steve Marlet, broke away to put the result emphatically beyond doubt six minutes from time.
At least the supporters' trust who are attempting to rescue the club will benefit to the tune of £50,000 after Fulham owner Mohamed Fayed's decision to donate his club's share of the gate receipts to their funds.
York, more than £1 million in debt and losing £15,000 a week, had performed wonders to get even this far in the competition, beating Colchester, Reading and Grimsby, all from higher divisions. Not bad for a team next to bottom of Division Three.
Fulham, having disposed of Wycombe Wanderers, semi-finalists last season, at the previous stage only after a replay, had no reason to underestimate their impoverished opposition especially as the Londoners took the field without suspended top scorer Barry Hayles.
After a grandiose entry to the strains of the film music from 2001 A Space Odyssey, York immediately launched into the attack, Michael Proctor pulling back for Richard Cooper to fire right-footed straight at Van der Sar. Such was the power of the shot that the Dutchman cleanly gathered it only at the third attempt.
Fulham were quick to reply, a smartly taken free kick releasing Louis Saha, whose teasing chip to the far post forced Graham Potter to head hastily clear for a corner. Potter was again on hand to clear off the line when the flag kick prompted further goalmouth panic.
It seemed hard to keep Potter out of the picture as the left-back was soon called on to take an inswinging corner on the right for his own side, the unattended Lee Bullock heading it over the top when well placed.
Two superb saves in a five-minute spell from former Northern Ireland goalkeeper Alan Fettis then relieved mounting pressure on the home defence, first from Malbranque and again from Marlet's header following Malbranque's cross.
Fulham's smoother and quicker distribution of the ball was bound to reap dividends eventually, and it did so after 26 minutes as York, waiting for an offside flag which was never raised, were caught flat-footed as Saha threaded a pass to Malbranque. The Frenchman dashed clear and coolly allowed Fettis to commit himself before slipping the ball past him.
York's early fire had been doused and Tigana's expensively assembled team increasingly took control on a pudding-textured pitch made stickier still by intermittent rain.
Fulham continued in the ascendancy as the second period got under way, Steve Finnan squandering a fine chance to extend their lead before Van der Sar almost handed York a lifeline in bizarre fashion. Under little pressure, he badly sliced a clearance and handed possession to Lee Nogan inside the box. Nogan delayed too long, however, as team-mates were slow to lend him support. The ball was blocked and Nogan succeeded only in earning himself a caution for venting his frustration with a rash tackle.
Fulham, who had briefly allowed complacency to set in, looked rattled as York attempted a valiant fightback. Even so, they remained a constant menace on the counterattack, Malbranque's trickery setting up John Collins, who curled his shot narrowly wide. Marlet and Zat Knight, with a low drive from 30 yards, also went close before Marlet, who cost a cool £11 million, neatly wrapped things up.
York City's brief moment in the spotlight is over and now they must return to trying to ensure the club have a future. The chairman, Douglas Craig, is demanding £4.5 million for the club and stadium - for which he and his fellow directors paid around £200,000 - or he will sell the ground, probably to property developers.
The deadline he has set is 1 April. He and his colleagues will keep most of that money as, under a controversial deal, Bootham Crescent was transferred to a holding company, which is supposed to be against FA rules.
There was a protest against Craig in the city centre last week and a supporters' trust is due to be launched next week, although they acknowledge they have little chance of reaching Craig's asking price.
Craig's actions have been condemned by Alan Keen MP, chairman of the all-party Parliamentary Football Group, who claims it is asset stripping. He does not appear to be in any mood to back down, though. Last night's local paper reported that a council-backed consortium had come nowhere near offering the sum he was seeking. Supporters' hopes now rest on a group led by a sports management company involved in motor racing.
The fighting fund will, however, have received a significant boost with Mohamed al-Fayed's gesture of donating Fulham's share of yesterday's gate receipts - around £30,000 - to the supporters' trust. But then the Fulham chairman thinks nothing of getting out his chequebook to spend £4.5m on a squad player.
It was only three years ago that these teams had played here in a Second Division fixture, a match that coincided with the announcement that Kevin Keegan, then Fulham manager, had accepted the England coach's job on a caretaker basis.
York were determined to ignore the league table and, instead, pin their hopes on omens. It was 17 years to the day that the mighty Arsenal had been slain here at the same stage of the competi tion, thanks to a last-minute penalty by Keith Houchen.
As is so often the case in these affairs, it was the lower division side who started with the greater energy, but once Fulham found their feet on a pitch turned into a quagmire by overnight rain, the 82 positions between them in the league was clear.
York keeper Alan Fettis had already denied Fulham twice with acrobatic saves before they took the lead in the 25th minute. Louis Saha's ball through the middle split the York defence and Steed Malbranque ran through unchallenged to score comfortably.
Attacking the end at which Houchen scored his famous goal, York began the second half with renewed purpose and vigour. When the ball did not fall to them in a couple of goalmouth scrambles, though, you sensed it was not to be their day.
Having once more weathered the storm, Fulham asserted their class. Steve Marlet should have put the game beyond the home side in the 67th minute but drove his shot wide. Seconds later Fettis had the opportunity to demonstrate his craft again when he turned away a low, 30-yard shot from defender Zat Knight.
The value of that save so nearly increased significantly five minutes later when Graham Potter put in a cross that appeared destined for the head of Chris Brass until Edwin Van der Sar emerged to punch the ball away.
Van der Sar turned provider six minutes from the end. His long kick sent Marlet clear, although only after some lovely control from the Frenchman to bring the ball down. He finished the move by firing home a low shot.
Somehow it seemed wholly appropriate that it should be a man who cost £11.5m who should settle this tie between Harrods and the local closing-down sale.
If there is something awry with York City's bank balance at present, there is nothing wrong with their spirit. For long spells of an FA Cup afternoon ripe for mischief - blustery wind, muddy pitch - York more than matched a side 82 places above them in the League. But goals by Steed Malbranque midway through the first half and Steve Marlet in the second ended their gallant resistance and consigned York to a very much more significant battle for their future.
At the end, the home team were applauded from the field by both sets of fans, a thoroughly deserved response from a capacity crowd at Bootham Crescent. Fulham trooped away, muddied and tired, wishing no doubt that a touch more of their chairman's charity in donating half of the gate receipts to beleaguered City had been extended to them on the pitch. Mohamed Al Fayed was fêted, his side were battered, breathless survivors into the fifth round.
"We gave it a good go," said York's manager, Terry Dolan. "We couldn't go at it gung-ho, but for 20 minutes or so we held our own and for a spell in the second half we had them rocking."
The match reflected York's plight, a case of living beyond their means, on and off the pitch. Their search for the sort of sugar daddy who cares more for heart than head is becoming increasingly desperate, though news of a potential buyer - John Batchelor, the owner-driver of the Honda Integrity Racing Team, who compete in the British Touring Car Championship - at least leavened the disappointment of defeat. No one will be hanging out the bunting until the deal is signed.
In the meantime, yesterday's fourth-round Cup tie was dressed in the familiar rituals of a club in peril. Banners, announcements of meetings, cries of "Judas" aimed at the chairman, Douglas Craig, who has set a deadline of April for the £4m sale of the club.
City, though, have a habit of fashioning neat little teams from their humble surroundings. Jonathan Greening at Middlesbrough and Richard Cresswell, currently with Preston, are two of the youth products sold on to pay the bills, but teams as distinguished as Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton have fallen foul of York's gift for a surprise. They have to dredge a bit for a decent memory these days. Seventeen years ago, Keith Houchen scored from the spot in the last minute to seal an unlikely victory over Arsenal in the fourth round of the FA Cup and the same man re-enacted his deed before kick-off.
There seemed to be little doubt about the pedigrees once Fulham had taken a deserved lead. It took them 26 minutes, but the goal, created by Louis Saha and completed by Malbranque, was stamped with the seal of a team worth £45m. But for two brilliant saves in four minutes by Alan Fettis, one after a point-blank header from Marlet, the other a close-range block from the indefatigable Malbranque, Fulham's nerves would have been settled much earlier.
A firm header by Lee Bullock from Graham Potter's corner which flew just over the bar proved York's best chance. And then a few sweet passing moves mocked their current plight at the foot of the Third Division. Potter, in particular, found an uncomfortable amount of room on the outside of the lackadaisical Sylvain Legwinski. His left-foot crosses deserved better reward. There was nothing wrong with the home team's resolve, though John Collins miskicked lamentably when presented with a golden opportunity before half-time.
Another goal early in the second half and Fulham could have relaxed. Instead, they relaxed anyway and York, who must have sensed the game was slipping out of reach, began a searching examination of the Premiership side's mental strength. "One error, one deflection, one long shot, that is all they needed," said Christian Damiano, Fulham's assistant manager. For 20 minutes, with York harrying and tackling at every turn, Fulham did not fancy it. Only the exemplary Collins was prepared to put his foot in and hold on to the ball. Even the normally unflustered Jean Tigana began to get agitated. Bootham Crescent relished every minute of the sport.
The error almost came, Edwin van der Sar desperately miskicking a backpass on the increasingly pockmarked turf and presenting the ball to Lee Nogan, who dithered when he should have shot. The industrious Chris Brass might have brought the home team level as he was inches away from converting Mike Basham's left-wing cross with Van der Sar once again exposed. But for the solidity of Alain Goma, Fulham might just have buckled right there.
In the mayhem, Fulham spurned their own chances. Bjarne Goldbaek, on for the tiring Collins, burst clear down the left, but Saha, for once, sliced his shot, while Zat Knight's long-range effort was turned away by Fettis.
Mostly it was consistent, if not entirely coherent, York pressure. Dolan brought on the experienced Alex Mathie for Nolan, but the former Newcastle and Ipswich forward's arrival coincided with the decisive moment of the match. Marlet, anonymous for most of the afternoon, finally stirred and, latching on to a long punt by Van der Sar, outpaced the City defence to drive the ball past Fettis. There was still time for Potter to force a fingertip save from a curling free-kick and Brass to blast over. But, by then, nothing could save City.
THE FA Cup dream gets ever harder to fulfil as the wealth gap consumes the romance, squeezes it like juice from a grape. Fulham, be assured, deserved their victory in the squally atmosphere of Bootham Crescent yesterday. But it took goals from two of their Frenchmen, the £7m Steed Malbranque and the £11m Steve Marlet, to end the considerable resistance, the true Cup-tie spirit of endeavour, of York City, a club 82 places beneath them in League status, and one that may very well expire by the end of this season.
You can blame, as 7,563 spectators did, the directors who are demanding £4.5m from any buyer, even the Supporters Trust, by April 1 or they will give up the struggle to back an enterprise which is seeping £15,000 every week of its endangered existence.
Romance? "York City - stolen by greed" read a bright red banner in the dilapidated stands; that brought the first mighty ovation of the afternoon in which, if voices could diminish the overwhelming difference in financial status, yesterday might have done it. But reality tells us that there is a more than even chance that we were witnesses to the last FA Cup tie played inside this splendid north Yorkshire walled city. Where were all the people who cared for their club over the past decade when, driven ever-downwards by the consequence of the Bosman rule that has taken away the habit of clubs like this to groom and then sell players for their survival? The last time York won in the League was three months ago, and then there were less than a third of the supporters baying their wrath at the directors, and professing their lifelong addiction to the Minsters.
Give credit to both teams. The ground was an old fashioned quagmire, the wind blew vicariously, Fulham tried to put a foot on the ball to maintain their Premiership passing composure, and York, in their tradition, ran until they dropped, seeking to hustle, to harry, but not illegally, to kick Fulham out of their stride.
It was 17 years ago to the day that the Minstermen, with a last-minute penalty, knocked Arsenal out of the Cup on this ground. For maybe 30 seconds yesterday there were those who thought this was the Second Coming. Then, playing into the wind, Michael Proctor slipped the ball through the surprised Fulham rearguard and Richard Cooper had Edwin van der Sar staring down the barrel of the strangeness of FA Cup fare. The man who has played World Cup football held his nerve and, second grasp, held the ball.
After that, Fulham did create a superior rhythm. Graham Potter, a left-back with an appreciable left foot, twice cleared from in front of his own goalposts. Alan Fettis, the former Northern Ireland international goalkeeper, made one acrobatic save from Marlet in the air, and two or three from Malbranque and Louis Saha.
But how long could he defy the inevitable? The answer was just 26 minutes. Then Saha delightfully dragged the ball away from Lee Bullock with the sole of his boot before making the opening goal with an angled through ball that invited Malbranque to bear down on Fettis and this time, with an uncompromising right-footed cross-shot, to score.
York were anything but acquiescent. For long periods, especially early in the second half, they gave it everything; endeavour, muscle, and some rare old kicks that a side less robust than Fulham might have squealed at.
But not Fulham. They persevered with their ground control, they squandered opportunities as Fulham exceptionally do, and they made their manager Jean Tigana squirm in the dugout. No doubt Mohamed al- Fayed, the benefactor who has, with his considerable millions, spared Fulham a descent equal to York's, was not here. His spirit was; for the sugar-daddy of them all in the football sense, the man who has put £80m into the club in west London, had attempted to give his portion of yesterday's gate, probably totalling £30,000, direct to York City football club.
The York chairman, Douglas Craig, who is presiding over the sale or die embers of his reign, aloofly refused. Perhaps he had a point, this man who astonishingly sat during the week in judgment of whether Wimbledon should be allowed to move their football club from south London to Milton Keynes.
What are the FA thinking about? A man is either a football man to his roots, or, like the chairman of York City, prepared to sell out.
The match, at least on the deteriorating turf, was never that. Van der Sar had one heart-stopping moment when he fluffed a clearance straight to the opposition, but he survived it: however, York is the real club in the business of survival.
Only yesterday it was extinguished five minutes from time when that Dutch goalkeeper drop-kicked the ball three-quarters of the length of the field.
Marlet controlled it exquisitely, out-paced Mike Basham elegantly, held his composure, and allowed goalkeeper Fettis to come to him. When the keeper did as he was bid, the Frenchman, whose fee was three times the price on the club he was playing against, nonchalantly finished off the contest with an accurate low shot.
Fare thee well, then, York City? There is a meeting of the Save York City brigade next Friday evening. They need the kind of support that overpowered the ground yesterday. Time will tell if it is successful or if this is the end of the dream.