Black Country history

Monday 11 March 2002

"It was emotional," as Vinny Jones once famously said.

On a cold wet night in front of the noisiest home crowd that must exist in the Football League, Fulham eased through to the Semi-Finals of the FA Cup and a date with destiny against their oldest and bitterest rivals. It was enough to bring a lump to the throat of even the most gnarled of cynical old supporters.

It wasn't a champagne performance, but it was an exhibition that displayed the backbone and resolve that many critics have accused the White's team of foreign mercenaries of not possessing. Led by the likes of Brevett and Melville, players who know what it's like to have to battle to get anything out of the unforgiving grounds of the Nationwide, the whole team gave a magnificent display of "digging in".

West Brom were feisty, aggressive and "in your face". In the cauldron of noise that was the Hawthorns, it must been about as hostile and unnerving a prospect as the team have come up against. To their credit, and by playing the sort of football that we know they can, they were able to silence that magnificent cacophony for long periods of the game.

Some of Fulham's approach play was of the highest order and cut the West Brom defence to ribbons. With the heroics achieved at the back, where the player's bodies often formed the final barricade, it really was an outstanding team performance that bodes well for whatever is thrown at them in the future. A team that can combine traditional British heart and muscle with the best of Gallic flair will surely go far.

And a word of thanks must go to Luis Saha who, mindful of Fulham's hundred years of tradition, contrived to miss the easiest of chances that would have put the team two up and allowed the fans the opportunity to enjoy a more relaxed finale to the game. Instead, it was the same nerve-wrackingly tense conclusion to an important game that every Fulham supporter has grown to expect over the years. Never are matches comfortably killed off; tradition insists that the faithful spend the final ten minutes of a game chewing their fingernails down to the bone, reaching for the tranquillisers and screaming at the referee to blow the final whistle.

To be fair to Saha, he had a superb game, giving goalkeeper Russell Hoult plenty of opportunities to show what a good goalkeeper he is and why he's kept so many clean sheets this season. Hoult had no chance with Steve Marlet's bullet header nor from the Frenchman's first half shot that was ruled out because of another player retreating from an offside position. Marlet was a picture of determination as he waited for the free kick to come across from which he scored - the resolve and single-minded purpose to get to that ball was writ large across his face. The fact that he had to fight off the limpet-like attentions of the defender before he could race across the area to meet Steed Malbranque's cross speaks volumes for the man's attitude and desire.

It has to be said though, that Marlet, newer to the Club than Saha, and not as yet fully steeped in its tradition, was unaware that the proper way for Fulham to score a winning goal is in the last minute of injury time, a la John Mitchell or Sean Davis, and preferably with the shoulder or the back-side rather than in more orthodox fashion with the head. By the time the Semis come along I'm sure he will have got into the swing of things, and he'll time his winner against Chelsea to extract the maximum drama out of the situation. It may not do much for anybody's heart condition but it will certainly up the pleasure levels considerably.

A glorious night in the Black Country then, and one that will live long in the collective memory. In a superb team display, there were many outstanding performances: the whole of the back four deserved medals for their bravery, van der Sar did everything asked of him, up-front the pairing of Marlet and Saha, which is getting better by the game, is starting to look like it has the potential to scare Premiership defences to death next season, and John Collins, playing in his favoured central position, was exceptional. His tackling and distribution were awesome, and his work rate was phenomenal.

As the faithful made their joyful and emotional way home, assistant coach Christian Damiano addressed the nation's media. He is clearly now so immersed in the Fulham culture that he sounds like he has just come in from working his market stall down the North End Road, "Playing against Chelsea is a chance for revenge for us," he said, "We were bitterly disappointed with the outcome last Wednesday. We really felt we deserved a draw or a win. Make no mistake, it is revenge we will be looking for."

Them's fighting words. I think his team will be really up for this one.