That'll do for Whites

Monday 11 March 2002

In an ideal world, reckoned Andy Melville, sounding just a mite disappointed, it would have been Chelsea in the FA Cup Final. Yep, you could quite imagine how blissfully perfect it would have been for any Fulham follower to see their grand old club finally annex their first major domestic trophy after a century or more of trying at the Millennium Stadium against their aristo neighbours.

Still, after a passionate night when their painful exercise in Baggie-bashing felt a bit like a battle to subdue the entire country - the Black Country - Fulham's sense of relief at simply making it to the last four quite overrode any thought that the dream tie had come a round too early.

When the dust settles, the SW6 semi won't be able to come too soon for them.

Before this season, of course, the teams hadn't played for 16 years, hadn't met in the League for 18 years and not in the top division for 34 years. Now, they're ready for their first FA Cup dalliance for 51 years and the prize, particularly for the Craven Cottage crew, could hardly be more enticing.

"A local derby in the semis, getting so close to out first major trophy . . . oh, it's going to be something special," pondered skipper Melville. "This is one for our supporters, and it's a big step for Fulham FC." A not insurmountable step either, he's convinced, after last Wednesday's League meeting in which Fulham, for all that they eventually succumbed 3-2, were every inch a match for the Blues.

And after spending this entire tournament negotiating awkward outings to the kennels of ferocious underdogs - Wycombe, York, Walsall and West Brom - it will probably feel like blessed release to play that more liberated snapping role themselves in a quest to top their 1975 run which took them all the way to Wembley.

Last night, Fulham weren't great but you could only appreciate just how admirable their professional killjoy efforts were by experiencing the inferno of emotion that they were charged with dousing. The voice of the Hawthorns was as deafening as it was intimidating, fuelled particularly by the overriding thought of "doing it for Jeff ".

Jeff Astle's presence was everywhere. Mints named in his honour were being sold outside the ground along with countless souvenir tributes to "The King", while, seven weeks since their old hero's death, the local Sunday paper had even splashed its front page with the headline "What killed Jeff Astle?" above some spurious conjecture about how his brain might or might not have been affected by his years of heading goals.

With fans who wanted this win this badly - their screams of abuse aimed at sub Barry Hayles as he was jogging up and down the touchline came at a fever pitch Fulham's foreign legion can't experience in the Premiership - it was little wonder the home players attacked the occasion just as bitingly.

Within minutes, John Collins was hoiking off his own line from Danny Dichio and, though the pressure was largely too onedimensional to truly unnerve the excellent Melville and Alain Goma at the heart of the defence, it was so fairly unremitting that there were only a couple of minutes to the interval when Russell Hoult made his first save of any significance, a brilliant one, to keep out Louis Saha's volley.

Fulham's commitment was total, their concentration unwavering and, once Albion's defenders had momentarily snored straight after the break when Steed Malbranque flung in a free-kick from the left, Steve Marlet cashed in to rise utterly unmolested and nod home. "Pathetic," was manager Gary Megson's verdict on his side's lapse, yet somehow the moment just encapsulated how Fulham always looked to possess that extra sheen of quality.

Saha should have made their progress rather more serene moments later but his awful point-blank effort from Malbranque's cross, typical of his hit-and-mostly-miss season, left Fulham having to repel a three-pronged assault once the old warhorse, 'Super' Bob Taylor, had been brought on to play the Astle folk hero role.

He gave it a good try with one low 30-yarder which had van der Sar scrambling while Dichio volleyed just over from an acute angle. Yet Marlet, giving an impression here with his goal, his pace and his intelligent distribution how Fulham can yet expect to see much more for their 11 million quid, and Saha both subsequently came closer to extending the lead near the end than Albion did to equalising.

Fulham boss Jean Tigana, as is his wont, preferred afterwards to keep his views between himself and his toothpick, but what speaks for itself these days is not the style of his side, but the substance.

"Hard work was the key. We'd lost our last four and we had to dig in," said Melville.

"Now we've got this fantastic occasion against Chelsea and hopefully all the money and hard work that's been pumped in to the club will get its reward in this match."

Just 90 minutes away, he reflected, and he'd have to be a pretty cool Welshman to not even now be consumed by the prospect of leading his team out in Cardiff - with Chelsea already history.