Fulham’s reward for knocking Premiership outfit Aston Villa out of the FA Cup in 1999 was a trip to Old Trafford to face one of the strongest sides Manchester United had ever boasted.
The Whites were enjoying a season to remember and occupied second spot in Division Two ahead of the game (although they had the same amount of points, as well as two games in hand on leaders Preston North End). Nonetheless, the third-tier outfit were obviously overwhelming underdogs going into the tie.
It was the first time Kevin Keegan and Alex Ferguson had gone head-to-head since the days of their enjoyable rivalry when the former’s Newcastle United side battled for the title. No doubt Keegan would have loved it if he could have claimed a cup scalp in his adversary’s own back yard.
Ferguson paid Fulham plenty of respect with regards to his team selection, opting for three strikers in an attacking formation. Gary Neville, Jaap Stam, Henning Berg and Dennis Irwin made up the defence in front of Peter Schmeichel, with David Beckham, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt comprising the midfield. Up front, the irrepressible Andrew Cole and Dwight Yorke were joined by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who was fresh from scoring four goals in 10 minutes after coming on as a substitute against Nottingham Forest in their previous outing. Indeed, nine of that starting line-up featured in the UEFA Champions League Final win over Bayern Munich three months later.
By contrast, Fulham travelled north with several key players missing. Paul Bracewell, Simon Morgan, Paul Peschisolido and Geoff Horsfield had been key performers for Keegan that season but were all absent at Old Trafford.
With a promise fresh in their ears from Chairman Mohamed Al Fayed that they could enjoy a spending spree in Harrods if they emerged victorious, Fulham’s players put in a confident display that heavily disguised the fact that the sides played their league football two divisions apart.
Keegan’s men began strongly and saw a half chance come and go when John Salako headed wide with a quarter of an hour played. However, United demonstrated their clinical nature when former and future Fulham striker Cole volleyed home in the 26th minute, although a deflection helped it on its way past Maik Taylor.
Dirk Lehmann was then denied at the other end courtesy of a splendid block by the elder Neville, before United enjoyed their only really dominant spell of the game, as Beckham, Yorke and Stam all threatened to double the lead.
Steve Hayward drew a save from Schmeichel in the second half and Barry Hayles also went close, but a gilt-edged opportunity that fell Salako’s well was the pivotal moment. Schmeichel had made another stop but couldn’t hold the ball which dropped kindly for Salako but the winger’s effort lacked conviction and the Danish goalkeeper was able to get a second save in to prevent the equaliser.
That was the final decent chance of the game – aside from a late Yorke strike which was well tipped over by Taylor – as Fulham exited the competition despite a heroic effort against illustrious opponents who would go on to secure a remarkable treble come the end of the season.