In their 30th game of the Premier League season back in 2008/09, Fulham reached the landmark 40-point milestone – equalling their quickest ever accumulation of that tally since their return to the top flight, when they did likewise in 2003/04. It was a result that came as something of a shock to football fans across the country, as title-chasing Manchester United were the side that yielded the three points.
United arrived in SW6 looking to restore some pride and recover their momentum after losing their last outing 4-1 to rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford, having previously embarked on an 11-game winning run in the league. It was their second trip to the Cottage in March, after they’d dumped the Whites out of the FA Cup with a 4-0 thumping a fortnight previously. But Roy Hodgson’s men were a different proposition this time around.
Fulham began the game in confident fashion and were denied a certain goal just after the quarter hour mark when Paul Scholes handled on the line. Former Whites stopper Edwin van der Sar had done well to keep out Bobby Zamora’s initial header, but when the big striker nodded another effort towards the top corner, it was clawed away by Scholes who instantly realised the repercussions of his actions.
While Scholes was making his way down the tunnel after being shown the inevitable red card by referee Phil Dowd, Captain Danny Murphy – so often United’s tormenter-in-chief during his Liverpool days – stepped up to slam his penalty into the top right hand corner of the net to give his side a deserved lead and in front of the travelling supporters.
Andrew Johnson, Zamora and Dempsey all had opportunities to heap further misery on the 10-men prior to the break but were unable to find a way past van der Sar. Sir Alex Ferguson responded by throwing Wayne Rooney into the action at half-time as he replaced Dimitar Berbatov who had picked up a knock, and the visitors did improve when they emerged following the interval.
Darren Fletcher and Cristiano Ronaldo both drew saves from Mark Schwarzer, and the Fulham stopper then did brilliantly to deny Ji-Sung Park before recovering quickly to keep out Rooney’s follow-up. It was superb goalkeeping that encapsulated the determination of the Whites that afternoon, and fans were treated to an exquisite second goal in the 87th minute which killed off United once and for all.
Good running by Johnson down the right resulted in the striker finding substitute Zoltan Gera on the angle of the six-yard box. The ball spun up as the Hungarian controlled the pass and he showed remarkable confidence and ingenuity to acrobatically volley the ball over his shoulder and into the back of the net.
“That was a very good game for us,” Gera recalled. “We played very well and in the second half we played under pressure because Manchester United really pressed for an equaliser.
“I just had the chance and it was a good goal for the team and for me especially because I was having a difficult period. So that was good for my confidence but, more importantly, it helped us win the game.
“Thankfully I scored at the right time so that was a good feeling for me. It was a big achievement because United played well and we were under pressure, in the second half especially.”
Frustrated at losing ground in the title race, United’s afternoon got even worse two minutes later when Rooney was dismissed for a second bookable offence. After a free-kick had apparently been taken from an incorrect position, the England forward hurled the ball back to his teammates with enough aggression for Dowd to consider it worthy of a yellow card. Needless to say, Ferguson was less than impressed with the decision.
It proved to be the last league game United lost that season as they secured their 18th title, whilst Fulham went on to finish seventh in the table – a record high for the Whites which set us on our way to European football and one of the greatest seasons the Club has ever witnessed.
From the archives
The Guardian – Saturday 21st March 2009
‘Nine-man United pay the penalty at Fulham’ by Amy Lawrence