#Treble 99: Cole fires United into FA Cup last eight
As Manchester United prepare to face Chelsea in the FA Cup fifth round on Monday, 20 years ago we overcame another west London side to reach the quarter-finals of football’s oldest competition.
Not that the Reds went into the game with a negative mindset. We selected three strikers from the off, with the tried-and-trusted partnership of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke up front and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer offering extra attacking vigour from a left-midfield position.
Sir Alex had half an eye on the Reds’ huge clash against title-contenders Arsenal four days later and rested defender Ronny Johnsen, withdrew Denis Irwin at half-time and was unwilling to risk Ryan Giggs, with the Welshman still feeling the effects of a hamstring strain.
United were also missing Roy Keane and Paul Scholes through suspension, so Nicky Butt and Phil Neville were selected in their stead in the centre of the park.
As for Fulham, they were led by Kevin Keegan, who three years earlier had professed his love for beating 'them' - United - to the Premier League title.
It was a desire that ultimately went unfulfilled when the Reds did get something at Middlesbrough and Keegan's Newcastle United team had to settle for the runners-up slot after surrendering a 12-point lead.
Within a few months of the Magpies’ failed title pursuit, Keegan had resigned from his position in the North-East and subsequently took up residency at Craven Cottage.
This was the first time he had returned to Old Trafford since that infamous rant, but Ferguson was keen to play down any animosity between the pair. “Managers have arguments, like couples in a marriage,” the boss quipped before the game. “Kevin was upset and I have always understood his reaction.”
Fulham, at the time, were riding high in the second tier and, backed by Mohamed Al-Fayed’s millions, would ultimately go on to finish top of the division. The Cottagers also had some pedigree for cup upsets and had eliminated Premier League sides Southampton and Aston Villa in the previous rounds.
Therefore, United knew the visitors would be far from a simple task, and so it proved, as Fulham started the game aggressively and offered a real attacking threat through ex-England international John Salako and Dirk Lehmann.
So it proved after 26 minutes, when Solskjaer broke quickly down the left and delivered a sumptuous ball into box, where an eagerly-anticipating Cole was on hand to side-foot past a helpless Maik Taylor.
It was a sweet reward for Cole. Earlier in the game, the away fans had unveiled a banner with the message: ‘Andy Cole - Fulham reject’. The striker had spent a short loan spell at the Cottage a few years prior, which yielded four goals from 15 appearances. His 18th strike of the 1998/99 season proved one his more enjoyable moments of the campaign.
The goal rocked Fulham and both sides struggled to create any chances of real note in the remainder of the first period. At the interval, Jonathan Greening was handed his United debut in place of Irwin.
His introduction did little to improve the performance of a sub-par United, however. Luckily for the Reds, our back four remained as sturdy as ever, led by Jaap Stam and Henning Berg in the centre.
On the rare occasion when the United defence was breached, Peter Schmeichel was on hand to bail us out, as he did just after the hour mark. The Dane palmed away Steve Finnan’s fierce drive, and with Salako barring down on goal managed to spread himself and improbably emerged clutching the ball.
Jesper Blomqvist was introduced in place of Solskjaer soon after and although United were not quite at our best, still forced Taylor into a number of saves. The Northern Ireland stopper prevented a Cole header, Yorke volley, and somewhat surprisingly, a Gary Neville shot, which could have sewn up the tie.
As the game ticked towards its conclusion, Johnsen replaced Cole to add some extra solidity in defence. In truth, it wasn’t needed as Fulham struggled to repeat their early offensive flourishes.
The referee’s full-time whistle was greeted by a loud chorus of cheers and set up a quarter-final against Chelsea. As for the boss, his mind had already turned to Wednesday’s huge meeting with Arsenal.
Keegan also had other matters to think about and three days after the game he was appointed temporary England manager, a role that would become permanent the following summer.
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