Football: City fired by wave of optimism

Manchester City 3 Fulham 0
NOT SINCE Alfred the Great's legendary absent-mindedness can flaming comestibles have caused such a commotion. As reasons for kick-off delays go, "pies on fire" is probably unique, as well as somehow typical of Manchester City, although it proved to be Fulham who got their fingers burned.

Following City's victory, which equalled their best in a season of frustratingly few goals, Kevin Keegan arrived to meet the media chomping on one of said savouries. So comprehensive was the Second Division leaders' defeat, three days after they devoured Southampton in the FA Cup, it may well have been humble pie.

Fulham now go forward to a tie at Aston Villa which, if Keegan spends Mohamed Al Fayed's money wisely, will be a taste of Premiership encounters to come. For City, who sat at English football's top table barely two and a half years ago, the challenge is the more prosaic one of trying to reach the promotion play-offs.

Joe Royle, for whom this was the 50th League match in charge of City, was asked whether it might be the start of a winning run. "I'm not tempting fate," he said. "I may be a Scouser but I'm not stupid. There have been too many false dawns over the years.

"That's as well as we've played over 90 minutes, but we've tended to play our best against the better sides. It's when we go to the soccer outposts, where they welcome us with open arms and full houses, that we've struggled."

City have lost at Lincoln, Wycombe and York while winning four and drawing two of their eight fixtures with the clubs above them. Given that perverse record, the imminent visits to Walsall (second) and Stoke (fourth) may be less daunting than the fact that all their 10 remaining home matches are against teams below them.

Keegan said it had been a "must-win game" for City. They have had plenty of those in the recent past, of course, yet ended up being relegated twice in three seasons. This time, after an uncertain opening, they outfought a Fulham side who looked drained from their midweek exertions.

Shaun Goater, heading his first League goal since October, and Gareth Taylor, with a shot which belied the impression of him as a poor man's Niall Quinn, both breached the division's tightest defence in the space of nine minutes. Kevin Horlock's free-kick nipped Fulham's fightback in the bud.

No one carried the fight to them more forcefully than Michael Brown. The 21-year-old midfielder must have feared a red card when, having been booked after 16 minutes, he promptly fell foul of Mr Hall on two more occasions. He celebrated his escape by having a part in each of the goals.

Brown first came to prominence when Alan Ball hailed him as a ready-made replacement for Garry Flitcroft. What followed was a loan spell at Hartlepool and a shattered ankle - archetypal City again - but there are signs at last of potential translating into performance.

His brushes with the referee also had the effect of provoking the "Blue Moon" brigade (who have long been convinced the world is against them) into even more vociferous backing than usual. Keegan said before Fulham's replay that "our supporters will tell us how big this club is"; the City faithful, by establishing an average attendance of 27,632, continue to do precisely that.

That figure happens to be exactly half Manchester United's. However, according to Alex Ferguson's last programme column, "Old Trafford was more like a morgue than a football match (against Nottingham Forest)". On Saturday at least, Maine Road was a cacophonous throwback to the days before football became just another leisure and marketing opportunity.

The stubborn, stoical fervour of the crowd even extended to unqualified acclaim for a United player, the on-loan Terry Cooke. Like the pre-match pastry panic, it must have been a first. Royle's task is to ensure that the optimism does not turn out once more to be pie in the sky.

Goals: Goater (24) 1-0; Taylor (32) 2-0; Horlock (54) 3-0.

Manchester City (4-4-2): Weaver; Crooks, Wiekens, Vaughan, Edghill; Cooke, Brown, Pollock, Horlock (Jim Whitley, 89); G Taylor, Goater. Substitutes not used: Dickov, Bishop.

Fulham (4-4-2): M Taylor; Neilson, Symons, Coleman, Brevett; Finnan, Bracewell (Smith, 68), Hayward, Brazier (Horsfield, 68); Lehmann (Peschisolido, 68), Hayles.

Referee: A Hall (Birmingham).

Bookings: Manchester City: Taylor, Brown, Vaughan, Cooke, Pollock. Fulham: Brevett, Neilson.

Man of the match: Brown.

Attendance: 30,251.