MOHAMED AL FAYED last night reaped the first significant reward for his investment in Fulham as the Second Division leaders knocked out Premiership Southampton in a passionate FA Cup third-round replay at Craven Cottage.
Fulham will now travel to Aston Villa for the fourth round, and the Premiership title challengers would be foolish to assume an easy passage.
"We didn't have it all our own way but we created the best chances and earned the right to go to Villa Park," Kevin Keegan said. "It is a real good football club here. We've built on the disappointment of losing in the play-offs last season."
While any Premiership scalp is worth celebrating, and the result was acclaimed with the uproar and rejoicing befitting an FA Cup giant-killing, this was less of a shock than the disparity in status might suggest. Fulham may not have reached the fourth round since 1983 but they had already defeated Southampton in the Worthington Cup this season. Most illustrative of all was the background of the goalscorer, Barry Hayles.
Signed for pounds 2m from Bristol Rovers in November, he is not even Fulham's most expensive signing in the 16 heady months since Chief Operating Officer Keegan arrived at Craven Cottage - the pounds 2.5m Chris Coleman holds that honour. But Hayles still cost more than anyone in the Southampton side. That is the measure of Fulham's ambition and the comparative paucity of Southampton's resources.
But this financial reality should not detract from Fulham's triumph - however expensively acquired, their team is still more used to dealing with lower division opposition than the likes of Mark Hughes and Matt Le Tissier.
Last night, roared on by the biggest crowd since Keegan arrived - almost the full house he asked for - they soon asserted themselves, brushing off the worry of an early shot by Hassan Kachloul, which brought Maik Taylor to his knees, to take control.
Paul Bracewell and Steve Hayward were particularly influential and Ken Monkou, dismissed in the first match, had to make two good tackles on Hayward and Geoff Horsfield as the Second Division leaders pushed forward.
Set-pieces caused Southampton particular problems, with Jones making an excellent save from a deflected Hayward free-kick before a fortuitous block by James Beattie denied Horsfield a headed goal. Five minutes later Monkou sliced a clearance towards his own goal and only a fingertip save from Jones kept them level.
Though David Howells tested Taylor with a header and a shot, Fulham continued to create the better chances and Neil Smith wasted the best of the match after the left-back, Matt Brazier, had pulled the ball back from the byline.
Extra time loomed but then a half-cleared corner came to Brazier. His deflected shot was well saved by Jones, but Hayles stubbed the rebound in.
Southampton huffed and puffed but to no avail. They are left to concentrate on trying to avoid meeting Fulham again next year - in the First Division.
"We've been the better side against them four times this season - but I think they can stay up," Keegan, a former Southampton player, said. "We are not a Premiership side, but we have a terrific chairman and a great set of supporters who really want us to do well."
Fulham (4-3-3): Taylor; Neilson, Symons, Coleman, Brazier; Finnan, Bracewell (Uhlenbeek, 76), Hayward; Hayles, Horsfield (Smith, h-t), Peschisolido (Lehmann, h-t). Substitutes not used: Arendse (gk), Salako.
Southampton (4-3-3): Jones; Dodd, Monkou, Lundekvam, Colleter; Oakley (Le Tissier, 54), Howells (Ripley, 87), Kachloul; Beattie, Hughes, Ostenstad. Substitutes not used: Stensgaard (gk), Hiley, Bridge.
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).