Football: Hayward the happy Villa supporter

Aston Villa 0 Fulham 2
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The Independent Online
STEVE HAYWARD'S footballing pedigree is hardly unique. He was born, for instance, in the same year as Stan Collymore, brought up in a neighbouring part of the Midlands and may well have rubbed shoulders with the pounds 7m enigma on the Holte End. On Saturday night, however, Hayward was probably the only Aston Villa supporter out celebrating the club's demise in the FA Cup.

While speculation raged about the extent to which Collymore's no-show had affected the Premiership title contenders, there was no doubt about Hayward's contribution to the defeat of his boyhood heroes. As the driving force of Fulham's midfield, he created the first goal for the Birmingham City-supporting Simon Morgan and claimed the second himself after his free-kick took a deflection off Paul Peschisolido.

It was, said Hayward with what was possibly understatement, his greatest day since arriving at Fulham from Carlisle shortly before the advent of Mohamed Al Fayed and Kevin Keegan late in 1997. As a boy he had watched Villa and trained with them before committing himself to Derby, while last week his spare time had been eaten up by the problem of acquiring more than 50 tickets for his extended family.

Whatever they cost, it was worth the outlay. Once the two-goal bridge- head to the last 16 had been established, the control exerted by the Second Division promotion favourites was so complete that beating the side who have led the Premiership virtually all season never really felt like a giantkilling.

Hayward, who also scored at Southampton in the third round, reasoned that teams from the top flight are not accustomed to being "hustled and hassled" the way Fulham snapped at Villa's heels. They also allowed opponents "more room to play", which was surely an indictment of John Gregory's side on the day rather than the Premiership as a whole.

Kevin Keegan, still working under the nonsensical title of chief operating officer, was equally effusive. Apart from Liverpool's Wembley triumph of 25 years ago, the Cup has not been kind to Fulham's manager, but it now offers them a welcome respite from their role as the Manchester United, the moneybags, of the lower leagues.

"We were totally relaxed," said Keegan. "It was the exact opposite of what we experience in the League every week. The boot was on the other foot. But what really pleased me was the way we played. We weren't scrambling around, but playing properly. The better the quality of the opposition, the better we play."

That much was perhaps to be expected, given that Keegan has lavished some pounds 10m on upgrading the Craven Cottage squad. Like Hayward's ticket- scrounging spree, it looked like money well spent, with no one more impressive than the pounds 2.1m captain, Chris Coleman, at the heart of an unflappable three-man defensive unit.

Coleman, who was at Crystal Palace with both Collymore and Gareth Southgate, must have anticipated a more arduous afternoon. But with Dion Dublin injured and Collymore missing, presumed sulking, on a day when his ability to turn games as a substitute might well have been crucial, the Fulham goalkeeper Maik Taylor was seldom stretched.

The goals came early enough for Gregory to believe Villa could still produce the kind of fightback that earned victory from an identical position at home to both Stromsgodset and Arsenal. Instead, Coleman and company stood firm and Fulham's front two held the ball up so well that the expected second-half siege never materialised.

Such successes, argued Keegan, made the supporters believe Fulham were "going places". In fact, they lost the divisional leadership to Preston on Saturday, but could regain it by overcoming Oldham tomorrow, when the Belgian utility player Philippe Albert will be available at the start of his loan spell from Newcastle.

Talking of Tyneside, Keegan will make a brief but emotional playing comeback on Wednesday in Peter Beardsley's testimonial match. His adoring public should see a happier, healthier man than the haggard figure who left St James' Park. The relationship with London's romantic under-achievers is obviously proving mutually beneficial, Fulham having reached the fifth round for the first time since their run to the final in 1975.

Goals: Morgan (8) 0-1; Hayward (45) 0-2.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Watson, Hendrie, I Taylor, Scimeca, Wright (Vassell, 59); Merson, Joachim. Substitutes not used: Grayson, Ferraresi, Hughes, Rachel (gk).

Fulham (3-5-2): M Taylor; Symons, Morgan, Coleman; Finnan, Collins, Bracewell, Hayward, Brevett; Peschisolido (Smith, 82), Horsfield. Substitutes not used: Trollope, Salako, Hayles, Arendse (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow-on-the-Hill).

Bookings: Villa: Ehiogu, Hendrie, Watson. Fulham: Finnan, Smith.

Man of the match: Coleman.

Attendance: 35,260.