Fulham take full advantage

Walsall 1 Fulham 2
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The Independent Football

What do they say about a stitch in time? For relegation-threatened Walsall of the First Division, the challenge of Premiership Fulham was always going to be daunting, even with 11 men. To do it with one man in the dressing room for more than 10 minutes as the Londoners pressed for a winner was asking too much, even for a club with such splendid cup-fighting traditions. Barry Hayles duly took advantage with a real beauty, his first away goal all season.

On one of those dank early afternoons when spectators' bones chill to the marrow, Fulham showed they have authentic FA Cup-winning credentials. Their manager, Jean Tigana, asked if a Cup final appearance was a credible ambition, retorted: "Yes, why not? Although the priority for me has always been the Premiership."

But this occasion will always be remembered for the apparent eternity – it was 10 minutes – that the Walsall defender Darren Wrack needed to have an ankle wound repaired early in the second half after a tackle from Hayles.

By such threads do finely balanced ties hang. We can only speculate on what the outcome may have been for a club that in a distinguished Cup history has humbled Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle, had Wrack not gone off immediately after a rather fortuitous equaliser from Darren Byfield – best friend of Darius Vassell when both were at Aston Villa – three minutes after the break.

With the Walsall manager, Colin Lee, glancing repeatedly and anxiously towards the tunnel, he could only look on in frustration as a Steve Finnan cross was met with a spectacular volley on the turn by Hayles. Wrack emerged a couple of minutes later and Walsall finished with a flourish, but it was too late.

"I didn't think it would take so long just to put four stitches in an ankle," Lee said. "I know that it needs an injection first to deaden the area, but it seemed to take forever. It's something I'll need to look at."

Walsall. The very mention of that name strikes fear into any motorist negotiating the M6. Yesterday, the football club now located next to the motorway presented not too many terrors for the cultured citizens of west London's new élite as they tried to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in their history.

With their captain Tom Bennett keeping a wary eye on the wily Steed Malbranque, Lee's men advanced with purpose, but they lacked the finesse to provide the final ball. In the Portuguese Jorge Leitão and the Brazilian Herivelto they were also lacking in finishing power. The only hit-man around the place turned out to be Walsall's celebrity fan, the record producer Pete Waterman, who turned Kylie Minogue into a star. If only he could have turned his club's strikers into goalscorers.

In fairness, Leitão had scored a brace against Charlton in the 3-1 triumph in the last round. But with his one inviting opportunity of the first half, offered by a cross from Byfield, Leitão directed his header straight at Fulham's Holland goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar. "What we need is Darius Vassell," bleated a home fan. For the moment, Byfield would have to suffice.

Straight from the clearance, Fulham broke down the right and were awarded a free-kick, which Malbranque drove into the goalmouth. Almost comically, if you weren't a Walsall aficionado, Bennett and Matthew Carbon both tried to clear and contrived to divert the ball past their own goalkeeper, James Walker.

Within three minutes of the restart, Walsall were back in contention and there was just a hint that an upset might be in the offing. A Dean Keates corner did the damage, with Van der Sar trying to punch clear over the head of Byfield, but succeeding only in forcing the ball against the striker, and looking on in self-contempt as the ball bounced into the net.

Lee pushed Pedro Matias up to support Leitão and Byfield, and the strategy appeared to have succeeded when the former dashed clear on the left and produced a sublime cross for the latter. But with space and time his header permitted Van der Sar to dive and save.

Forty years ago, Walsall secured a 2-2 draw at Fellows Park against the same opponents, who included George Cohen and Alan Mullery. This time, it was not to be as the leggy Abdes Quaddoh, known as "a Moroccan Rio Ferdinand" and his fellow defenders kept their composure. However, Tigana conceded generously that it had been "a difficult game, with much passion. When we came back to 1-1, I was a little bit worried."

It was put to him that the FA Cup is now Fulham's best chance of a place in Europe. The Frenchman disagreed, insisting that his team could still do so through their league placing. They play Middlesbrough on Tuesday.

Walsall face easier tasks. A little matter of Coventry away on Tuesday and Manchester City at home next Saturday. But their confidence will surely have been enhanced by yesterday's encounter. Just a shame that they should be undone by a stitch-up.