Lewington's Hornets sting frail Fulham

Watford 1 - Fulham 1
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The Independent Football

Ray Lewington must have glanced across the technical area more than once during this resourceful and spirited performance by his Watford side, and reflected on the ironies of the old game. Back in the late Eighties, well before Mohamed Al Fayed's fortune resurrected a club wearing a death mask, Lewington was attempting to be all things to all men at Craven Cottage: player, manager, coach and scout.

"No job will ever be as tough as Fulham at that time," he now says of his near four-year stint as player-manager. The character standing across from him here yesterday may have something to say about that.

Chris Coleman, a member of the Crystal Palace rearguard when Lewington was subsequently manager at Selhurst Park, may now be in charge of a club restored to the élite by virtue of the millions injected by its chairman, while Lewington again finds himself in charge of a club still heavily in debt, but it is arguable which man's task is the more perilous.

Certainly, defeat here for Coleman's Fulham would have made life decidedly uncomfortable for the Welshman.

Yet, if ever there was an incentive for Lewington to galvanise his team to inflict a defeat on Premiership opposition for the third time this season, it was here yesterday against a former prodigy.

Watford, defeated by Everton in the 1984 final - the year of Elton's tears - had begun seemingly in thrall to their expensively assembled visitors. Just possibly, Tuesday's Carling Cup semi-final first leg against Liverpool also proved a distraction. However, they finished with sufficient intensity of purpose in the second half to have claimed the spoils, had Heidar Helguson and Co been blessed with rather more clinical finishing.

But then Coleman could say the same if one of the players who passed through Fulham during Lewington's stewardship, a young striker named Andy Cole, on loan from Arsenal at the time, had accepted his own chances to secure his team a fourth-round place at the first attempt.

Coleman, as candid as ever, conceded: "It was never going to be easy. A couple of Premiership teams [Southampton and Portsmouth in the Carling Cup] had been here and lost this season, and we were aware of that. We all know what happens in the FA Cup. It could have gone either way."

Before leaving for a beer with his counterpart, Coleman stressed: "Ray was one of the best coaches I've played for when I was at Palace. I've got a lot of respect for him and I'll be delighted if they pull it off against Liverpool."

Lewington's Championship team, who flirted with a play-off place at one stage in the season, have since received the cold shoulder in the division, with relegation a more ominous prospect. However, Coleman will have been well aware of Watford's knock-out-tournament prowess this season, one in which the Hornets have punctuated that wretched League run by inflicting heavy defeats here on both the south coast Premiership clubs, the reward being the Liverpool semi-final.

With Paul Jones, on loan from Wolves, unavailable because Glenn Hoddle refused to allow him to become cup-tied, it was Watford's goalkeeping coach, Alec Chamberlain, now aged 40 and in his 25th year in the game, who made his first start of the season. At the other end of the age range, Fulham's 19-year-old Liam Fontaine made his career debut.

It was possibly not the comeback that Chamberlain would have relished. Watford's defensive frailties were exposed when Collins John unleashed a vicious drive across goal which rebounded off the far post. The veteran was nowhere when Zat Knight, virtually unchallenged, headed in Mark Pembridge's free-kick after 16 minutes.

Just before the break, John was presented with an inviting opening to increase Fulham's lead but he inexcusably hoisted the ball over the bar. He was to rue the missed chance. Shortly afterwards, in the 43rd minute, Helguson netted from the spot after young Fontaine had brought down Hameur Bouazza. The equaliser was deserved. Earlier, Paul Devlin forced Edwin van der Sar to make a fine save, while Helguson shot just wide.

At the start of the second period, Cole, who had cleared off the line for Fulham in the build-up to that penalty episode, struck a post with a venomous effort before being thwarted by Chamberlain with a save at his feet.

Fulham appeared unnerved as Lewington's team began a close examination in the last half-hour, with assaults on both flanks. Helguson headed over from a cross by Bouazza, who was himself denied by a block tackle. Then the Watford captain, Gavin Mahon, saw one effort blocked by the feet of the excellent Van der Sar.

In the final minutes it could have been Fulham's afternoon after all but Steed Malbranque struck the bar. Ultimately, though, both clubs will be satisfied. The visitors will believe they can claim a fourth-round prize in the replay. Watford will just keep on counting the money.