David O'Leary made his reputation with the young men of Leeds United when they lived the dream under Peter Ridsdale. Now, under the very different regime of Doug Ellis, O'Leary's prospects of feeding Aston Villa's craving for success may rely on another crop of young men.
With Steven Davis providing the drive, James Milner the inspiration, Luke Moore one goal and, improbably, Liam Ridgewell two, Villa thrice rallied at Craven Cottage to take a well-earned point. The confidence engendered by their 4-0 Boxing Day drubbing of Everton survived the award of a highly debatable penalty within minutes of their first equaliser, and the needless concession of another goal within seconds of their second reply.
It helped that Villa caught Fulham without several leading players including two defenders but, finally, things could be looking up at Villa Park, whatever the progress of the much-mooted takeover.
"We felt we deserved the three points but full credit to the players for their attitude. The young lads have been doing well all season," said Roy Aitken, Villa's assistant manager. "The manager's someone who will give youngsters a chance. If they are good enough he'll play them," he added.
A delayed start, caused by Andy D'Urso stepping up from fourth official to referee, after Richard Beeby suffered an injury in the warm-up, tested the spectators' fortitude on a freezing night but they were soon warmed by a compelling match.
Fulham, in their 100th match under Chris Coleman, started the brighter but Villa should have scored first. Milan Baros, brimming with belief after his two goals on Boxing Day, squared to Moore eight yards out but, off-balance, he shot over. Four minutes later Fulham were ahead. Villa failed to deal with Mark Crossley's long goal-kick enabling Luis Boa Morte to release Tomasz Radzinski on the left. With Villa in disarray his cross picked out Brian McBride who headed imperiously in.
Davis led Villa's response. He had a shot blocked following one counter-attack, then sparked the break that led to the equaliser. Intercepting Liam Rosenior's poor pass he fed Baros, who slipped the ball through for Moore. Having already missed one good chance Moore could have panicked but the young striker justified his selection, ahead of Juan Pablo Angel, with a superb finish.
The lead lasted less than five minutes as Radzinski, given a roving role behind the front pair, tumbled under Mark Delaney's challenge. D'Urso, on the linesman's advice, gave a bitterly disputed decision and Heidar Helguson rolled in his second successful spot-kick in three days.
Even then Villa should have gone into the break level but, after Crossley flapped at James Milner's floated free-kick, Gavin McCann could only divert the ball, via his thigh, on to the bar.
So instead they went in a goal down and nearly a man too as Baros, booked for contesting the penalty, had to be dragged away by Villa's goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele, as he continued to harangue the officials.
Driven on by a sense of injustice Villa re-emerged to lay siege to Fulham's goal and were rewarded when Ridgewell snuck forward to turn Milner's cross between Crossley's legs. Infuriatingly for O'Leary, they then conceded from the restart as McBride drifted behind Wilfred Bouma to head in Boa Morte's deep cross.
McBride went close to settling the match with a header before Villa rallied again and, after Ridgewell rattled the bar, they drew level once more when Milner, despite the attentions of two defenders, delivered another fine cross which was turned in by Ridgewell from close range.
For Ridgewell, whose wife gave birth to his first son on Tuesday, it has been some Christmas.
Fulham (4-3-1-2): Crossley; Leacock (Jensen 57), Knight, Bocanegra, Rosenior; Christanval, Legwinski (Elrich 78), Boa Morte; Radzinski; McBride, Helguson (John 84). Substitutes not used: Warner (gk), Pearce.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; Hughes, Delaney, Ridgewell, Bouma (Bakke 75); Milner, McCann, Davis, Barry; Baros, Moore (Angel 70). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Whittingham, Gardner.
Referee: A D'Urso (Essex).Reuse content