By Dermot Clarke
To win the F.A. Cup, you need a little help from lady luck. Home draws, favorable refereeing calls and the ball bouncing your way every now and then reveal to any coach that this might be the year to send his team up the hallowed Wembley steps to collect the coveted trophy.
So Alex Ferguson can be forgiven for thinking that the Manchester United ribbons are already on the cup. The home draw in the fifth round against Fulham means that United have been drawn to play at Old Trafford in the first three rounds. They were helped by the referee also when an inane penalty decision in the third round helped put paid to Middlesboro’s hopes.
The ball seems to be bouncing in their favor also. Witness last Sunday, when they turned defeat into victory in the last two minutes in the tie of the round against Liverpool. The away team went one up in the third minute, when a good run by Vegard Heggem was topped off with a fine cross that found the head of Michael Owen, whose downward header beat Peter Schmeichel at his near post.
With the visitors a goal up, it was expected that United would take control and press forward until at least parity was restored, but poor passing, and constant harrying by the hungry Liverpool pack, meant that little pressure was put on David James’s goal. A Roy Keane header was cleared off the line by former Old Trafford favorite Paul Ince, but apart from that, the pressure was minimal. Indeed, Robbie Fowler might have made it 2-0 had his curling effort from 20 yards dipped a little quicker.
So one would think that it would be a confident Liverpool side that would take the pitch in the second half. But no. Liverpool approached the half as if a win here would be the shock of the century. Pegged back in their own penalty area, Liverpool resorted to booting the ball anywhere in an effort to hold on. It was really sad to see a team with so much talent resort to these tactics. It is obvious that a lack of self-belief exists among this Liverpool team. They just don’t feel that they have any right to beat a team like Manchester United.
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With three minutes to go though, the battle-weary Liverpool rearguard were looking likely to hold on, enter favorable refereeing decision. Liverpool assistant Phil Thompson had to be restrained when Jamie Redknapp had been adjudged to have fouled while winning the ball from Gary Neville on the edge of the box. Every Liverpool fan must have been thinking "here we go," given the element of deja vu in the situation. And when Andy Cole’s header found his strike partner Dwight Yorke three yards out ,there was only one result possible: 1-1 and a replay at Anfield.
When the Scouse faithful gathered their thoughts again, they would have felt that at the start of the day this result would have suited them fine. Barely had they time to settle for this score, though, when United scored the winner. Ole Gunnar Solsj’r is fast becoming the Super-sub of the ’90s, and when he found space in the Liverpool box a minute into injury time, the cool Norwegian kept his head to rifle past a helpless James and put United through to next round.
The only excitement down Craven Cottage way in recent years has been when the Oxford-Cambridge boat race passed by. Fulham’s home ground, on the banks of the river Thames, has seen little glory since 1975, when the club reached the Cup Final only to lose to West Ham 2-0. Fulham are renowned for little more than that they were the first club to pay a player — Johnny Haynes in 1961 — one hundred pounds a week. Wow!
Kevin Keegan has taken over at the helm at Fulham. Keegan has always had a problem with the word failure. Kenny Dalglish and Raud Gullitt did a sloppy job of building on Keegan’s foundation at Newcastle, and as a player the twice-crowned European Footballer of the Year had few peers. He has opted for experience at Craven Cottage, an option that has taken his side to the top of the second division and into the fifth round of the Cup. Fulham provided the shock of the round when they traveled to Villa Park and beat Premiership leaders Aston Villa, 2-0. Fulham, as I’ve said before, travel to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United in the next round. Keegan won’t allow them to think or play like underdogs and United shouldn’t take this one lightly.
In other Cup games, Sunderland were a little unfortunate in losing 1-0 to Blackburn. Leeds got over the early shock of falling behind to Portsmouth to rally to a 5-1 victory and Coventry scored twice in the last minute away to Leicester to secure a place in round five with a 3-0 victory. Newcastle, Barnsley, Bristol Rovers and Derby County also made it to the round of sixteen.
In Scotland, the two giants, Rangers and Celtic, went through to the next round with relative ease. Goals from Henrik Larsson, Phil O’Donnell and a Stewart O.G. helped Celtic to a 3-1 victory over Airdrie. Rangers defeated Stenhousmuir 2-0, their goals coming from Wallace and Guivarch. Last year’s winners, Hearts, went under 3-1 to Motherwell.
The clash of the Titans in Ireland saw St. Patrick’s Athletic take over at the top, when they traveled to Cork City and relieved them of pole position coming home with a 2-1 victory. A crowd of 10,000 witnessed the definitive game of two halves, as Cork City, having dominated the first half, went in a goal to the good. The St. Pat’s boss, former Shamrock Rovers star Liam Buckley, shuffled the pack and conjured an unlikely victory. Leon Braithwaite came on for last week’s hero, Ian Gilzean, and had a hand in both goals scoring the first to cancel out Pat Morley’s goal for Cork and laying on Stephen McGuinness for the winner. Pat’s are now two points clear in what seems to be a two-horse race.
F.A. Cup 5th-round draw
Arsenal vs. Sheffield United or Cardiff City; Wrexham or Huddersfield vs. Derby County; Leeds United vs. Wimbledon or Tottenham Hotspur; Barnsley vs. Bristol Rovers, Sheffield Wednesday vs. Oxford United or Chelsea; Everton vs. Coventry City; Newcastle United vs. Blackburn Rovers; Manchester United vs. Fulham.
Scottish Cup 4th-round draw
Ayr United vs. Brechin City or Albion Rovers; Clydebank or Ross County vs. Queen’s Park or Dundee United; Motherwell vs. Hibernian or Stirling Albion; Greenock Morton vs. Clyde; St. Mirren or Hamilton vs. Rangers; Stranr’r vs. Falkirk; Livingston vs. St. Johnstone; Celtic vs. Dunfermline Athletic.