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A daunting trip to Manchester United awaits Fulham on Super Sunday, but just over a decade ago, Steed Malbranque inspired a sensational 3-1 away win in this fixture...
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 09/02/14 9:49am
"The only way to get something was by trying to take the game to United."
That's a mentality you don't often associate with visiting managers at Old Trafford, particularly those in charge of clubs outside of the upper echelons.
But Chris Coleman, adopting a refreshingly fearless approach in the early months of his Fulham reign, encouraged his side to have a go at Manchester United on Saturday 25 October, 2003 - and came away with arguably the Cottagers' most impressive Premier League result to date.
How they could do with a similar scoreline this Sunday. Rene Meulensteen admitted his current crop hit "rock bottom" in midweek when they were bundled out of the FA Cup on their own turf by League One strugglers Sheffield United. And with the west London club propping up the top-flight - four points from safety with three months to go - their 13th season among the elite could end with them truly down on their luck.
Coleman was still attempting a playing comeback in Fulham's first season in the Premier League (2001/2), having suffered serious leg injuries in a car crash. However, by the following October, he had hung up his boots for good and had joined Jean Tigana's coaching staff. But after chairman Mohamed Al Fayed had informed the Frenchman that his contract would not be renewed - and Fulham's form dipped - Coleman was elevated to the role of caretaker manager, with five games left to stop the slide.
The Welshman, then just 32 years of age, produced an impressive 10-point haul which comfortably secured safety, and despite the club holding interviews with the likes of Louis van Gaal and Klaus Toppmoller, he was handed the reins on a permanent basis.
Right from the start of the 2002/3 season, Coleman was on the front foot. "We can't afford to sit back and relax," he insisted, acknowledging that Fulham's style under Tigana had put them at risk of becoming Premier League pushovers. He demanded "a British-style game" from his multi-national squad: "I don't mean knock it long, but we have got to be a bit more frantic and we have got to work a bit harder when we have not got the ball."
And Fulham subsequently picked up where they had left off the previous campaign, chalking up a more-than-respectable four wins and three draws in their opening eight games. Throwing away a two-goal lead, however, to lose 3-2 to Newcastle at Loftus Road (their temporary home during Craven Cottage's redevelopment) showed their novice boss still had a lot to learn, underlined by the fact that his counterpart in the other dug-out - Sir Bobby Robson - had begun his managerial career (at Fulham) before Coleman had even been born.
That age gap and lack of experience was emphasised once more in his next assignment, against another knight of the realm. In his programme notes, Sir Alex Ferguson made a point of remarking upon Coleman's "shortcut to the top" in stark contrast to his own apprenticeship, at a similar age, at East Stirlingshire. Such matters were hardly pressing for the United boss, however, who was dealing at the time with the fall-out from Rio Ferdinand's missed drugs test, a high-profile 'Battle of Britain' win at Rangers in the Champions League and his own touchline ban, imposed by the FA for a four-letter tirade at fourth official Jeff Winter.
Ferguson felt the need to stand down Paul Scholes and Roy Keane from active duty after their exertions at Ibrox; the latter watched on from the South Stand, alongside comedian Peter Kay no less, on an afternoon bereft of any merriment. Further along, Ferguson would spend most of the 90 minutes gripping a white telephone in order to bark instructions down to the bench.
The first serious complaint would have come just three minutes in, when Steed Malbranque - the game's outstanding performer - made a mug of his compatriot Mikael Silvestre and crossed low from the right for Lee Clark to fire in the opener.
Fulham continued to cut a dash on a pitch still showing the hallmarks of a Super League Grand Final the previous weekend, and a quarter of an hour later, they came agonisingly close to doubling their lead. German right-back Moritz Volz - who thoroughly stifled whizzkid Cristiano Ronaldo - motored away down the wing and pulled a pass back for Mark Pembridge, who smashed a shot against the crossbar. Pembridge had to be withdrawn soon afterwards through injury, with on-loan Arsenal man Junichi Inamoto subbed on.
Despite being outplayed in midfield, with Clark and Malbranque pushing forwards and Sylvain Legwinski screening the back four, a slick United move produced an equaliser just as Ferguson was making his way down to the home dressing room. Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs helped create the chance for Diego Forlan, who rifled home across Edwin van der Sar.
Fulham's confidence was not dented, however. "Even after their goal, the lads were still bubbling at half-time," said Coleman afterwards. "We said if we go out and do the same again, we have a chance - and that's what we did."
The United fans must have felt normal service had been resumed and until the midway point of the second half, their team appeared to control proceedings. But then Malbranque struck again. He would eventually leave Fulham under a cloud in 2006, angling for a move to Tottenham until he got his way - but at this point in time, he was a Cottagers favourite and the day before had penned a contract extension after top scoring for the club the previous season. He initiated the 66th-minute move, the move flowing through Clark and then Boa Morte on the left before the latter's ball into the box was cushioned by Louis Saha. Malbranque arrived with perfect timing to ping a low drive past Tim Howard.
Ferguson later described Howard as "marvellous" having admitted Fulham could have hit six past his team, such was their high level of performance. Scholes replaced Ronaldo as United hunted another equaliser, but instead it was the man from Japan who had the final say as Malbranque flicked a left-wing delivery for Inamoto to stretch and volley home ahead of Quinton Fortune.
Van der Sar stood tall to deny David Bellion in the closing stages, as Fulham kept their two-goal lead intact until Mike Riley's final whistle. Coleman was buzzing, and couldn't resist poking back at the pundits who had written him off. "Let's not forget that people were saying I was a rookie who was going to get the sack after two months and that we were going to finish bottom," he said, after seeing his team ascend into the top five. It was United's first home defeat in the league for 13 months, and Fulham's first win at Old Trafford in over 40 years.
One after-effect of that display would be the lasting impression made on Ferguson by Saha, who would snaffle up the classy 15-goal striker in January, and two months later, United would exact a measure of revenge on Fulham in the FA Cup quarter-finals on their way to the final in Cardiff. But for Coleman, it was a "dream start" to his managerial career as he guided his team to a ninth-place finish. At the start of the 2004/5 season, Fulham returned to Craven Cottage where the Welshman would enjoy three more years of sustained top-flight status before making way for Lawrie Sanchez in April 2007.
Now Meulensteen must seek to recapture at least a little of the magic that Malbranque and co brought to Manchester back in the day. Yet even after that performance, Coleman was still pragmatic enough to admit: "You can call me negative, but I'm still thinking about getting to 40 points as soon as possible." That was a hard target even then, but one Fulham must believe is still achievable even in their current plight if they are to have any hope of survival.
Watch Manchester United v Fulham live on Sky Sports 1HD on Sunday, with coverage underway from 3.30pm.