AN INJURY time goal ruined Fulham's afternoon at Villa Park, when they looked set for a share of the spoils following a vastly improved second half.
The game looked certain to end 0-0 - as it did when the sides met on the opening day of the season at the Cottage. But then two subs combined to give Villa the points.
Gary Gardner - who had been on the pitch only a few minutes - fired in a left footer that Mark Schwarzer could only parry in front of him.
Andreas Weimann - an Austrian U21 international - reacted quickest, sending a a header goalwards that Schwarzer again blocked, but then bundled in the rebound.
It was scrappy, it was ugly and it was a dagger to the heart for the Whites.
Fulham showed little ambition during a first half Villa dominated, but were much better after Martin Jol had had a word during the interval – creating some decent chances in a game which never really got pulses racing.
Pavel Pogrebnyak had few real chances to add to his five goals in three games in a game that was a reminder that the Whites are the lowest scorers on their travels in the Premier League.
On the face of it, this was an excellent time to be playing at Villa Park – the hosts having gone seven games without a win on home soil and being without injured England striker Darren Bent.
But that did not account for the motivational factor for Villa of being just above the Premier League outcasts. The hosts started as if affronted by the very notion of being sucked into the relegation dogfight and the Whites were soon dropping deep and conceding a succession of corners. Attacks for Jol's men were conspicuous by their absence.
It was half an hour before Fulham registered a shot – and that was a powder puff effort from Andy Johnson that did not give keeper Shay Given any palpitations.
For all their possession and territorial advantage, however, Schwarzer was not much busier – although he saw a fair few attempts flash wide of the target.
The Aussie stopper was called upon to keep out a good strike from Gabriel Agbonlahor after a quarter of an hour – the opening arising when Danny Murphy had his pocked pinched by Stiliyan Petrov 30 yards out.
But he has had busier afternoons, and Fulham arguably came closest to breaking the deadlock on the stroke of half time when Murphy's free-kick outside the area caught Villa napping and Johnson – lurking just inside the area on the left - sent in a low cross that Pavel Pogrebnyak only just failed to reach.
Petrov was the driving force for Villa in those first exchanges – rattling in a couple of off target shots himself as Fulham found themselves in familiar territory on a ground where they have now not won in the league for nearly 40 years.
Things had to improve after the break and they did.
Mahamadou Diarra's arrival at half-time for Murphy helped. But equally likely, the players had been given an ear-bashing by the boss at half-time for a passive first 45 minutes.
They suddenly rediscovered a sense of adventure – and opposition territory - with Damien Duff whistling in a low cross that could easily have found its way into the net, before the Irishman sent a deflected shot onto the roof of the net and clipped the outside of a post after dashing onto John Arne Riise's ball in from the left. Riise went close too - sending a dipping volley just wide.
But Marc Albrighton also thumped a decent hit against the bar for the hosts just past the hour, while Carlos Cuellar scooped an effort just wide in the closing minutes. That should have been that, but there was to be a sting in the tail.
Line-up: Schwarzer; Kelly, Senderos, Hangeland, JA Riise; Dempsey, Murphy (Diarra h/t), Dembele, Duff; Johnson (Ruiz 67), Pogrebnyak. Subs not used: Stockdale, Baird, Etuhu, Davies, Sa. Attendance: 32,372