Fulham: a journey to Europe

Fulham: a journey to Europe

When Roy Hodgson took charge as manager of Fulham in December 2007, the outlook for the Cottagers was bleak. The west London side languished in 18th, two points from safety, having only managed two wins in a dismal campaign. The hope that Lawrie Sanchez could revive Fulham much in the same manner as his meritorious attempts to propel Northern Ireland from minnows-obscurity to Euro 2008 had been crushed by a series of sub-par displays and maddening results.

Sanchez had lasted only six months in the job, accruing a fairly miserable win percentage rate of 16.67 percent (four wins from 24 games), dismissed with the club teetering on the brink of banishment to the Championship. The board of directors at Craven Cottage sought out a man of vast managerial know-how in Roy Hodgson, his experience of the game all around Europe contrasting starkly to the overwhelmed Sanchez.

It was a surprise appointment for many despite Hodgson having established himself as a formidable coaching mind on the continent through stints with Inter, Copenhagen and Finland. The last club Hodgson had managed in England was Blackburn Rovers in 1998; he was sacked and Rovers relegated that season under caretaker Brian Kidd. Welcoming the 60-year-old back to the Premier League, Fulham tasked Hodgson with ensuring the club didn’t follow Blackburn down the English ladder.

Hodgson arrived at Motspur Park still bearing the scars of a Boxing Day hammering by Juande Ramos’s Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. In that London derby, Fulham were as toothless and cripplingly disconsolate as they had been in a long time, with the squad looking as forlorn and lonely as their lone striker, Diomansy Kamara.

The caretaker manager, Ray Lewington, could only hopelessly watch on from the dugout as Spurs comprehensively dismantled a side that looked bereft of ideas, tragically short of belief and visibly traumatised from a week when they had said their goodbyes to Sanchez. Lewington branded the Boxing Day massacre at the Lane a “humiliation”.

The credulous corners of the Fulham faithful that had hoped for a dramatic resurgence under the well-travelled Hodgson were to be given a sobering wake-up call in their next game, on New Year’s Day, at home to Chelsea. There was to be no electrifying renaissance from the start.

Unfortunately it was the same-old story of torment for the men in white. Danny Murphy had given Hodgson the perfect start, with a penalty in the first half. The Cottage dared to dream, however, in typically ruthless fashion, Chelsea brought the situation back to a haunting reality with goals from Salomon Kalou and Michael Ballack.

Undeniably disappointed with losing to goals from two set-pieces, Hodgson nevertheless praised the commitment of his players and there was a tentative harbouring of hope that relegation may yet be escapable. What lay ahead was an emotional rollercoaster, the likes of which have not been endured by many fans in the Premier League era. The scrap for survival is always defined by drama, tension and, in some cases, despair, but few can match Fulham’s marvellous act of escapology.

Frankly, Hodgson’s first three months in charge were far from a polished rescue act. Fulham lost the two games following the Chelsea defeat and by the time they arrived at Eastlands to take on Manchester City on 26 April, the Cottagers had managed just three victories from Hodgson’s first 15 games in charge.

They were brushed aside at home by both Arsenal and Manchester United to the tune of 3-0 but after the defeat to Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, Hodgson remained bullish in the face of mounting pressure: “Manchester United have a wealth of talent. 3-0 sounds like we’ve been outplayed but I don’t think that was the case. We were not outclassed,” he said. “I don’t think five wins from our last 10 games is an impossible task. It’s a big task but not impossible.” Little did he know it, his words were to prove oddly prophetic come the end of the season.

At the time, Fulham’s talented squad didn’t equate to relegation battlers. The Northern Irish stable of Aaron Hughes, David Healy and Chris Baird was a remnant of the doomed voyage under Sanchez but were still good enough for the top flight. Healy was on his way to breaking the all-time goalscoring record for the European Championships qualifiers, when he managed a haul of 13. Hughes had played Champions League and Premier League football with Newcastle and Chris Baird had joined Fulham on the back of being handed Southampton’s Player of the Season award.

Partnering Hughes at the heart of the Cottagers’ defence was January recruit Brede Hangeland, the mountainous centre-half who had impressed with Viking FK in his native Norway under Hodgson. Bolstering the attack was £6m signing Diomansy Kamara, while Danny Murphy and Clint Dempsey offered creativity, craft and guile from midfield. Jimmy Bullard also provided his usual mercurial talents. They were led by their immensely popular captain Brian McBride, who proved to be the talismanic figure in the previous season with 12 goals to secure Fulham’s status as a Premier League side.

Read  |  Jimmy Bullard: laughing all the way to the top

It was McBride who precipitated the eleventh-hour charge from Fulham in their whirlwind climax to the campaign. The USA striker gave the travelling fans a much-needed boost at the Madejski Stadium against Reading in a game that looked incongruous to the 33 league ties they had played up to that point. For much of the season their football had been a dour shade of grey, but on a dreary spring afternoon in Berkshire, Fulham more closely resembled a side in the upper echelons of the top-flight rather than one scrambling desperately in the Premier League’s basement of tortured souls.

Hodgson knew that three points represented only a fraction of what was required and that the task ahead of him was still unenviable, but he basked temporarily in the joy of a hard-fought victory. The previous week, following a dispiriting display in a 3-1 home defeat to Sunderland, Hodgson emerged for his press conference a visibly crestfallen boss: “I’m not giving up the ghost but you’re looking at a manager who can’t just put on an act. It’ll be very hard now to lift the players. I only hope you will allow me to grieve for the result in a dignified way,” he told reporters.

At that moment, it seemed almost like the veteran coach – despite what he had said to the contrary – was on the verge of throwing in the towel.

It was fellow relegation-threatened Reading who produced a listless performance, plunging the manager Steve Coppell’s future into darkness after they were booed off by incensed sections inside the Madejski. Fulham could have made it even worse had it not been for the woodwork. Hangeland saw a header thunder off the crossbar in the first half while Bullard’s wonderfully curled free-kick met the same fate. But this time there was to be happiness on the road, instead of the usual despair.

The Londoners recorded their first away win in two years, thanks to captain-fantastic Brain McBride’s 24th-minute strike and a goal from super-sub Erik Nevland. Was that token away victory enough to buoy the men in white? Not exactly. They suffered a home defeat to Liverpool in their next game, before that fateful afternoon in Manchester.

David Marsh, an ardent Fulham fan and chronicler of their fortunes, recalled: “To win 3-2 in those circumstances defied belief but that is exactly what it gave the players and fans. All of a sudden we thought we could maybe get a result against Birmingham and Portsmouth would have the distraction of the FA Cup for the final game of the season. This was tempered by the fact we had not had a run of results like that for years and we still needed other teams to play their part.”

That says it all. Fulham’s extraordinary act of resilience in defeating City 3-2 from being two goals down was an achievement deemed beyond the squad, by most observers. The turning point in that game was when Kamara entered the field. An enigmatic, inconsistent talent, who spent much of his time fiddling on the periphery of games, was to be catapulted into Fulham folklore for his decisive contribution to that win over City.

The Citizens had roared into a two-goal advantage courtesy of Stephen Ireland and Benjani, but Kamara’s introduction on 64 minutes dramatically altered the course of Fulham’s season. Firstly, Kamara took advantage of the ineptitude of Vedran Ćorluka to sneak in and slot the ball through the legs of Joe Hart; 2-1, and the comeback was on. Then, the equally hapless Sun Jihai scythed down Nevland and Danny Murphy buried the penalty to make it 2-2.

A frantic finale ensued when City squandered opportunities to crush the Fulham renaissance. But it wasn’t to be. This was to be Fulham’s day. City’s stunning capitulation was complete when Kamara gathered Murphy’s perfectly weighted through ball, advanced and finished with devastating aplomb to complete a most unlikely victory. There it was -suddenly Hodgson could breathe and Fulham spotted the light of survival at the end of what had been a harrowingly dark tunnel for so many weeks.

The Great Escape wasn’t complete yet, however, as Fulham had to contend with a tricky game away to Portsmouth. Fratton Park was always a difficult place to visit, but Murphy’s gravity-defying header in the 76th-minute confirmed the club’s survival, transforming the players from crestfallen troops to heroes and legends.

The coach wasn’t prepared to rest on his laurels and made a point to act swiftly and decisively in the transfer market to ensure the stress and tension of a relegation battle was not felt in the following season. Hodgson moved early and shortly afterwards brought in Mark Schwarzer on a free and Zoltán Gera for the same outlay shortly after, while Bobby Zamora and John Paintsil arrived from West Ham for £5m.

A Cottage that had been darkened dramatically over the course of Sanchez’s doomed spell had been exalted with a wave of optimism, instigated by their 11th-hour heroics in the scrap for survival, creating a momentum that carried the club to their highest-ever Premier League finish of seventh in 2009. It was a remarkable turnaround, made possible by some astute business in the transfer market and a methodology of coaching that became increasingly ingrained in the players, with the Hodgson factor truly taking shape as his tenure continued.

Read  |  Roy Hodgson: the Inter Milan diaries

“Hodgson’s approach was built around defensive solidity and drilling the players in playing very simple, unadventurous roles within the team. Simon Davies spoke about how strange they found it just repeating the same things again and again in training but that eventually it clicked. Hodgson had them passing in triangles and not moving too far up the pitch. Attacking and attractive it was not but it meant we conceded just 34 goals in 2008-09 (Arsenal conceded 37) in finishing seventh, having let in 60 a season for the previous two,” Marsh explained.

His tactics concentrated on short passing and moving quickly to close down and regain possession when it was lost. Fulham rarely created a host of chances under him but they became quite effective at counter-attacking and nicking games by a single goal.

Hodgson made the players keep it straightforward; they became very good at doing the simple things well and journeymen like John Paintsil could look like world beaters in the company of teams like Chelsea. He created an efficient machine where new players could be easily slotted in and everyone felt confident in their ability to do their bit.

His style was never wholly popular because fans always gravitate to the ‘I pay to be entertained’ line and feel that even a club of Fulham’s stature should always aspire to mix it with the big boys. They never really did that under Hodgson. While they had the odd reasonable result against the top four, they were mainly set up to beat the clubs they were expected to perform against.

The success of the approach Hodgson had pioneered decades before in Sweden was always finely balanced at a club with Fulham’s resources. Indeed, there was a sense before he went to Liverpool that it was running out of steam. It takes time for players to get used to it, as two wins and nine losses in his first 16 games at Fulham demonstrated, but it enabled him to make the team greater than the sum of its parts and punch above its weight. Fans rejoiced at getting to see him bring the best out of players like Paintsil, Zamora, Simon Davies and Gera and he definitely saw quality where other managers did not.

At Liverpool, his players hated being restricted to simple roles and being repeatedly drilled in basic systems but you could see with England that Hodgson could get top flight players to keep it simple; his record with the national side compares with all but the very best managers.

Whatever Hodgson preached at Fulham in the 2008/09 season, it worked. They won 14 matches, drew 11 and lost 13. What is telling about the Hodgson system was their scoring stats: 39 in 38 games was distinctly unspectacular, but they only conceded 34. Hodgson’s vision centred on an ultra-organised defence, making it as tight and compact as possible and becoming incredibly difficult to break down. He was meticulous and active in training at Motspur Park, getting involved at every opportunity and becoming more of a participator in the act of improvement rather than an observer.

While the Europa League can often be viewed as an entertaining distraction for some clubs, it provided some of the finest memories: “It was, for most fans, the most joyous and extraordinary experience we have had in football. If following your club is first and foremost about the camaraderie with your fellow fans then it is likely the Europa League run will ever be bettered for Fulham supporters. We had shocking luck all the way through, and some terrible refereeing decisions, but overcame some of the best teams in the game and did it with style and a buccaneering spirit you rarely saw in our league form,” Marsh recalled.

For the supporters, watching their team mix it with the likes of Juventus and Roma felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity. The team played with heart and passion on their way to the club’s first ever major European final, giving the fans the greatest season of their lives.

It all started in July – when many of the Premier League’s top players were busy sunning themselves – when Fulham travelled to Lithuania to play Vėtra in the Europa League third qualifying round. The mileage may have been draining but Fulham were satisfied with a comfortable 3-0 victory, before repeating that scoreline to complete an emphatic 6-0 aggregate score.

The next test was considerably trickier – a playoff against the Russian side Amkar Perm. A 3-1 win at the Cottage put Fulham on the cusp of the competition proper, but they managed to hang on by the skin of their teeth in the away leg, losing 1-0 and praising their luck after a slew of Amkar chances went begging. The group stage beckoned.

Fulham were faced with a fascinating yet tough group, comprised of Roma, Basel and CSKA Sofia. Trips to Italy, Switzerland and Bulgaria was the reward for their hard work in the qualifying rounds. The chance to travel to the Olimpico in Rome was a tantalising prospect for fans who, just over a year earlier, had been dreading the indignity of the Championship.

Read  |  The dazzling, underrated excellence of Damien Duff

In the first game, away to CSKA, Hodgson made it clear that the Premier League was his priority, with Pantsil the only first-team regular in the starting 11. The game finished 1-1 after Kamara levelled the scoring to ensure Fulham’s maiden group stage voyage didn’t end in defeat. A Murphy goal gifted them the first three points of the competition against Basel at Craven Cottage. An encouraging start was almost made even better when Roma visited the Cottage in the third fixture.

Hangeland had headed the home side into the lead and Fulham managed to hang on right until the death, when Marco Andreolli scored in the 93rd-minute. Refereeing decisions marred the trip to the Olimpico when Paul Konchesky was sent off harshly, reducing Hodgson’s men to 10 and making the task of beating Roma virtually impossible. Having led 1-0, Fulham lost 2-1 and Hodgson found it difficult to conceal his frustration: “I can’t always be happy, not in the face of injustice.”

However, their train was not to be derailed as a couple of spirited performances against CSKA and Basel – producing 1-0 and 3-2 victories – guaranteed a place in the knock-out rounds. In the league, Fulham were far from the miserable, relegation-threatened entity of two years previously. In December, they had thrashed Manchester United 3-0 in what remains one of their most impressive displays against a top side.

They faltered, however, around Christmas, losing five games in a row and denting the confidence ahead of their showdown with Europa League holders Shakhtar Donetsk in the last-32. However, a recurring element of Fulham’s season was not letting their highs and lows in the league deter their journey in the Europa League.

Zoltán Gera fired them ahead against Shakhtar after just two minutes. However, Shakhtar were a team of genuine quality and pedigree, and they showed exactly why they were the holders, suffocating Fulham with a flurry of quick passing moves and a thoroughly deserved equaliser through Brazilian striker Luiz Adriano.

The scoreline didn’t make for the worst reading but anyone watching the game would have remarked in the gulf between the two sides. Shakhtar were intelligent and relentless, and Fulham simply couldn’t keep the ball. Hodgson decided to act. Noticing that Shakhtar were extremely dangerous in and around Fulham’s penalty area, he pushed the defensive line up significantly and re-established a foothold in proceedings.

Then, Zamora sent the Cottage into a frenzy when he hammered a ferocious drive from 25 yards into the net via the crossbar. It was a 2-1 win and a tactical triumph for Hodgson, who had been brave with his risky high-line. Fortunately, it worked, and Fulham had the advantage to bring with them to Ukraine.

In the return leg, Hangeland struck to extend Fulham’s lead and, despite Jádson equalising for Shakhtar, Hodgson’s men clung on admirably and proceeded to the last-16. This Europa League distraction was rapidly becoming a point of real interest. Their reward for vanquishing the holders was even more enticing; a battle with the mighty Juventus.

Admittedly, the Bianconeri were not the premium force in Italy at the time, but they were nevertheless a club of significantly greater stature than Fulham. The first leg had seemingly ended Fulham’s tournament; a 3-1 defeat in Turin providing a dampening anti-climax to the pre-game excitement. However, at Craven Cottage, Fulham pulled off an extraordinary turnaround in a night that will live long in the memory for fans and neutrals.

“I will never see a better game at Craven Cottage than the visit of Juventus. We could barely land a glove on Shakhtar at home, so sublime was their football, but we prevailed in the end but Juventus was several levels higher. I arrived late at the ground so missed their goal which put them three up on aggregate but the Fulham fans were in buoyant and positive mood all game,” says Marsh.

“It is bizarre to relate but there was an eagerly expectant air around the ground even after their goal in the 2nd minute. For some reason we always felt we were still in the fight. We had seen such great play from Fulham so far that season that we always felt we had goals in us in Europe,” Marsh continues.

“Gera and his joyous goal celebrations, Zamora and his tireless fighting for the cause and Dempsey and the chip from nowhere made it the loudest game of football many can remember at The Cottage and it is the most damage I have done to my vocal cords at football. And Dempsey meant that. He was that sort of player. Cocky, selfish, tactically naive and not troubled by the sense that his circus tricks might ever make him look an idiot, it was the logical conclusion to a game like that.

“After Juventus, it felt like we could take on anyone and the good wishes from fans across the country is something we had never experienced before,” he continued.

They had done it: Fulham had beaten Juventus. Their confidence was reaching near unbreakable heights at this point, believing that they could take on anyone. David Trezeguet had increased Juve’s advantage early on but Zamora – with a heroic performance yet again – slammed in an equaliser before a red card for Fabio Cannavaro changed the complexion of the match entirely.

Read  |  Fulham vs Juventus: the Old Lady and the Cottage

Davies fired in a spectacular second, after an expertly constructed move, and Fulham were dreaming once again. Then, they won a penalty. Murphy wasn’t playing so up stepped Gera who fired it in to bring Fulham level on aggregate. The noise around the ground was deafening. Fulham were on the cusp of something truly special. Naturally, the best was saved for last. Dempsey, collecting the ball on the edge of the area, produced a sumptuous dink to score Fulham’s fourth and see them through, prompting eulogies of the greatest night in the club’s history.

Understandably, Hodgson was beaming in his post-match interviews, claiming that he was “on top of the world”. Fulham, a team who had straddled the oblivion just two seasons earlier, in danger of falling off the map, had staged a stunning revival to knock out one of the greatest club sides in the world.

Suddenly, the fans started to truly believe that Fulham could go all the way to the final. What a rollercoaster it had been, from planning for life in the Championship to embarking on an exciting European odyssey. From the hellish relegation scrap, they were travelling to iconic stadia on the continent like the Stadio delle Alpi.

Their next adventure was a tussle with the reigning Bundesliga champions, Wolfsburg. It was an absorbing encounter at Craven Cottage and Fulham deservedly walked away 2-1 winners, with Zamora and Damien Duff amongst the goals. A late away goal courtesy of Alexander Madlung’s impressive header put the tie on a knife’s edge. Any anticipation of a nerve-shredding evening in Germany was soon dissipated by the superb Zamora, who struck after 20 seconds to silence the Volkswagen Arena and send Fulham through to the semi-final.

“When we kicked off this campaign, I don’t think anyone would have expected that we would be in the semi-final come the end of April. It’s a fantastic journey. We’ve had to do it the hard way. I’m delighted that we’ve done it and I think we did with some style and panache,” Hodgson said of his side’s progress. He was right, too.

While Fulham may not have been the most attacking team to watch in that year’s Europa League, Hodgson’s players were beguiling in that they were fiercely disciplined, unwaveringly organised and acutely aware of their own responsibilities. It may have been a painstaking process but Hodgson’s vision for this side had been transmitted perfectly. He knew exactly what he wanted from the players and they knew exactly how to satisfy.

Their next challenge was a considerable one: a semi-final showdown with Hamburg, who were gunning to reach a final to be staged in their own backyard. The first leg was an even affair and ended goalless. Nobody could really complain about the result but perhaps there was a tinge of lament that Hodgson’s men had failed to snatch an away goal, inevitably intensifying the pressure of the return leg.

And yes, it proved to be another emotionally exhausting evening; one that started disastrously after Mladen Petrić’s astonishing free-kick fired the Germans into the lead, giving them an away goal that had eluded the Premier League side. Petrić’s goal was one of the finest in the competition that season.

Once again, however, the footballing gods were smiling on west London. Davies, with 20 minutes remaining, latched onto a typically impeccable through ball from Murphy, juggled it around the defender and poked it into the bottom corner. Belief. Seven minutes later, a corner from the right was headed down into space and, with the Hamburg players failing to react sufficiently, Gera lashed home the all-important second, sending Fulham to the final.

After 18 games and 25,000 miles travelled, Hodgson and his troops found themselves in their first-ever European final, facing off against Atlético Madrid. The remarkable European adventure was about to reach a thrilling climax, with a major European honour on the line. The final was once again demonstrative of Hodgson’s capacity to make bold tactical decisions during a game.

Fulham had been overwhelmed by the occasion – not to mention the considerable quality of the opposition – in the opening period, looking every bit as nervous as Hodgson on the touchline. Sergio Agüero and Diego Forlán looked dangerous every time they came forward and, after the Argentine found his South American compatriot after 11 minutes on the edge of the area, the English coach feared the worst. Luckily, the Uruguayan’s shot flicked off the post and the Cottagers breathed again.

Read  |  How Diego Forlán gave hope to late bloomers everywhere

A reprieve? Not at all. Atlético didn’t look like a side who had languished in LaLiga mediocrity that season (they finished ninth under Quique Sánchez Flores). Los Rojiblancos attacked with speed, fluidity and confidence. However, there was a sizeable slice of luck involved with their opener. Agüero had scuffed a volley, but the ball fell straight to an onrushing Forlán who, like every striker worth his salt, anticipated the potential rebound and fired home the loose ball before Schwarzer could react.

Fulham’s run had been characterised by an undying resolve and they once again refused to wilt in the face of high-calibre opponents. With 40 minutes gone, Gera fed Davies and the Welshman smashed in the equalising volley at the far post. Fulham had been vastly inferior, but they were level.

At half-time, Hodgson took action. Forlán may have scored but Fulham’s boss knew that the real threat came from the excellent Agüero, whose darting runs behind the defence and between the back four and midfield had bamboozled Dickson Etuhu. Davies and Duff were instructed to tuck in, making things narrower and providing assistance to a struggling central midfield.

Fulham’s second half efforts were valiant and they unquestionably nudged themselves back into proceedings. However, it is almost impossible to keep a player of Agüero’s quality quiet forever and, deep into extra-time, with the scores still locked at 1-1, the Argentine picked out Forlán with devastating precision from the left. The striker made no mistake in grabbing his second goal of the evening and destroying Fulham’s European dream in the 116th minute.

After all the ups and downs, the ecstasy and the pain, Hodgson’s men had come up just shy. As Forlán and the men in red and white wheeled away in celebration, the Fulham players collapsed with exhaustion. What a slog it had been, from that qualifying round 10 months previous to this point. It had been a journey thick with over-achievement and footballing romanticism, but there could be no denying the enrichment of spirit within this squad of players.

Hodgson had taken a side shattered by the terrors of relegation and transformed them into a side worthy of any Europa League final. No matter what was thrown at them, Fulham responded, and responded with conviction and heart. Their efforts in the Europa League and their miraculous avoidance of relegation two seasons earlier will long be remembered by any neutral.

Hodgson had done wonders for his reputation. Hailed as a leading man-manager with bundles of tactical acumen, he won the LMA Manager of the Year Award two days before the Europa League final by a record margin. Perhaps inevitably, the big clubs began to circle and when he was offered the chance to further his career with Liverpool, it proved to be an irresistible offer. Though the fans were disappointed he left, Hodgson will always be remembered as a Fulham legend.

When I asked David Marsh if he was the club’s greatest ever coach, he summed the Fulham experience under Hodgson in eloquent style: “Roy Hodgson is the finest manager Fulham have ever had on a number of levels. He saved us from a fate that would probably have been much worse than our current scenario because our chairman was looking to sell the club and investment would probably not have been forthcoming to take us back up.

“He was also about the best match in terms of personality and temperament you could get in a Fulham manager. A south London boy he was polite, un-showy and blessed with a quietly confident footballing brain. He was also very intelligent but wore it lightly and would drop in the odd literary or philosophical reference into interviews and delight us with his extraordinary vocabulary.

“Hodgson always gives real detail in his interviews instead of the cliché-ridden nonsense of most managers and it made fans feel like they could see what he was trying to achieve. He has earned everything he has achieved in football by graft and intelligence.”

Those last three words are a perfect summation of that Fulham side. Their intelligence came from Hodgson’s immense understanding of the game, but their graft had always been there. Hodgson just brought it out better than anyone else. He was, for the club, better than anyone else, too.

By Matt Gault @MattGault11

With special thanks to Richard Allen and David Marsh for their expert insight.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed