One of the things you love about Roy Hodgson is that he comes out with things other managers just wouldn’t but delivers them in such a calm and sophisticated manner. Last night, he told us he wished February didn’t have to come to an end. He’s not the only one. As we discussed on the Fulham Offside podcast the other day, Fulham had a brilliant month: taking eleven points from a possible fifteen as well as progressing both the Europa League and FA Cup. It was beyond our wildest expectations after such a dismal January.
Before the Shakhtar second leg, Hodgson said he enjoyed managing a club that’s now on the up, even with the increased pressure of big games that game with it. As he said in the press conference after that magnificent effort in the Donbass Arena, he’s almost managed in a century of UEFA matches now and you got the sense that he was a little too good to be spending his time fighting a relegation battle rather than in the cauldron of European competition. He’d be too nice to agree with that assertion, of course.
The trouble with Fulham’s fab February is that it will raise expectations. People will expect to beat Spurs on Saturday and give Juve a run for their money. Of course, Fulham don’t do things like that. Glorious failure is normally our thing. But Fulham hadn’t finished seventh or reached the last sixteen of a European competition until Hodgson came along. Nobody, least of all the players, should get carried away but when you consider that when I first starting going to the Cottage Fulham were languishing at the wrong end of the Third Division, this month’s fixture list is remarkable:
Sat 6 March (Tottenham home, FA Cup Sixth Round): Given Fulham’s penchant for a galling failure against a lower-league side (Bristol Rovers, Leyton Orient, Hayes … need I go on?), it’s tempting to regard a place in the last eight as a bit of a triumph. That’s until you realise that we were here last year and haven’t had a bad recent record in the FA Cup. Our last quarter final appearance ended in a pasting from Manchester United live on national television but you’d hope Hodgson’s side wouldn’t fold like a pack of cards this time round.
Thu 11 March (Juventus away, Europa League Round of 16, First Leg): The fact that we’re about to play the Old Lady still blows my mind. It’s even more crazy when you consider that whilst we were pottering around at the bottom of Division Three fifteen years ago, Juventus won the Champions’ League and two Serie A titles. That we’ll face the Italian giants as equals symbolises just what an extraordinary job Hodgson has done. He picked Juve as the side he’d like to draw once we’ve got out of the group stage and once fancies he’ll have a gameplan up his sleeve to keep the tie alive for the return leg at Craven Cottage.
Sun 14 March (Manchester United away, Premier League): You’d expect much from Old Trafford on a good day and, with the trip to the champions sandwiched between two mouthwatering ties against Juventus, expectations will be lowered. Might Hodgson rotate his squad as he did up there last season with the Europa League on his mind? It might be dangerous given the precedent the Premier League have set with their fining of Wolves, but you’d back wily old Roy to be a little smarter than Mick McCarthy if he decides to field a few fringe players.
Thu 18 March (Juventus home, Europa League Round of 16, Second Leg): Juventus at the Cottage will be a great night, only slightly dampened if Fulham don’t have a hope after the first game. The list of names just roll off the tongue don’t they? Buffon, Chiellini, Cannavaro, Grosso, Iaquinta, Del Piero, Camoranesi and Trezeguet. It’s doubtful that the Italians will take us lightly given how close we came to humbling Roma and our elimination of the UEFA Cup holders.
Sun 21 March (Manchester City home, Premier League): There’s a danger that this might be a little post-Lord Mayor’s show, although Fulham will need to be switched on for the visit of Roberto Mancini’s team. City ended their recent struggles with an awesome win at Chelsea on Saturday and have a quite staggering array of attacking talent. Getting something of this one will be very tricky indeed.
Sat 27 March (Hull City away, Premier League): Hull will fancy a repeat of their opening day win last year, especially as they battle against the drop. That loveable old rogue Jimmy Bullard might even be fit make another comeback against us. Might this be the chance for one of those rare Fulham things: an away win?
Whatever the month holds, it certainly won’t be dull, will it?