In a stirring seven minutes at Craven Cottage last night, Fulham wrote their names into footballing folklore. Even without this exceptional European run, Roy Hodgson would have long been revered on the banks of the Thames for taking London’s friendliest club from the brink of relegation to seventh place in less than eighteen months. But, with a terrific blend of hard work and tactical know-how, Hodgson has steered his side to a first major European final in Fulham’s history.
Perhaps the most revealing part of their success was that Fulham once again triumphed against the odds. Bookmakers would have given you very long odds had you suggested back in the summer that they would be preparing to end their season in Hamburg at the Europa League final. Dreadful refereeing decisions, injuries, a tricky group and even an Icelandic volcano, threatened to derail Fulham’s European ambitions, but the Whites still managed to navigate a way through. That they still had the spirit to overcome the shock of Mladen Petric’s terrific free-kick is a testament to the belief Hodgson has instilled in his team.
Lesser sides might have crumbled given the gravity of giving up an away goal to a German side. The free-kick might have seemed harsh: Danny Murphy’s foul on Ze Roberto probably wouldn’t have been recognised by a Premier League official, but Mark Schwarzer was left helpless by both the flight and power of Petric’s perfect free-kick. The Australian goalkeeper might think he could have got closer to it and for a while it looked as though this might be the end of an incredible odyssey.
Petric, whose fitness was no longer in doubt after the Croatian could only manage a cameo role from the bench in the first leg, became more and more involved dropping into gaps just behind the dangerous Ruud van Nistelrooy. The visitors looked more comfortable on the ball and the lively Jonathan Pitroipa spurned two good chances to put the tie beyond Fulham: he shot wide after a mazy run and then was flagged offside as he bore down on goal, having gone too early.
Fulham looked rather listless in attack. Bobby Zamora, clearly only half fit at best struggled to get any change out of the impressive Jerome Boateng – apparently poised to join Manchester City in the summer – and only had one sight of goal. It came in the third minute and Frank Rost was out at his feet almost as soon as Zoltan Gera’s return pass had presented Zamora with an opening. Damien Duff scuffed a shot wide from outside the box but it was Hamburg who played with more urgency and carried the greater threat.
Hodgson’s half-time words invigorated his side and they saw much more of the ball in the early part of the second period, even without fashioning too many chances. Clint Dempsey replaced Zamora and immediately worried the Hamburg defence with his direct running: Boateng booked for what was almost a kung-fu kick on the American on the by-line. Fulham almost scored from the free-kick, with Duff dragging a shot wide from Paul Konchesky’s clever delivery.
David Jarolim tested Schwarzer with a long-range shot and, as the clock ticked on, there was a tangible sense of desperation about Fulham’s quest for an equaliser. The Hammersmith End, schooled in the art of European comebacks after that scarcely credible turnaround against Juventus, implored Fulham fans to ‘stand up if you still believe.’ Affirmation arrived swiftly. Simon Davies, looking like a candidate to be replaced as Hodgson readied a substitute on the sidelines, started a move in midfield and was on hand to flick a forward ball from Danny Murphy brilliantly beyond Guy Demel before prodding a finish past Rost. All the crucial touches took place off the floor, which, although unusual for Hodgson’s side, offered a reminder of the Welshman’s wonderful technique.
Davies was no longer running on empty. His persistence won a corner and his own delivery caused carnage in the Hamburg penalty area. The Germans failed to clear it and the ball bounced off Demel and fell invitingly for Gera, who has quietly had a storming season, to swivel and steer home a second. As ecstacy unfolded all around, I wondered if Fulham had scored too early.
Hamburg threw on another forward and Fulham threw bodies in the way. The last ten minutes took an eternity. Even then, van Nistelrooy – superbly quelled by Brede Hangeland all evening – had a chance to continue his fine scoring record against Fulham. Somehow, though, the Dutchman managed to screw his shot wide from six yards out.
A raw, racuous party began at the final whistle. The man who’d been coming since the sixties told me in tears that he never thought he’d see anything like this. As the players raised their arms in triumph, I spotted Hodgson, ever the gentleman, making his way around the pitch. Not to celebrate, but commiserating with the disconsolate Hamburg players. Fulham’s seemingly neverending season now heads towards a fabulous finale: Atletico Madrid await in Hamburg for the final on May 12.
FULHAM (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil (Nevland 75), Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Davies; Gera; Zamora (Dempsey 57). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Dikgacoi, Greening, Riise.
BOOKED: Dempsey, Hangeland.
GOALS: Davies (69), Gera (76).
HAMBURG (4-4-2): Rost; Demel, Aogo, J. Boateng, Mathijsen; Jarolim (Rozenhal 90), Ze Roberto, Tesche (Rincon 56; Guerrero 79); Petric, van Nistelrooy. Subs (not used): Hesl, Schulz, Arslan, Berg.
BOOKED: J. Boateng, Rost.
GOAL: Petric (22).
REFEREE: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey).