It’s only natural that the overriding emotion just after that sudden blow to our collective solar plexis was crushing disappointment. Getting that close has to hurt. But, given a couple of days to place the whole experience in the broader picture, I challenge any Fulham fan to be feeling anything other than very, very proud.
Proud of how Roy Hodgson handled defeat. With characteristic frankness, he set the defeat in it’s rightful context minutes after the game had finished. In that analytical manner of his that seems to have been borrowed from a sixties schoolmaster rather than a modern football manager, Roy conceded that found it difficult to make a technically gifted and exceptionally dangerous Atletico Madrid. When Sergio Aguero was leading all and sundry a merry dance after Forlan’s first goal, I feared Fulham might buckle under the pressure.
That goes against everything we know about the team Hodgson’s built. In adversity, we saw those familiar qualities yet again – endeavour, teamwork and the will not to be beaten. That spirit had carried Fulham through far greater crises that this and Simon Davies’ sweet strike had our hopes soaring. It’s right to acknowledge his contribution here too. Davies has been written off by some as past it and injury-prone over the past season, but he scored one of the best goals I’ve seen in a high-pressure situation to get us back into the semi-final and demonstrated that flawless technique at the far post again on Wednesday night.
Defensively we were clearly stretched but the boys kept going. Dickson Etuhu imposed himself on proceedings and quelled some of those speedy Atletico breaks. There was plenty of courage on display. Most of our back four were carrying niggling injuries and Damien Duff soldiered on despite the calf strain from Stoke. Bobby Zamora battled gamely for the best part of an hour and caused enough consternation to create the goal. Everyone was a hero.
Tactically, we were difficult to break down but, if anyone doubts that Roy’s too nice for the pressure-cooker, get them to watch the video again. The difference between an anxious first half and the positive manner in which the Whites started the second half was remarkable. As ever with Fulham, with a bit more luck, the balance might have tilted our way. But don’t take too long to consider the ‘if only’s’ – the memories should simply be happy ones.
Remember all those people you told you that the Europa League would wreck Fulham’s season. That we’d be a relegation dogfight before we knew it. The astounding thing about this season is that, for all the thousands of miles the same players travelled week in, week out, the Whites still finished well clear of the danger zone. Think about the sides we’ve played and beaten: Basel, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus and Hamburg. We fell in the final seconds against a team that possessing one of the most frightening strike partnerships in all of Europe – there’s no shame in that.
The enormity of all of it could have been too much. I first started going to Fulham in the early 1990s – and many of my friends have been following the club for far longer. Sadly, I couldn’t make it to Hamburg, but it felt like I was there. Not just because of the sheer number of phone calls and text messages I received from my Fulham family, but those banners, the black and white masses and the songs that came through loud and clear on the television.
Most football fans will never get to see their team in a European final. We did – and the boys certainly didn’t let us down.