Tomorrow sees Fulham face Roy Hodgson for the first time since he left the club in the summer of 2010. While some fans may choose to remember the way he parted with the possibility of a bigger job in the offing, there’s no doubt that Hodgson was one of the finest coaches in Fulham’s history. His record speaks of itself, culminating of course in that remarkable run to the Europa League final in May 2010.
That achievement was all the more special given where Hodgson started. After the inertia and ineptitude that characterised the end of Lawrie Sanchez’s reign, few gave a man who hadn’t managed in the Premier League for more than a decade much hope of rescuing Fulham. Marooned in the relegation zone with an injury-hit squad that was low on confidence and even lower on a goal-threat, Fulham’s proud stay in the top flight looked destined to come to an end. Hodgson went to work at the training ground, running drills which plenty of players regarded as repetitive, but they couldn’t complain as the results came later in the season. He restored a sense of shape and discipline to a side that had previously leaked goals at an alarming rate.
Hodgson’s work in the January transfer market was crucial. He quickly identified the need for a commanding centre half – something every manager since Chris Coleman had spoken about, but few had addressed. In came Brede Hangeland from FC Copenhagen, for a relative snip at £2.5m, and the rest is history. His partnership with Aaron Hughes at the heart of the Fulham defence took a while to bed in, but is the primary reason for Fulham’s resurgence. It shouldn’t be overlooked that Hodgson also brought in Paul Stalteri, often undervalued in the re-telling of that season, to occupy the problem position of right-back and gave Erik Nevland, who scored vital goals at the tail end of the campaign, another taste of English football.
Fulham struggled to muster the much-needed points in the early months of Hodgson’s reign and the manager was helped by the return to form and fitness of Jimmy Bullard and Brian McBride. Bullard’s late free-kick against Aston Villa gave the players belief and when the manager threw off the shackles in the closing weeks of the season, the results were exhilarating. A crucial victory at Reading was followed by that Lazarus-like recovery at Manchester City, a tense win over Birmingham to drag ourselves finally out of the relegation zone and that nervy final day success at Portsmouth. Hodgson’s side almost qualified for Europe courtesy of the fair play league, but they saved their continental adventure for the future – after a phenomenal campaign that took them to a club record seventh place finish with a reshaped side.
Hodgson kept faith with Bobby Zamora, who enjoyed a modest first season in goal-scoring times but forged a profitable partnership with Andy Johnson and showed early signs of his importance to the side with his hold-up play. Zamora’s subsequent impact during the European run – and crucial domestic goals – eventually catapulted him into the England reckoning. Even when he was left without any striking cover, Hodgson was able to deduce a win to cope. Zoltan Gera was a revelation operating in the hole behind Zamora and his continental goals carried Fulham all the way to Hamburg for a second time.
What was even more impressive that the simple facts of Hodgson’s time at the Cottage was that he achieved it all with Premier League cast-offs. With the exception of Andy Johnson, Hodgson wasn’t afforded the luxury of splashing Mohamed Al-Fayed’s cash on big-name signings. In came John Pantsil from West Ham, a likeable and yet limited defender. But thanks to Hodgson’s system – offering greater protection for his full-backs by asking Fulham’s wide players to track back – Pantsil’s shortcomings were well hidden. Zamora, as mentioned above, endured a difficult start but it is now the first name on the teamsheet. Gera came in a Bosman and the transformation in Dickson Etuhu, who matured into his central midfield role, ensured Fulham barely missed Bullard.
Things might not have gone well for Hodgson at Liverpool but he seems to have picked up off where he left off at the Cottage with West Brom. His impact upon replacing Roberto Di Matteo, who had been harshly sacked, was almost immediate. The Baggies, having been in severe danger of returning to the Championship, won five and drew five of their remaining twelve games – including a satisfying 2-1 success over Liverpool – to rise to eleventh place, their best top-flight finish since 1982/83. Even if they’ve had a difficult start to this campaign, their showings against Manchester United and Chelsea, where they more than matched their illustrious opponents and lost to their late goals, suggested they’ll be closer to mid-table than the relegation zone again.
I hope Roy gets a good reception from the travelling fans at the Hawthorns tomorrow. For all those memories, he deserves it.