When Roy Hodgson took over at Fulham, it was seen by many as something of a left-field appointment. The grey-haired tactician, something of a throwback to a bygone era, might have had an impressive CV and accumulated trophies across Europe and plaudits in the international arena but English journalists remembered how he failed to spend Sir Jack Walker’s millions at Blackburn. They felt there was little hope of Hodgson saving Fulham from relegation – and how wrong they were.
Nobody anticipated what happened next. A summer of rebuilding followed by a sventh placed finish was extraodinary and Hodgson’s next miracle was to take Fulham from a side just happy to be in Europe to the final of the first Europa League. Their dramatic shift of priorities, from a side delighted to reach the group stages, to one that placed progress in the knockout rounds ahead of their remaining league fixtures, was a testament to Hodgson’s navigation past supposedly superior opponents and a cloud of volcanic ash.
Nobody thought when Fulham kicked off their European campaign in early July in the sleepy summer sunshine of Vilnius that the Whites would still be going 62 games later in Hamburg as the city prepared to host a major final. The evolution of Fulham’s ambition is evident in Hodgson’s team selections. Fulham fielded a shadow side for their first fixture in the group stage, an ardurous trip to Sofia, prioritising an away game at Wolves that followed three days later (which they lost), but by the time Juventus where swept aside at the Cottage in a never-to-be-forgotten comeback, Hodgson’s eyes were firmly fixed on the prize.
How Fulham lined up against Vetra in July
The alterations in tactics have had much to do with Fulham’s unexpected run to the final. Hodgson started the campaign with the conventional 4-4-2 that had brought such success domestically last season. In an impressive home victory over Amkar Perm in early August, Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson looked to be striking up the sort of rapport that Hodgson envisaged when he paired them together the previous pre-season after Brian McBride’s departure. Both looked lively and potent in front of goal, until Johnson’s evening was ended by a crude challenge by an uncompromising Russian centre back. Such was the damage that the former Crystal Palace forward’s season never really got going after that.
Diomansy Kamara had a fleeting run in the first-team after that but Hodgson hit on a winning formula almost by accident. Zamora, still shot-shy and perhaps shaken by a lack of goals in his first season at the Cottage, revelled in the chance to become the focal point of the Fulham attack when asked to lead the line on his own. This showcased both his endless work ethic and his ability to unsettle defenders both in the air by also with his fine first touch and vision. Hungarian Zoltan Gera seemed a different player when installed just behind Zamora in the ‘hole’ rather than out wide – and both have contributed heavily to Fulham’s success.
Hodgson’s line-up for the must win game in Basel still saw key player rested but also included Zamora as a lone striker with Gera in the ‘hole’
Hodgson’s side have only failed to score twice away from home – once in a rearguard action in Russia against Perm and then in the semi-final first leg in Hamburg. It’s quite an achievement for a side whose domestic travel sickness is well documented.
The run to final has also been built on the back of a miserly defence. John Pantsil has returned at right back in recent weeks, but the performances of the likes of Chris Baird – who also had an excellent spell as a makeshift central midfielder – Stephen Kelly and Chris Smalling served to underline the fact that Fulham’s fringe players have not let anybody down. Fulham’s defensive organisation memorably frustrated a gifted Shakhtar Donetsk side in their first knockout assignment while they brushed aside Wolfsburg without too much bother as well.
The spine of Fulham’s side is full of European experience. Mark Schwarzer went all the way to the final of the UEFA Cup a few years back with Middlesbrough, Aaron Hughes reached a semi-final with Newcastle and Brede Hangeland has plenty of continental games under his belt. Captain Danny Murphy has won the UEFA Cup with Liverpool whilst Damien Duff has plenty of fond memories to call upon and the likes of Dickson Etuhu and Clint Dempsey have relished playing at this level.
Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer is hoping that his second taste of a major European final is far more pleasing than his first.
The Australian veteran was part of the Middlesbrough side who were hammered 4-0 by Sevilla in the 2006 UEFA Cup final after an incredible run to the final. Fulham’s success in the Europa League has proven just as remarkable and the 37 year-old is desperate for a change of fortune against Atletico Madrid in Hamburg tonight.
Schwarzer said: “Both Boro and Fulham were unfancied clubs to get to a European final. To be here with Fulham at this stage in my career is something I thought would never be possible, so it adds that extra little bit of value to the occasion. I’ve not got the best memories from last time out so I’d like to think I can turn things around.”
And so we’re here. Improbably, Fulham’s European tour, which has already spanned some 18,000 miles in ten months, ends tonight in Hamburg with a major trophy within touching distance. It says something about the remarkable job Roy Hodgson has done that just reaching the group stage of the inagural Europa League was seen as an achievement. I remember the sigh of relief that greeted the final whistles in Perm, Basel and Donetsk as a resilient Fulham side proved their worth.
Fulham’s run to the final – much like Middlesbrough’s a few years ago – has been a victory for the little guy. Neither team had been expected to progress much beyond the initial stages of the tournament but they have shown just how far you can go with shrewd management, good organisation and plenty of hard work. Hodgson has plenty of European experience (though he’ll want to experience a happier ending than losing on penalties, as he did with Inter in the UEFA Cup final back in the mid-90s) but the LMA’s manager of the year has already indicated that getting to a showpiece final with Fulham outstrips anything he’s achieved in an impressive managerial career.
The wily old coach might have a tactical plan to deal with a dangerous Atletico attack but he shouldn’t have to worry about a team-talk tonight. Sergio Aguero’s ill-advised broadside might have done the job for him. It’s precisely because Fulham lack a European pedigree and they aren’t one of the leading lights of the English game that makes this such a fairytale as well as making the unfashionable side by the banks of the Thames so dangerous.
Atletico are the favourites, even with the British bookmakers, and they will have already noted that they might have history on their side. Their only European trophy was won on German soil and they even have the edge in terms of a lack of fraught preparations. Quique Sanchez Flores is only missing reserve goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo through injury and has a wealth of attacking talent to pick from. Both Augero, the pint-sized Argentine and Diego Forlan, the former Manchester United striker whose extra-time goal knocked Liverpool out in the semi-finals at Anfield, have scored eight goals between them in Europe this season. Former Arsenal winger Jose Antonio Reyes will be a real threat down the wing tonight. With Simao and Jurado oozing class in midfield, Hodgson will no doubt be hoping that skipper Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu are able to impose themselves on an important midfield battle.
Hodgson’s team selection, as ever for our European fixtures, remains uncertain as we get closer to kick-off. Damien Duff and Bobby Zamora both trained on Monday although Zamora, who apparently turned down the chance to be named in Fabio Capello’s provisional World Cup squad in order to have an operation on his troublesome Achilles tendon over the summer, missed Fulham’s final training session at the HSV Nordbank Arena last night as a precaution. His fitness will be monitored over the course of the day and Hodgson will be hoping that he can field his Gera-Zamora axis this evening.
Duff’s European experience would also be a handy boost and the word is that the Irish international should start. Whether Clint Dempsey, whose majestic goal against Juventus will live long in the memory as perhaps the single most memorable moment of this European adventure, starts remains to be seen as Hodgson has favoured introducing the American from the bench since he returned from a knee injury.
Given that Fulham were in the fourth division when Hodgson narrowly missed out on lifting the UEFA Cup with Inter in 1997, you’d forgive those who have travelled for treating this as a day out. Whilst watching the Whites in a European final is still something to get your head around for some of us, Hodgson’s made it clear that Fulham are here to win it. Both Murphy and Mark Schwarzer have emphasised in recent days that Fulham’s victories in the knockout stages of the competition mean they have no fear of any opponent and will head out onto the field this evening full of confidence.
Atletico do have considerable ability going forward but their domestic form has been undermined by a rather frail defence. Whereas Fulham’s journey to Hamburg has been characterised by defensive discipline and durability, Atletico have largely made it on the back of scoring goals. Opportunity must certainly knocks for Fulham tonight. Let’s hope they take it.
MY FULHAM XI (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy, Duff, Dempsey; Gera; Zamora. Subs: Zuberbuhler, Smalling, Baird, Greening, Davies, Riise, Nevland.
Danny Murphy says the whole country will be willing Fulham to win the Europa League tonight.
The Fulham captain says the squad have received good luck messages from his former Liverpool team-mates, Premier League managers and even Chelsea skipper John Terry.
I think the whole country wants us to win. Fulham are kind of everybody’s second favourite club because of our spirit. We’ve overcome the odds and beaten so many good teams.
I think supporters appreciate good football and we’ve certainly tried to play the right way. It’s nice to have the encouragement because it gives you the extra incentive to take the trophy home.
It will be a proud and emotional moment for me to lead this team out in the final. It means a lot.
These two years have been the best of my career. I take captaincy very seriously. Although we have made history by getting here and will be remembered forever, we are not just here to make up the numbers.