Fulham sit third in the league at the time of writing. That league is the EFL Championship. This season has been a successful recovery following their relegation from the Premier League last season. That being a one-season stint in the top flight following their previous relegation to the Championship back in 2014, where they went down after over a decade in the Premier League. Things are looking up for Fulham, though, compared to where they were a decade ago, the difference is black and white. Ten years ago, Fulham were grafting their way to a sturdy Premier League finish whist swashbuckling their way to the Europa League final in the process.
Given the nature of the squad that Roy Hodgson had assembled at Fulham, it would not be harsh to say that had they beaten Atlético Madrid in the final that we could hold them up alongside Leicester City as one of the biggest shocks in English sporting history. It was a team of misfits and journeymen, by and large, who had all found a special niche in Hodgson’s team. Their football may not have been pretty, but it was damn effective.
The fact that Fulham had even qualified for Europa League football was something of a miracle. Two seasons prior, Fulham looked like relegation fodder under the stewardship of Lawrie Sanchez. Sanchez was relieved of his duties and was replaced by the well-travelled Roy Hodgson.
Fulham’s results did not drastically upturn immediately. Instead, long-term problems were fixed. Goals were at a premium, so the defence was shored up. The onus was on staying compact, taking points where possible and going for the kill on the counterattack. It wasn’t pretty, but it was better than losing heavily game after game. The great escape was completed and Premier League football was on the cards at Craven Cottage for another year.
The 2008/09 season was much more fruitful for Fulham. There was no denying that they were dull. In 38 top-flight matches, they scored just 39 goals. Crucially, though, and in no small part down to the signing of veteran Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, they conceded only 34. This earned them a seventh-place finish, above London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United, to earn a place in the third round of the Europa League.
When Fulham had qualified for the Europa League, no doubt their fans and players alike would have had dreams of rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest clubs from Spain, Italy and Germany. These ties would come, in time, but there were dues which had to be paid first. The third round saw Fulham kick off their campaign in July 2009, several weeks before their league campaign began. This journey saw them face off against FK Vėtra, a Lithuanian club who drew a crowd of nearly 6000 in Vilnius.
Goals from Bobby Zamora, Danny Murphy and Seol Ki-Hyeon ensured that they would return to London with a steady advantage. This scoreline was replicated back at Craven Cottage a week later, goals coming from Dickson Etuhu and a brace from Andy Johnson.
If Roy Hodgson thought that the trip to Lithuania was demanding then their playoff-round tie must have given him a real headache. They were drawn against Amkar Perm, of Russia. To put this obscure club on the map, it is over 900 miles east of Moscow, on a longitude with Iran and Oman.
Fulham were drawn at home first, although the tie was played just five days after their Premier League opener against Portsmouth. They won at Fratton Park before putting three goals past their Russian opponents at the Cottage. Andy Johnson took the pressure off the hosts, scoring after four minutes. Clint Dempsey and Bobby Zamora notched in the second half, though, minutes after the third goal went in, the Russians scored an away goal that was to give Hodgson something to think about.
Hodgson played a strong, albeit defensive-minded side in the return leg, hoping to avoid an away-goal defeat. His side lost 1-0, though goal didn’t come until the 90th minute. Fulham were in the Europa League group stage.
The win in Europe had come at a cost. They lost to rivals Chelsea between the two Perm fixtures, while they fell to a 2-0 defeat at Villa Park a few days following their return from Russia. Progression in Europe was a dream for the Fulham faithful, though this was a stark reminder for the managerial team that the league was not to be forgotten about. Three points from nine was not an ideal start.
The draw presented Fulham with three tough opponents, though, thankfully none as far-flung as central Russia. They had Bulgarian side CSKA Sofia, Basel, of Switzerland, and Italian giants Roma.
CSKA Sofia amassed only one point in their campaign, and that came against Fulham in their opening fixture. The Bulgarian side opened the scoring after an hour, only to be pegged back by Diomansy Kamara. This result was followed by a disappointing 2-1 loss away to Wolves just days later.
The allure of European football was high, but September ended with Fulham sitting 17th in the league, and a disappointing draw in Europe. Things had to change, and change was just what happened. From the start of October until December 28th Fulham only lost once in the league, storming to a Europa League second-place finish in the process.
October started with a Danny Murphy inspired win over Basel at home, followed by a 1-1 draw against Roma at the end of the month. Brede Hangeland opened the scoring in the first half and the crowd were just moments away from witnessing what would have been the clubs most famous ever win. That was until the 91st minute, when Marco Andreolli smashed home the equalising goal.
It would have been easy for Fulham to be demoralised by this late goal, but Hodgson was careful to let his side know how proud he was of them. The goal was unfortunate; however, this was a team that was on the brink of relegation when he took over nearly two years before. They went to the Stadio Olimpico two weeks later and lost 2-1, though, again took encouragement at leading in Rome.
The final two games were turned by Hungarian attacker Zoltán Gera. Gera grabbed the game’s only goal against CSKA Sofia at the beginning of December. He then scored their third and final goal in Basel’s St Jakob-Park stadium two weeks later.
This 3-2 victory in Switzerland was a must-win game for Fulham. A draw would have given the Swiss side a point lead over Fulham and would have resulted in elimination. This impressive away win saw The Cottagers guarantee European football in 2010 and, coupled with their remarkable league form, would send them into the festive period happy.
This happiness wore off quickly, however. After such a rich vein of form, Hodgson’s men fell to five league defeats on the bounce. Chelsea, Stoke, Blackburn, Spurs and Aston Villa combined to score eleven goals against Fulham, with only three goals being scored in that time. Fulham were 10th, but only seven points above the relegation zone.
After a turgid start to the year, February saw Fulham go undefeated in all competitions. They beat Notts County in the FA Cup, won three games out of five in the league, drawing the remaining two, and crucially, saw off Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk.
As with their playoff win over Amkar Perm, their enormous journey was made easier by a home tie in the first leg. They negotiated a 2-1 win at home, Zoltán Gera and Bobby Zamora goals bookending a Luiz Adriano finish.
The long away trip was always going to be a task for Roy Hodgson’s team, but a Damien Duff free kick was headed in by Norwegian centre back Brede Hangeland. Jádson scored an equaliser on the day, yet despite an onslaught of pressure from the talent-laden Ukrainian side, they could not salvage the tie.
Roy Hodgson seemed to be perfecting the balance between hard to beat and entertaining at the right time. When it was announced that they would be facing Italian giants Juventus in the Round of 16 it was widely understood that this was going to be a hurdle too high for the Londoners. This belief was upheld when the Turin team won 3-1 at the Stadio delle Alpi.
Juventus were a side in recovery. Following their demotion in 2006, a consequence of the Calciopoli scandal, they had lost their foothold in the hierarchy of Italian football. That being said, they still boasted stars such as David Trezeguet, Alessandro Del Piero and Fabio Cannavaro.
The 3-1 scoreline became 4-1 on aggregate after two minutes at Craven Cottage. Rather than being deflated, the team rose to the challenge. They could cut their losses, defend heavily and hope to avoid an embarrassing defeat. Instead, they went for it. They were Fulham, they were playing Juventus. If they didn’t fight, they may never get to this stage again.
Bobby Zamora levelled the game at 1-1 inside ten minutes to give the crowd a much-needed lift. His chest down and power-strike was typical of him. The ageing Fabio Cannavaro was controversially shown red for a professional foul on Zoltán Gera midway through the first half. Gera may have been felled that time, however, he rose to the occasion shortly after, scoring from a yard out to put Fulham ahead on the night. Brazilian midfielder Diego conceded a penalty for handball which Gera converted to level the tie. The final goal, a sumptuous strike from American forward Clint Dempsey, was a goal worthy of winning any match. From the edge of the box, he dinked the ball into the top corner, leaving the goalkeeper helpless.
There are not many sides to have put four goals past Juventus, and for Fulham to do so in this fixture was truly a remarkable feat. March may have seen Fulham dumped out of the FA Cup and lose all three league games, however, their aggregate win over Juventus fired them into the Quarter Finals of the Europa league. They were well clear of the relegation zone at this point… the only league Fulham were focusing on was the Europa League.
April 1st saw Fulham take on the defending Bundesliga champions, Wolfsburg, in the last eight of the Europa League. While the German side was struggling to recapture their magnificent form from the season before, they were still a resolute team with an abundance of talent. Despite the heroics of Fulham’s journey, it was still something for a surprise when Bobby Zamara dragged his curling shot into the back of the net from 20 yards out. Damien Duff piled on the Wolfsburg misery moments later to double the Fulham lead. Like so many of their European games that season, a late goal made Fulham’s return leg away from home all the trickier.
The first-minute strike from Zamora in the Volkswagen Arena lifted the pressure off the visitors immediately, though, and ended up being the game’s only goal. Fulham were developing a tendency to leak silly goals when ahead, though, when push came to shove they had proved once again that they were able to shut up shop at the back. Mark Schwarzer, Chris Baird, Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland were all seasoned pros who were willing to lay their bodies on the line to continue the Fulham fairy tale.
The Semi Finals saw Fulham face off against Hamburg and Liverpool take on Atlético Madrid. Going into their Semi Finals, Fulham were safe from relegation in the Premier League. They were going to be touch and go to finish in the top half of the league, but their real worry had been mismanaging the Europe-to-league aspect and, after a bumpy start, were surviving.
Fulham travelled to Hamburg for the first leg, earning a hard-fought 0-0 draw. An away goal would have been ideal for Hodgson’s men, however, this result meant that all they had to do was win at Craven Cottage. Hamburg may not have the glamour and glitz that Juventus and Wolfsburg had, however, they were a well-drilled team of experienced pros like Ruud van Nistelrooy, Zé Roberto and Joris Mathijsen.
The second leg did not go to plan initially, as Mladen Petrić scored a wonderful free kick to put the Germans ahead. With Bobby Zamora absent – still recovering from an Achilles injury – there was a worry as to where the goals were going to come from. This was answered by Simon Davies, the equaliser, and Hungarian Zoltán Gera, who bagged the game’s winner to seal the victory.
It may not have been the most impressive win in their European run, but the two second-half goals in a must-win game proved once again that Fulham had it in them to grind out a result. As the Fulham players and fans rejoiced in pitchside celebration, Roy Hodgson calmly strolled in the direction of the dressing room, stopping to shake the hand and console every Hamburg player. He was truly a class act.
With Premier League safety guaranteed and a place in the final against Atlético Madrid – who had seen off Liverpool courtesy of the away goals rule in extra time – Fulham were focused solely on the final in Hamburg on 12th May. The tournament that had started for Fulham ten months previously was about to culminate in their 63rd game of a gruelling season. It is hard to tell whether their final 120 minutes of the season was down to playing so many games, or simply the pressure of the occasion getting to them, but there was no fairy-tale ending for the Cottagers…
In his time with the club, Hodgson had put the emphasis on playing simple football. Get the basics right, pass well, defend strong and don’t commit forward to the point where you leave yourself exposed at the back. All this hard work came undone in the final. The passes were sloppy, the marking was lax and the fast-paced Atlético attack, spearheaded by Diego Forlán and Sergio Agüero, was too much to handle.
Diego Forlán opened the scoring on 32 minutes, though, at this point the game could easily have been put to bed by the Spanish side. Welsh winger Simon Davies equalised five minutes later, taking advantage of a combination of Bobby Zamora’s athleticism and determination, as well as some shoddy Atlético defending, fired the ball beyond a young David de Gea to tie the game up at a goal apiece.
The game went to extra time after a topsy-turvy 90 minutes and this proved to be the undoing for Fulham. Atlético were undeniably the better side, yet Fulham were defending like champions and being a nuisance on the counterattack. As extra time ticked by, however, it was apparent that Fulham were flagging. On 116 minutes, Sergio Agüero and Aaron Hughes set out on a footrace and in that battle, sadly, there was only ever going to be one winner. Agüero reached the ball first, outfoxed Hughes and fired a low cross into the box. The seemingly ageless Diego Forlán nipped ahead of Brede Hangeland to flick the ball beyond the outstretched arms of Mark Schwarzer and into the back of the net. Forlán tore his shirt off and sprinted up the touchline with the celebration of a man who knew he had just won his side the trophy.
LMA Manager of the Year Roy Hodgson departed in the months following their Europa League final defeat to take over at Liverpool and after a strong following season, things began to unravel. Hard times have fallen on Fulham over the last few years. Relegation from the top flight and several sub-par years in the Championship have seen the London club a shadow of their former selves. A younger audience will barely be able to imagine that a club like Fulham could make it to a Europa League final, but they did just that, in remarkable style. While their league campaign was a shut-up-shop job with them scoring only 37 goals in 38 league games, they managed an impressive 31 goals as they made it to the final. The history books will show Fulham as the loser in Hamburg on 12th May 2010, but to football fans all over the world, plucky Fulham were the real winners of that campaign. Any side that can give hope to the clubs punching above their weight are a joy to watch, and in a money-driven football world, underdog stories are always a welcome addition.