The Europa League is a bit of a fan divider in England. Some fans see it as the unwanted consolation for failing to achieve a top-four finish, others see it as a good opportunity to stamp their authority under the European lights. Over the past few years, there is a common theme with English clubs in the Europa League. They play the youngsters and reserves until the knockouts and then integrate some of the first team members into the squad for the bigger more important matches.
Occasionally, you see an unexpected team qualify for the Europa League, whether it be by final league position or by winning the FA Cup. One of the most surprising in recent years is most definitely Wigan Athletic. In the same season that they were relegated from the Premier League, Wigan shocked the country when they beat Manchester City in the final of the FA Cup. Under the infamous Wembley arch, Ben Watson stepped off the bench to nod home the winner in the 90th minute, sending shockwaves around the whole of the country. As to be expected, their Europa League journey didn’t last long, as they finished rock bottom of their group with just five points. The DW Stadium did at least get to celebrate a victory in the competition, a 3-1 win against Maribor. That’s correct, Owen Coyle has a European win attributed to him as a manager.
In total, five English teams have won the Europa League since it was founded in 1971 – Tottenham, Liverpool, Ipswich Town, Manchester United and Chelsea. Although, in 2010, a sixth name was almost added to the list, as Fulham were just 90 minutes away from Europa glory.
This piece will pay homage to the Cottager’s 2009/10 European adventure.
Back in the 2007-08 season, eyebrows were raised when Roy Hodgson was hand-picked by Fulham’s hierarchy as the man to replace Lawrie Sanchez. With just one win prior to his arrival and two points adrift of safety, the cottagers placed their hopes on the veteran coach. Hodgson had seen success in various international roles, but a disappointing spell at Blackburn Rovers had tarnished his reputation in England.
His spell at Fulham didn’t start off too well either. Just nine points in his first 13 games and relegation looked like a certainty for the Cottagers. However, Hodgson soon managed to steady the sinking ship, picking up 12 points in their final five games and securing the great escape on the final day of the season.
Not quite Harry Redknapp poking his head out the car window on deadline day with a Sky Sports microphone dangled at his mouth, but Hodgson too had built a reputation as a bit of a wheeler-dealer. A few shrewd signings ahead of the 2008/09 season and Fulham had continued their end-of-season form. Doing what he does best, Hodgson solidified the defence, and after conceding just 34 goals in 38 games, the Cottagers achieved their highest ever Premier League finish of seventh. In one of football’s unlikeliest odysseys, Fulham were going to be playing Europa League football.
Seeing Roy Hodgson and European football in the same sentence still gives me nightmares of that humiliating 2-1 defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016. A Joe Hart blunder and a defensive shambles on the night, it is hard to believe that six years prior Hodgson was considered somewhat of a European maverick.
Not a team full of European regulars, one of the few players with some European experience was goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. The Australian was a solid pair of hands in between the sticks, and one of the shrewd signings acquired ahead of the 2008-09 season. Schwarzer played a big role in Middlesbrough’s UEFA Cup campaign in 2006, which unfortunately for him also ended in heartbreak.
Brede Hangeland was signed from Copenhagen to solidify the defence. If I was asked to draw the perfect Roy Hodgson player, my drawing would look fairly comparable to Hangeland. At 6ft 6, he towered over any striker (except Peter Crouch), he was dominant in the air and physically strong. The ideal recruit for a previously leaky Fulham defence. This wasn’t actually the first time he had been coached by the veteran Englishman, as they had a spell together at Norwegian club Viking.
Hungarian midfielder Zoltán Gera was an ever-present in Fulham’s Europa campaign, providing the creative spark from midfield. Gera was signed in the 08-09 season on a free transfer, following the end of his West Brom contract. Gera formed a good understanding in midfield with Dickson Etuhu and Danny Murphy, a big part of the reason they got as far as they did.
Now if you had asked me who the highest scoring English player would be in European Competitions in the 2009/10 season, I 100% would not have said Bobby Zamora. No disrespect to Zamora, but he doesn’t exactly scream Europe’s elite. Although, if his Championship play-off records are anything to go by, then he is certainly the man for the big occasion. Zamora spearheaded the Fulham forward line magnificently in Europe and also in the league, with it being the most prolific top-flight season in his career.
When Fulham beat Lithuanian side FK Vetra 3-0 away from home in the qualifying round first leg, not many could have predicted the magnitude of the journey they were about to embark on. Another 3-0 win at Craven Cottage secured a place in the final playoff round, with club record signing Andy Johnson bagging a second-half brace.
Up next for Hodgson’s team was Russian outfit Amkar Perm. Craven Cottage was becoming a European fortress, with the Fulham faithful treated to another three goals in the first leg. The second leg was a bit more of a nervy affair. They lost the game 1-0 in Russia but advanced to the group stages on aggregate.
Fulham were drawn into a difficult group and many fans felt it may have been a bridge too far for Hodgson’s side. They began the group with a disappointing 1-1 draw away from home against Bulgarian outfit CSKA Sofia, arguably the weakest team in the group. A solid defensive display at Craven Cottage saw them steal all three points in an end-to-end game against FC Basel, with a second-half winner from Murphy.
Up next came the most difficult games of the group, the double header against Italian giants Roma. Old rivalries were renewed between Hodgson and Roma manager Claudio Ranieri, a rivalry which had previously seen the Italian unbeaten in six encounters. A record that was so nearly ended at Craven Cottage, had it not been for a last-minute equaliser from Marco Andreolli. A 1-1 draw with Roma on home soil is an excellent result on paper but given that Fulham had led for the best part of 70 minutes, it was a bitter blow to the side’s chances of qualification.
Fulham will feel unfairly treated in the return fixture at the Stadio Olimpico too. A 1-0 lead at half time was soon to change. We all hear of the successful substitutions that managers make that turn a game around, but unfortunately for Hodgson, his half time substitution will go down as one of the worst in history. Goal scorer Diomansy Kamara was taken off for Norwegian forward Erik Nevland, who then received a harsh red card just four minutes after entering the fray. You could argue he had an immediate impact, just not in the conventional way. Riise scored in the 69th minute and the crowd went wild……… sadly for Fulham, it was the wrong Riise. Against his own brother’s team, former Liverpool left back John Arne Riise levelled the tie and just seven minutes later, Roma had a winner. Stefano Okaka scored the winner and Hodgson’s horrific run against Ranieri continued.
Going into the final match day, Fulham had to beat FC Basel to stand a chance of qualification to the knockouts. With the pressure on, they rose to the occasion, defeating the Swiss team 3-2 away from home and cementing an unlikely place in the Europa League round of 32. In a group where the rest of the country had written off their chances, Hodgson’s pragmatic approach prevailed.
Round of 32
After battling their way through the group, Fulham faced off against reigning champions Shakhtar Donetsk in the Round of 32. Gera opened the scoring in the third minute of the first leg, sending Craven Cottage into complete pandemonium. An equaliser from Luiz Adriano didn’t faze Hodgson’s side, who retook the lead in the 63rd minute through big Bobby Zamora, securing a 2-1 victory in the first leg. The second leg in Ukraine was a fairly subdued performance. It was noticeable that for many of these Fulham players it was the biggest game of their careers. However, a rigid defensive display earned Fulham a 1-1 draw, setting up a tasty Round of 16 clash against Juventus.
Round of 16
They had a fun run and earned plenty of plaudits, but surely Fulham’s European journey was coming to an end. After the first leg, this seemed all but confirmed. The gulf in class stood out like a sore thumb, as Fulham fell to a heavy 3-1 defeat in Italy, providing them with the harshest of reality checks.
With a mountain to climb back at Craven Cottage, Hodgson’s side got off to the worst possible start. Just two minutes into the second leg, Juventus striker David Trezeguet put the old lady 1-0 up on the night and 4-1 up on aggregate. With Fulham loitering on the brink of elimination, not even Roy Hodgson could have predicted what came next.
A lofted cross from Fulham left-back Paul Konchesky landed onto Zamora’s chest, with the big man shrugging off none other than Italian legend Fabio Cannavaro to fire in the equaliser on the night. A night to forget for Cannavaro, who was sent off after just 27 minutes for two yellow card offences. In truth, Zamora had bullied the veteran Italian in both legs, with Cannavaro unable to deal with the Fulham strikers’ physicality.
With a bouncing Craven Cottage crowd behind them, Fulham took full advantage of the sending off. Goals either side of half time from Hungarian midfielder Gera levelled the tie on aggregate. A string of saves from 39 year old, third choice Juventus goalkeeper Antonio Chimenti kept the game level, with Fulham relentlessly pushing for the winner.
With the tempo of the game slipping away from his side, Hodgson turned to his substitute bench for some inspiration. On came American forward Clint Dempsey. He was clearly short of match fitness, having just returned from injury, but he made an immediate impact, forcing yet another good save from the Juventus keeper. With extra-time looming, the American produced a moment of sheer magic.
With the Juventus defence drifting deeper and deeper towards their own goal, Dempsey picked the ball up with a little bit of space on the edge of the box. No pressure on him, he produced the most delicate of lobs, floating the ball over a helpless Chimenti’s head and into the far corner of the goal. The final whistle sounded, sparking delirium around Craven Cottage. Hodgson’s side had done it! Before kick-off, the comeback seemed impossible, 90 minutes later it became reality. Roy Hodgson’s name was imprinted into Fulham folklore.
There was a growing sense of destiny around Craven Cottage, with the footballing gods smiling down on the West London side. Fulham had jumped every hurdle thrown in their way so far, but up next was Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg.
Clearly unfazed by the calibre of opposition they were facing, Fulham took the game to the German side in the first leg. Goals from Bobby Zamora and Damien Duff secured a two goal lead, before a last minute header from German defender Alexander Madlung softened the blow for Wolfsburg, with the game finishing 2-1.
Punished by a lapse in concentration in the final few minutes of the game, it was now all to play for in the second leg at the Volkswagen Arena. In front of a packed-out stadium, Hodgson’s side made the dream start to the game. With just 22 seconds on the clock, Zamora’s smart swivel and shot found the bottom corner, rectifying the previous week’s disappointing finish and giving the cottagers a two goal advantage on aggregate.
This proved to be the only goal on the night, with the Fulham defence standing strong against the German onslaught. Yet again, Hodgson’s squad had defied the odds, and were just 180 minutes away from a European final.
Hamburger SV stood in the way of Fulham and a European final. On paper, Hamburg finished the previous season in a lower position than Wolfsburg, but they had an extra incentive to win with the final being staged at their home ground. A 0-0 draw in Germany left the tie evenly poised ahead of the return fixture at Craven Cottage. It’s crazy to think that many Fulham fans were actually disappointed with the lack of an away goal when you consider the position the club were in before Hodgson’s appointment.
Just 20 minutes into the second leg and the fans’ disappointment was heightened tenfold. A spectacular free-kick from Mladen Petric put the Germans 1-0 up, bringing the Fulham stadium to an eerie silence. Things went from bad to worse for the Cottagers, as they lost talisman Zamora to a suspected Achilles injury. Proving to be a menace to some of the continent’s finest defenders, Zamora had taken to European football like a duck to water. Hodgson’s side had to find two goals without their first choice striker.
But if there is anything that Fulham’s Europa League run had taught, it is do not write Fulham football club off. The players didn’t panic in the face of adversity, remaining calm and not losing hope. Their approach soon paid off, as an instinctive turn and finish from their Welsh wizard Simon Davies equalled the score in the 69th minute. Seven minutes later and the tables had completely turned. Gera reacted quickest in the box, powering the ball through a crowd of players sparking wild celebrations amongst players, fans and coaches. Even Hodgson celebrated, that’s when you know it was an important goal!
Peter Drury was at his brilliant best throughout the game, and his monologue has long been etched into the memory of Fulham fans. The final whistle had sounded, and the camera cut to the emotional player’s celebration on the pitch, Drury uttered “Hamburg will host the final, Fulham will play in it”. It sounded better than it reads….
From the brink of relegation in 2008 to a Europa League final in 2010, Hodgson had orchestrated the resurrection of this historic football club. The Fulham players were serenaded as they completed a lap of honour, and rightly so. Written off by pretty much everyone, including some of their own fans, the team showcased that ability means nothing without the right attitude.
Awaiting Fulham in Hamburg was a star-studded Atletico Madrid team. Fresh from eliminating Liverpool in the semi-final, Quique Sanchez Flores’ team were ready to repeat the trick against the West London side. A deadly strike duo of Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan were capable of breaching any defence in the world, whilst a baby-faced David De Gea was making big strides in his first year in the senior team setup.
As the clear favourites before the game, Atletico asserted their dominance early on in the game. A poor back pass from the usually consistent Murphy in the 12th minute gave the Spanish side their first opening, Forlan brushing the post in a lucky escape for the cottagers. The sustained pressure from Flores’ side was eventually rewarded in the 32nd minute after a mistimed Aguero strike fell to the feet of Forlan, who struck the ball past a helpless Schwarzer to open the scoring.
Not overwhelmed by the events in the game, Fulham’s discipline and belief remained. They began to get a foothold in the game, creating a couple of openings. A hopeful cross into the box from Gera was deflected into the path of Davies, who flashed a thunderous volley past De Gea’s near post, equalling the score and sending the Fulham end into pure jubilation.
With the half time scoreboard reading 1-1, all was to play for in the second half. An injury doubt before the game due to the Achilles injury picked up in the semi-final, Zamora was withdrawn in the 55th minute, signalling the end of his Europa League journey. Atletico continued to dominate the second half proceedings but Schwarzer and co stood strong. With neither team able to score in the second half, the game went to extra time.
Like you see in most extra times, neither team really wanted to over commit at the risk of being countered. Atletico saw the majority of the ball, with Aguero and Forlan both presented with a couple of half chances. The Fulham team looked like they were tiring, understandably so when you consider how long their season had been and how little their squad was. With just five minutes to go until the penalties, Fulham were dealt a hammer blow. Aguero’s cross found his strike partner, and the Uruguayan found the bottom corner via a Hangeland deflection.
Fulham’s whole campaign was centred around fighting back, becoming the masters of the unexpected comeback, but this time it was out of their reach. Their heartbreak was confirmed minutes later by the final whistle, and the players dropped to the floor in sheer devastation. Their unbelievable Europa campaign had come to the most bitter of endings.
They may not have walked away with the trophy, but those players could walk off that pitch with their heads held high. They gave their fans the most unbelievable year and created history. This proved to be the end of Roy Hodgson’s reign at Fulham, as he was appointed as the new Liverpool manager just two months after the final. An incredible run, that defied the odds on numerous occasions, I’m sure Fulham fans will look back on their Europa campaign fondly, with a tinge of deflation at the end result.