Unexpected Journeys: When Fulham danced with Europe’s best

Unexpected Journeys : Chapter 6

Words By Sean Cole Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 28, 2019

A journey that started in a tiny ground in the Lithuanian capital at the end of July 2009 was eventually concluded 10 months and 19 games later in the rather more impressive surroundings of Hamburg’s Volksparkstadion. Juventus, Wolfsburg and Shakhtar Donetsk were seen off en route, even though Atletico Madrid ultimately proved a bridge too far.

“You don’t really think that far ahead at the beginning,” says Bobby Zamora, who was top scorer with eight goals in Fulham’s run to the Europa League final. “Those initial ones almost count as pre-season games, they’re that early on. You just see what happens. We got past one stage, and then onto the next one, and on to the next one. A lot of English clubs don’t focus on it massively until it gets to the quarter-finals.”

For those who enter the Europa League in the qualifying rounds, the business end of the competition can seem an impossible distance away. Some would say too far to make the journey worthwhile, particularly if you return empty-handed. But try telling that to Fulham supporters, who watched their team traverse the continent, playing opponents from eight different countries during an unforgettable run.

It encompassed everything from some of Europe’s most far-flung and unfashionable outposts to epic encounters with Italian, German and Spanish titans. With Roy Hodgson’s canny management and a clear emphasis on collective discipline, Fulham produced several brilliant team displays to progress to the latter stages. They might not have had the outstanding individual talent of some of their opponents, but they more than found a way to compensate for that.

Fulham qualified courtesy of a seventh-place finish in the Premier League. Despite looking condemned to relegation when he arrived the year before, Hodgson had guided Fulham to safety on the final day. He then set about elevating the club’s prospects. His belief in the importance of organisation and tactical awareness may not have made for the most thrilling training sessions, but it was impossible to argue with the results.

“He was brilliant. To be honest, when we had Roy, we probably didn’t appreciate how good he was. It’s only now, looking back, and realising all the work that he did. He’s hands-on on the training pitch, taking every session. He’s a top manager,” says Zamora.

“He thrives on organisation and making sure that his teams are hard to beat. That’s exactly what we were and we managed to go on a fantastic run, and had a couple of great seasons in the Premier League with him too. Everybody knew their jobs and which passes he wanted you to play. We all could have played in anyone else’s position because we knew what the next move was going to be.”

Fulham started off their adventure by beating FK Vetra 6-0 on aggregate, and again faced Eastern European opponents in the final play-off round. A comfortable 3-1 victory over Amkar Perm at Craven Cottage meant that even a narrow defeat in Russia couldn’t halt their progress. The draw for the group stage placed them alongside Roma, Basel and CSKA Sofia.

With the domestic season in full swing, Hodgson was conscious of the need to rotate his squad in order to keep key players fresh. A back-up side featuring reserve goalkeeper David Stockdale, and teenage centre-back Chris Smalling making his first start, secured a 1-1 draw against CSKA Sofia. The big guns were then back in to see off Basel, courtesy of Danny Murphy’s smart finish.

Next came a double-header with Roma. More accustomed to playing in the Champions League, where they’d reached the round-of-16 before losing on penalties to Arsenal the previous season, the Giallorossi provided Fulham’s sternest test to that point. Claudio Ranieri was in the dugout having replaced Luciano Spalletti after Roma had opened their league campaign with consecutive defeats.

“That was my first real experience of playing a big side in a major European competition,” recalls Zamora. “We acquitted ourselves very well. I was up against Philippe Mexes and gave him a very good game. I thoroughly enjoyed it. That was the standout game for me in the group stage.”

There was a tremendous sense of occasion surrounding the home match and Fulham took the lead through Brede Hangeland’s powerful header. They survived tremendous pressure, particularly after Stephen Kelly’s sending off, to keep Roma out. Hangeland was initially shown the red card before the decision was corrected. Mark Schwarzer saved the resulting penalty from Jeremy Menez, but centre back Marco Andreolli eventually equalised with the last kick of the game. It was a devastating blow.

Fulham once more went ahead against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, when Diomansy Kamara converted an early penalty, but second-half strikes from John Arne Riise and Stefano Okaka marred what had been a special trip. Strangely, both goalscorers later went on to play for Fulham. A straight red for Erik Nevland, who had only been on the pitch for four minutes, put them on the back foot and Paul Konchesky joined him in being sent off late on.

Defeat left Fulham third in their group, realistically needing to win their final two games. They did just that. Zoltan Gera’s header was enough to beat CSKA Sofia and set up a decisive meeting with Basel in Switzerland. A strong crowd travelled to watch their team in the snow and sub-zero temperatures at St. Jakob Park. Their faith was rewarded as Bobby Zamora scored a brace in an enthralling 3-2 win.

The striker was enjoying arguably the best season of his career. “I had a good understanding with my teammates,” he says. “The team had been together long enough for everybody to know what they were doing and understand their roles. We’d had a full season with Roy so we knew what was expected of each other.”

Zamora already had four goals in the competition, and added another with the winner against Shakhtar Donetsk in the first leg of their round-of-32 tie. Running onto Gera’s clever flick, his first-time shot cannoned in off the bar to give Fulham a crucial advantage which they refused to surrender in Ukraine. Momentum was building but a Juventus side featuring World Cup winners Fabio Cannavaro, David Trezeguet and Fabio Grosso stood in their way.

A 3-1 defeat gave Fulham a mountain to climb back at Craven Cottage and their task was made all the harder as Trezeguet extended Juventus’ lead within two minutes. The home crowd fell silent. The situation looked hopeless, utterly irretrievable. Supporters were drained of their belief and needed something special to reignite it.

Bobby Zamora obliged, bringing Paul Konchesky’s raking diagonal pass down on his chest and finishing well. He gathered the ball out the net and ran back to the centre circle, keen for Fulham to keep up the pressure. Cannavaro’s red card midway through the first half gave them all the encouragement they needed.

“It was a massive night playing up against Cannavaro, Italy’s World Cup-winning captain. I managed to put him on his arse and put the ball away against a very good team,” says Zamora. “I helped to get him sent off as well.”

A newfound confidence flowed through the hosts as Simon Davies and Dickson Etuhu went close. Zoltan Gera slammed home Fulham’s second shortly before half time and then he tucked away a penalty after Damien Duff’s cross was blocked by Diego’s hand. One more goal was needed and an unthinkable comeback would be complete.

With time running out, substitute Clint Dempsey turned on the edge of the box and sent a delightful chip dropping over Antonio Chimenti. It was a spectacular way to cap off one of the finest wins in Fulham’s history and send them through to the quarter finals.

Wolfsburg, who had won their first ever Bundesliga title the year before, were their opponents. The German side carried plenty of attacking threat with the formidable pairing of Edin Dzeko and Grafite up front. Aside from a couple of snatched chances, both were kept quiet while Bobby Zamora continued his excellent form in Europe. He struck first, with Damien Duff adding a second shortly after.

Alexander Madlung’s late away goal threatened to change the dynamic of the tie going into the second leg a week later but Zamora had the ball in the back of the net after 20 seconds to take the sting out of the game and give Fulham a handy cushion. A Cruyff turn and calm finish was the sign of a striker in top form and a superb defensive showing closed the game out.

Now only Hamburg stood between Roy Hodgson’s side and the final. It was a surreal feeling for Fulham players and supporters who hadn’t envisaged that this could happen. An impressively marshalled goalless draw in the away leg meant that Fulham returned to Craven Cottage knowing a win of any description would be enough, although the threat of an away goal hung ominously in the air.

It arrived through a pinpoint free kick from Mladen Petric, another player who would later sign for the club. Yet Simon Davies’ sublime individual effort set up a tense finale and Zoltan Gera stabbed home the winner with 15 minutes remaining. In the other semi-final at Anfield, Diego Forlan’s longstanding hex over Liverpool continued. His extra-time goal confirming Atletico Madrid’s progress.

The customary rush for tickets, travel and accommodation ensued but Fulham were unfamiliar participants. This was uncharted territory for the Cottagers, whose only previous European run had ended in the third round of the UEFA Cup seven years previously. Even then they’d entered through the backdoor and the since defunct Intertoto Cup. This was rather different.

“We had a very hard route. We probably couldn’t have picked a harder one if we tried. There were some tough games against some very experienced sides but we managed to overcome them. It was an absolutely fantastic experience for us. We didn’t expect to get as far as we did but nobody could say that it was an easy route or a fluke,” claims Zamora.

Thousands of Fulham fans made the trip back to Hamburg, where the final would be held. Their solid team was lacking in star power but not belief, although that would be tested by the prolific strike partnership of Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan. Between them they rattled in 47 goals that season. A loose pass from Danny Murphy gave Atletico their first chance but the Uruguayan hit the outside of the post.

After another turnover of possession they did take the lead in the first half, Forlan side-footing home at the end of a break led by former Arsenal man Jose Antonio Reyes. Fulham drew level five minutes later as Simon Davies volleyed smartly past David de Gea. Both sides exchanged chances thereafter but neither could find the decisive breakthrough. With heavy legs and tiring minds deep into extra time, penalties seemingly beckoned.

But in the 116th minute, the irrepressible Forlan delivered the cruellest of blows. Aguero scampered down the left and managed to hold off Aaron Hughes. His low cross was met by a glancing touch from Forlan and the ball slid agonisingly into the far corner, just out of Mark Schwarzer’s reach. Fulham had spent the season mounting remarkable comebacks but not this time.

“Atletico Madrid were a very good side. Very experienced. In Diego Forlan and a young Sergio Aguero they had a very good frontline, and an experienced backline as well. It was certainly a good test for us and one we just missed out on in the end. Sitting on the bench I was just hoping we could get to penalties but it wasn’t to be,” says Zamora.

“To be able to play in a European cup final is a very special occasion. Personally I probably shouldn’t have played. I was carrying an injury at the back end of that season. It was hard but it was something I desperately wanted to do. I probably didn’t do myself justice in playing with an injury that ultimately forced me off the pitch and meant I ended up missing the World Cup too.”

Having collected their runner-up medals the Fulham players sank back to the turf and watched their opponents lift the trophy that ever so briefly felt like it might have been theirs. There was inevitably regret and disappointment at what had unfolded that night, but underpinned by immense pride at how close they’d come against the odds.

“The fans fully embraced it. They were magnificent. Fulham’s a lovely club, it really is. It has a really good vibe, and a really good feel. A lovely stadium and genuinely nice people. I’m pleased to have been part of something that hopefully they can remember for a really long time. It was very special.”

Series: Unexpected Journeys

Unexpected Journeys: When Ipswich Town’s tractor boys roared into Europe Unexpected Journeys: Relegated Wigan Athletic take solace in the Europa League Unexpected Journeys: Relegated Birmingham rebound in the Europa League Unexpected Journeys: Middlesbrough’s year of miracles in the UEFA Cup Unexpected Journeys: When Stoke City ran up the Europa League air miles Unexpected Journeys: When Fulham danced with Europe’s best
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