Europa League - Fulham's new heroes

Reuters - Fri, 30 Apr 08:36:00 2010

Fulham have always been a club where old men talked fondly of the glory days long past but now a whole new generation have been given memories to last a lifetime after an extraordinary night at Craven Cottage.

2009-10 Premier League Fulham Okaka, Etuhu, Demspey - 0

Space will have to be found on the walls of the Johnny Haynes Stand, alongside the black-and-white posters of the player who was "Mr. Fulham" for two decades from 1950, for the club's new heroes who took them into the Europa Cup final against Atletico Madrid on Thursday.

Simon Davies and Zoltan Gera, whose goals secured a 2-1 comeback win over Hamburg, will stand alongside past heroes such as Bobby Moore, England's World Cup-winning captain who took Fulham to the FA Cup final in 1975, and George Best, who treated the scarce-believing fans to the autumn of his career.

Davies and Gera struck in the second half of the semi-final second leg to give the west London club a 2-1 aggregate win and a first shot at European glory.

Under manager Roy Hodgson, the unfashionable but friendly club added the former European champions to an already impressive list of scalps.

Having begun their campaign against Lithuania's Vetra last July, Fulham eliminated holders Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus and German champions Wolfsburg before beating Hamburg.

Again and again in this extraordinary run they looked dead and buried, not least when they trailed Juventus 4-1 on aggregate only to claim an astonishing 5-4 victory.

Fulham fans must have been thinking that the Juventus win would be the biggest memory of the season as Mladen Petric's brilliant 22nd-minute free kick put Hamburg in line for the May 12 final at their own ground.

With Fulham's leading striker Bobby Zamora unable to make any impact after needed an injection to overcome an Achilles problem, Hamburg looked comfortable and their shock decision to sack manager Bruno Labbadia on Monday began to look like a master stroke.

Fulham, however, have built up an enviable record in their short European experience. In their 15 home games before Thursday's clash they had 11 wins and four draws in the UEFA Cup, Intertoto Cup and Europa League.

Davies produced his own exquisite touch to equalise after 69 minutes and invigorate the home fans.

Shiny, new stadiums have their appeal but on such a night there is nothing to match a capacity crowd packed into a tight, Victorian-built ground like the riverside home of Fulham.

The deafening noise from the mass of fans just metres from the touchline turned the whole atmosphere and Fulham tore forward.

Hungarian forward Gera swivelled in the box to fire in the second goal seven minutes later and another roar went up.

Fulham still had to hang on in a tense finale but they did so with the calm control and application that has been Hodgson's career trademark.

When he arrived at the club two-and-a-half years ago they were staring relegation in the face and needed some last-day heroics to hang on to their Premier League status.

"The time at Fulham has been quite magical for me," Hodgson said. "I think we've made a major piece of history here tonight. That atmosphere is something I think we'll all remember for a long time.

"Tonight is a reward for the fans who have supported us so well over the last two years and it's certainly for all those really faithful Fulham fans who have seen some bad times through the years."

In 1996 Fulham ended up eight places from the bottom of the entire Football League but by last season they had achieved their best performance when they finished seventh in the Premier League.

That earned a place in the Europa League and the fans who set off for Vilnius last July could hardly have dared to dream where that journey would end.


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