Wednesday 28 June 2017

Fulham's Roy of the Rovers

Eamonn Sweeney

W hen my daughters sit down to watch a game with me, there's one question they always ask. "Which side are the goodies, dad, and which side are the baddies?"

I could explain to them that sport is at a disadvantage compared to the brilliant Pixar, DreamWorks and Disney films they love and in which the hero will eventually be rewarded for his courage, honesty and spirit. Sport isn't like that. There's nothing fundamentally moral about it. Cheats often prosper. Bravery is no match for money. Fairytales hardly ever come true.

But I don't. They'll find out soon enough. In any event, there are some times when you can genuinely point to a team and say, "they're the goodies." There are even occasions when the goodies win. Fulham's victory over SV Hamburg on Thursday night was one of these occasions.

The west London side may still be beaten in the Europa League final by Atletico Madrid, but reaching a major European decider in the first place is still a triumph for a club whose history is notable for an almost total lack of success.

Fulham are one of those clubs who've never won anything. Or at least no major trophy. The two big triumphs at Craven Cottage were the lifting of the old second division title in 1949 and the winning of the same, re-labelled, championship in 2001. A losing FA Cup final appearance in 1975 is the biggest day out the club ever gave its fans.

Ponder the loyalty of the long-term local Fulham fan. Chelsea's ground is within walking distance, a jaunt on the tube will bring him to the grounds of Arsenal, Spurs and West Ham. Yet he kept the faith through all those lean years, even in the 1993-'94 season when Fulham were relegated to the bottom division and two seasons later when they finished 17th in it and looked at one stage to be Conference-bound. Fulham hadn't been in the top flight since 1968, or even the second flight since 1986. Their peers were not Chelsea or Arsenal, or even Crystal Palace or Wimbledon, but Leyton Orient and Brentford.

That they managed to reach the Premier League in 2001 must have seemed extraordinary to their long-suffering fans. The maintenance of this status for almost a decade must seem little short of miraculous.

This time two seasons ago, Fulham looked set to return to the lower levels. Needing to win four of their last five games to stay up, they found themselves 2-0 down with 20 minutes to go against Manchester City in their third-last match, knowing that defeat would relegate them.

The next 20 minutes, which saw them somehow contrive a 3-2 victory, were the beginning of a journey that would see them win the following two matches and stay up, finish seventh in the league last season and cut a swathe through a host of more fancied teams in Europe this term. You'd have to be glad for the Fulham faithful.

And you'd also rejoice for Roy Hodgson. In an era of managerial prima donnas, the Fulham boss cuts an anachronistic figure. He rarely complains about referees. He does not bully journalists. He does not engage in 'mind games'. He does not whine about not having enough money. He exudes courtesy, good humour and a sense of proportion and sends out a team which endeavours to survive by playing good football, as opposed to the route to survival followed by the likes of Stoke City and Bolton Wanderers.

Hodgson is atypical in other ways too. He achieved less as a player than any other Premier League manager, failing to make the grade at his local club Crystal Palace and toiling away at such non-league outposts as Tonbridge, Gravesend and Northfleet, Maidstone United and Carshalton Athletic. While many English managers display an insular suspicion of all things foreign and 'continental', Hodgson is a polished intellectual cosmopolitan who speaks fluent Norwegian, Swedish and Italian and passable German, Danish and Finnish. And he began his managerial career not in England but in the unlikely surroundings of Sweden with Halmstad in 1976. It was a pretty unpromising assignment for the 28-year-old Hodgson.

Halmstad had only avoided relegation from the Swedish first division on goal difference the previous season and were everyone's favourites for the drop under their new manager. Instead, they won the league, and repeated the trick in 1979. Hodgson is on record as regarding his revival of Halmstad as the finest achievement of his career, though he may well be tempted towards a reappraisal at the end of this season.

There was similar success at club level with Malmo, Swedish championships in 1985 and 1988, Copenhagen, Danish title in 2001 and at international level with Switzerland who under Hodgson qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 28 years in 1994 and reached the last 16 before making the European Championship finals for the first time ever two years later. He also brought Inter Milan to the 1997 UEFA Cup final where they lost on penalties to Schalke 04.

Yet it hasn't all been plain sailing for Hodgson. At various times in his career, Bristol City, Blackburn Rovers and the United Arab Emirates have seen fit to dispense with his services, something which may account for the equanimity with which he seems to regard the ups and downs of the game.

Even the sanguine Hodgson would have to admit, however, that there has been something remarkable about Fulham's path to the Europa League final. It began all the way back on July 30 with a 3-0 win over Lithuanian side Vetra in the third qualifying round, at a time when Derry City were still in the competition. Fulham even had to go a bit to make the competition proper, scraping through their play-off against Russian side Amkar Perm 3-2 on aggregate.

Since then it's been as though the team's guiding spirit has been Roy Race as much as Roy Hodgson. Fulham's path to the final has been completely different to that of Middlesbrough who enjoyed a relatively easy path to the 2005/'06 final where they were hammered by Sevilla. Hodgson's men, on the other hand, have had to overcome cup holders Shakhtar Donetsk, the mighty Juventus, Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg and a Hamburg side who were playing to reach a final to be held in their home stadium.

The second leg of the Juventus game ranks as one of the most unlikely victories ever achieved in Europe, Fulham recovering from not just a 3-1 defeat in Turin but from going 1-0 down in the second minute of the second leg. And Thursday night was similarly dramatic, a 1-0 deficit being overcome in the second half with goals from Simon Davies and Zoltan Gera.

Gera, who scored twice in the victory over Juventus, has been the emblematic figure of Fulham's odyssey. At a time when Rafa Benitez is exiting stage left complaining that he hasn't been given enough money to spend, Fulham have reached a European final thanks to the goals of a man who came on a free transfer from West Bromwich Albion.

The rest of the team has the same make do and mend look about it. A 37-year-old 'keeper Mark Schwarzer, who also came on a free transfer, a 33-year-old midfield general Danny Murphy, who looked a busted flush at Charlton and Spurs, Dickson Etuhu, surplus to requirements at Sunderland, Bobby Zamora, the butt of jokes as he scored 30 goals in 146 games for West Ham and Spurs before Hodgson made him look like an international striker, international journeymen John Pantsil and Brede Hangeland and the dynamic duo of Simon Davies and Damien Duff, players of real quality whose best days looked to be long gone when they moved to west London.

Hodgson hasn't got the luxury of splashing out on a Dimitar Berbatov or an Alberto Aquilani. He has to get the best out of what he can afford. That's real management.

And there has been a special joy for Irish fans in watching the renaissance of Duff. The jaded figure infected by the serial incompetence at Newcastle United is no more. Instead, we have a rejuvenated winger playing his best football for several years at club and international level.

That's what Roy Hodgson does for players. In any language, he's the manager of the year.

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