“It was an incredible story then and it is still an incredible story now” – Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer on the run to the 2010 Europe League final.
It is the tale of one of football’s unlikeliest odysseys that started in Vilnius on 30 July 2009 and ended 286 days later and 820 miles away in Hamburg – the journey that took Fulham to the 2010 Europa League final.
The west London club’s season in the sun as one of European football’s high rollers – culminating in an unlikely final appearance exactly 10 years ago – will be remembered forever by everyone who witnessed it.
It ultimately ended in a cruel loss deep into extra time to a fine Atletico Madrid side who knocked Liverpool out in the semi-final and who boasted the attacking talents of Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan and Jose Antonio Reyes, as well as a teenage goalkeeper by the name of David de Gea.
And for Fulham, it was the end of the Roy Hodgson era as he was swiftly lured away to a short and unfulfilling spell at Liverpool.
The finale may have brought heartbreak but the wider context is one of glorious achievement, of how Fulham’s mix of old heads and misfits built momentum to see off some of the biggest names in the game.
Once the qualifying rounds and group phase had been negotiated they claimed an illustrious list of victims that gives this Europa League run legendary status in the club’s history.
It started in the third qualifying round against FK Vetra of Lithuania and was followed by victory over FC Amkar Perm of Russia – both away games watched by a tiny band of travelling fans – before these unfashionable surroundings opened the doors to a fantasy route to the final.
Europa League holders Shakhtar Donetsk (featuring future Premier League stars Fernandinho and Willian) went in the last 32, then one of the tournament favourites Juventus in arguably the greatest night Craven Cottage has ever seen, before Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg and Hamburg – who would have played the final in their own stadium – on a thunderous night in the semi-final.
Schwarzer, the outstanding Australian goalkeeper, was also a beaten finalist with Middlesbrough in 2006 when they defied the odds before being beaten 4-0 by Sevilla.
He takes up the story.
“The similarities are uncanny. We both played Roma, we played Basel, we both had amazing victories against the odds to reach the final.
“With Fulham we had to beat Basel in the last game of the group stages to get through to the knockout stage. And we did it against a team who had a remarkable record at home in Europe where I don’t think they’d lost for a couple of years, including the Champions League. They’d claimed big scalps and had been a thorn in the side of English clubs.
“What both Fulham and Middlesbrough had was incredible self-belief. It irks me to this day that we lost both those finals but no-one can take away the achievement of getting there with Middlesbrough and Fulham.”
Sammy James, host of the Fulhamish podcast, told BBC Sport: “I, like most Fulham fans I suspect, was just happy to be in the group stages and visiting illustrious clubs such as Roma and Basel. None of us seriously considered that getting to the latter stages was a serious prospect.”
A Roy rant – then big names start to fall
Hodgson’s calm “seen it all” demeanour was a trademark of Fulham’s run to the final – but Schwarzer reveals how even the oldest head lost it in the dressing room after a potentially pivotal group loss away to Roma.
The future England manager had reached a European final earlier in his career, losing the Uefa Cup over two legs to Schalke of Germany when coach at Inter Milan.
He wanted to make amends badly.
“We had two players sent off,” recalls Schwarzer. “There was a very average decision to send Erik Nevland off when Roma got a penalty, then Paul Konchesky lost his head a bit so we ended with nine men.
“Roy was fuming after the game. He had a real dummy spat. He said ‘I don’t care about this stupid tournament. I’ve been to the final once and lost it. Who wants to go to it anyway and lose? It is ridiculous, stupid’.
“Of course he wanted to win it. He was just frustrated at maybe a lack of discipline and a defeat – but we still had Basel to play and I used it in a talk before that game.
“The manager spoke, then Danny Murphy – who had won the tournament with Liverpool in 2001 – spoke, then I said a few words.
“I said we had every chance and we were good enough. I said I’d been to a Uefa Cup final and lost and while it’s not nice it was an incredible journey and I’d do anything to get there again. We had to seize the moment.
“That was the motivation and there was Roy in the background with a smirk on his face. We went out and did what we had to do, winning 3-2.”
Each chapter en route to Hamburg tells a different story.
“The team that stood out for me were Shakhtar,” says Schwarzer. “They were the best team we played against, probably the best team I’ve played against to this day.
“Bobby Zamora scored a screamer to get us a 2-1 win but even their Croatian full-back Darijo Srna was kind of laughing saying ‘see you in Ukraine’.
“We made life difficult for ourselves out there when Danny Murphy got sent off but we produced a brilliant backs-to-the-wall performance to draw 1-1 and go through.”
Zamora was one of the players revived by Hodgson, becoming a talisman with their first goal in the Europa League in Vilnius, the crucial winner at home to Shakhtar then another goal against Juventus.
James, a Fulham season-ticket holder in the Hammersmith End for 12 years, says: “For me Bobby Zamora was the man that made that run happen. He was widely ridiculed by Fulham fans the season before but in 2009-10 he was a man possessed.
“The biggest shame of the run was that he played with an injury against Hamburg in the semis and Atletico in the final. I still believe to this day if he had been fully fit we would have won it.”
Craven Cottage’s greatest night
When “The Old Lady” of Italian football arrived on the banks of the Thames on Thursday, 18 March 2010, it seemed it was only to complete the formalities after a 3-1 win in Turin.
It was not the “La Vecchia Signora” of old but they still had a star-studded line up, including four of the Italian team – captain Fabio Cannavaro, left-back Fabio Grosso, midfielder Mauro Camoranesi and forward Alessandro del Piero – who had won the World Cup four years earlier, as well as France superstar David Trezeguet, who also played in that match.
What followed was, in many eyes, the greatest night at the famous old ground.
Fulham, with Murphy suspended and a makeshift central midfield pair of Dickson Etuhu and Chris Baird, conceded a Trezeguet goal after two minutes, meaning they had to score three times in 88 minutes just to force extra time.
They went one better, reeling in a panicking Juve before an ecstatic crowd with Zamora, two goals from Zoltan Gera and a chip eight minutes from time by substitute Clint Dempsey sparking delirium.
“If you want the dramatic moment it has to be Juve,” says Schwarzer. “To lose an early goal then win through Clint’s goal was fantastic but that was the self-belief we had – not just us but the fans.
“We had finished seventh in the Premier League to qualify for this. We were a good side. This was a team that only stayed up with 15 minutes left of the 2007-08 season by winning at Portsmouth but it had turned into a fantastic ride.
“The connection between the players and the fans was very good. The rebuild began after staying up – not immediately but you felt something was happening and this was happening in the Europa League.
“Everyone bought into Roy’s methodology. We had the right mix, attitude and it came to its peak in that season. We had the work rate, the work ethic, training details.
“Players and fans grew with it and it came off the back of having a great previous season. We had the best defensive record outside the top four and were so difficult to play against collectively.
“The fans knew that. They saw it, understood it and went with it. It flowed and we also played some attractive football, despite what some people say about Roy. It was the dream season in so many respects and nights like beating Juve epitomised it.
“They were not the Juve we know today. It was one of Juventus’s lowest periods in the past 20/25 years and at the moment we knocked them out they maybe felt they couldn’t get any lower and wanted to stop the slide and there were massive changes. They have now gone back to greatness again.
“Make no mistake, though, they still had some brilliant individuals and to claw back that 3-1 defeat was incredible. What a night that was.”
Dempsey, the match-winner, was another symbol of not just the European journey, but Hodgson’s astute management.
Schwarzer said: “Clint was often on the receiving end of a selection decision that didn’t go quite his way but it fired him up even more. When he came on he was so angry.
“He was able to channel it and made such a big difference for us in so many games, and most notably scoring the fourth goal against Juve.”
If it was special for the players, what about the fans?
“The Juve game is the obvious pinnacle for any Fulham fan,” says James.
“It was by far and away the greatest performance ever by a Fulham side. We had no right to turn over such a deficit against a side containing those kind of players.
“I’ll never forget the pandemonium in the Hammersmith End after Dempsey’s winner – a glorious moment on a night that will never be forgotten.”
And so to Hamburg – via Hamburg
Reigning Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg were beaten home and away – and it was back to Germany for the semi-final.
Fulham’s opponents Hamburg had a prime incentive of knowing they would play the final in their own stadium.
But Hodgson’s men were on a roll.
A goalless draw set up the second leg at Craven Cottage, which resounded to an anthem that became the soundtrack to this Europa League campaign.
Mladen Petric’s first-half goal was the signal for the chant of “Stand Up If You Still Believe” to echo in the capacity 25,700 crowd as Hamburg, with Ruud van Nistelrooy leading the attack, capitulated to two goals in the final 20 minutes from Simon Davies and Gera.
Such was the delight at this hugely popular club reaching the final that manager Hodgson was afforded a rare break from media etiquette as his arrival in Craven Cottage’s press room was greeted with loud applause.
The end of the line came with that loss to Atletico in Hamburg, with Fulham so close to taking the final to penalties after Davies equalised following Forlan’s opener, the Uruguayan scoring the winner via a deflection off Brede Hangeland four minutes from the end of extra time.
“We were so unlucky,” Schwarzer remembers. “Both goals involved heavy deflections – but I think after the disappointment people realised we had done something special.
“We had a fantastic manager, but we also had the right group of players with the right mentality and approach.
“I’m not saying everyone was best of friends but we had an incredibly good working relationship on and off the pitch.
“Everyone had a common goal to be as successful as we could, to prove all the doubters wrong. We wanted to rewrite the history books and create something special and there was an opportunity.
“I’ve been back numerous times since and people always talk about that season and the two seasons under Roy. Obviously the first thing people mention is the run in Europe but those two seasons were sublime and up there with two of the best I had in my career.
“Did anyone expect Fulham to get to a European final? No.
“It was dreamland for the fans who had followed the club with such loyalty and I think everyone acknowledged we had something really special.”