The story of Fulham’s magical journey to the Europa League final ten years ago

A football club morphed by their west London superiors, Fulham fought against every expectation on a magical Thursday-night adventure a decade ago. 

In the 2009-10 season, Fulham’s extraordinary run to the Europa League final is best remembered for the stunning comeback victory against Juventus, sealed with a Clint Dempsey masterstroke. Or stroke of luck – you decide.

But this was actually a voyage which started with the club’s great escape from Premier League relegation in 2008, and a seventh-place finish the following season which was miraculous in itself, triggering a European roadshow which started in the pits of pre-season in Lithuania.

Fulham avoided relegation in the 07-08 Premier League season after Danny Murphy’s winner

Roy Hodgson, who joined the club in 2007, then guided Fulham to European qualification

Roy Hodgson, who joined the club in 2007, then guided Fulham to European qualification

Every obstacle, from the third qualifying round to 10 months down the road in the final against Atletico Madrid, was met by the same white wall of experienced resilience sprinkled with flair and panache. An ageing team, with a wily, continentally experienced coach, flourishing in the club’s finest hour.

As talk of an unnecessary distraction slowly moulded into the most dramatic and defiant campaign in the club’s history, priorities within the dressing room altered and eyeballs glanced towards the Cottage by the Thames in the expectation, believe it or not, of the unthinkable.  

This is the story of that season, from the backroom staff who made it happen, to the players who conjured it and the supporters of ‘little, rubbish Fulham’ – as season-ticket holder Gerry Pimm labelled his own club – who knew they would never see anything like it ever again.

It’s July 2009 and fresh from a fruitful top-half campaign, Roy Hodgson has a problem.

FULHAM IN EUROPA LEAGUE QUALIFYING 

Jul 30: FK Vetra 0-3 Fulham (Zamora 44, Murphy pen 56,, Seol 84) – 3QR, first-leg

Aug 6: Fulham 3-0 FK Vetra (Etuhu 57, Johnson 80, 84) – 3QR, second-leg

Aug 20: Fulham 3-1 Amkar Perm (Johnson 4, Dempsey 51, Zamora 75) – Play-off round, first-leg

Aug 27: Amkar Perm 1-0 Fulham, Play-off round, second-leg

For the elite, qualification for Europe is paramount but for those clubs with more modest expectations, it’s difficult to know whether to view cup competitions as a distraction or an opportunity. Prioritise or compromise? 

Amid a pre-season which included a tour to Australia, a Europa League third qualifying round tie against FK Vetra of Lithuania loomed.

‘Truthfully, the very first thought when we realised we’d be starting our season on July 30 in Lithuania was that the Europa League might be a hindrance to our season,’ captain Danny Murphy tells Sportsmail.

‘But we quickly changed the mindset. We tried to view it as an alternative to the usual pre-season games, a more competitive way to get up to speed.

‘We named a strong team for that first game, won 3-0, and after that we were up and running. A lot of the lads hadn’t sampled European games, neither had the Fulham fans, so it became something that didn’t take long to embrace after the very initial doubts.’

Star striker Bobby Zamora started and scored in the first-leg against FK Vetra in Lithuania

Star striker Bobby Zamora started and scored in the first-leg against FK Vetra in Lithuania

Despite the early start, stalwarts Mark Schwarzer, Brede Hangeland, Clint Dempsey, Bobby Zamora and the 32-year-old skipper himself all started that opening game in Vilnius, running out comfortable winners. 

‘To say we went into the competition all guns blazing would be wrong,’ Hodgson’s assistant manager Ray Lewington says.

‘We had to compromise. Six regular starters with five squad players – that’s how we juggled it for the early rounds and group stage.’

Momentum in the competition certainly built very quickly from the 10,000 empty seats for the home leg versus Vetra. After navigating through qualifying, despite a 1-0 defeat away to unknown Russian side Amkar Perm, the Cottagers were dealt their first tricky hand in the group stage.

Fulham overcame Russian side Amkar Perm in late August to qualify for the group-stages

Fulham overcame Russian side Amkar Perm in late August to qualify for the group-stages

FULHAM’S GROUP STAGE 

Sep 17: CSKA Sofia 1-1 Fulham (Kamara 65) 

Oct 1: Fulham 1-0 Basle (Murphy 57)

Oct 22: Fulham 1-1 Roma (Hangeland 24)

Nov 5: Roma 2-1 Fulham (Kamara 19 pen)

Dec 3: Fulham 1-0 CSKA Sofia (Gera 14)

Dec 16: Basle 2-3 Fulham (Zamora 42, 45, Gera 77) 

The lowest seed in Pot 3, Hodgson’s side drew Roma, Basle and CSKA Sofia: the highest seeds in the other three pots.

And by November, with five points and a solitary – though impressive – home win against Basle recorded after four games, their hopes looked slim even after they took it to the final matchday, which was the return game against Basle in mid-December.

The Swiss side had experienced strike duo Marco Streller and Alexander Frei to call upon, and an emerging talent called Xherdan Shaqiri on the bench. 

Zamora, at this point in the middle of the most deadly season of his career, scored a double and a Zoltan Gera strike made sure of three points and safe passage to the last 32. As Murphy describes, this was an ‘amazing victory’ for the club already.

The two goalscorers celebrate after Fulham beat Basle to reach the knockout-stages

The two goalscorers celebrate after Fulham beat Basle to reach the knockout-stages 

Season-ticket holder Farrell Monk, who also is a presenter on the Fulhamish podcast, paid homage to Hodgson for his excellent man-management. 

‘We not only won but created quite a few chances. It was an exceptional performance,’ Monk says, looking back to that time with fondness.

‘We didn’t even play every first-choice player – it showed the management of Roy that he was able to call upon players like Stephen Kelly and Bjorn Helge Riise, go to a team who were Champions League regulars and beat them.’

Fulham had surpassed expectations: in the knockout stages come the New Year. However, perhaps due a kind draw, Hodgson and Co got the opposite, and a tie against one of Europe’s most exciting outfits.

Ask Fulham regulars about that run 10 years ago and most will say Shakhtar Donetsk was the best team they faced.

This was a Ukrainian outfit with a Brazilian core. Fernandinho, Willian, Douglas Costa – world-class players finding their feet in Europe, who are all flourishing at the highest level in the present day. They also had the rampant Luiz Adriano as their focal point up top.

Defensive midfielder Fernandinho is now a key figure in Pep Guardiola's Manchester City

Willian made his move to the Premier League in 2013, signing for Chelsea

Both Fernandinho and Willian were emerging as star players at Shakhtar Donetsk in 2009

In fact, for Pimm, who is the General Secretary of the Fulham Supporters’ Trust, they were the best he’d ever seen.

‘Most Fulham fans would say that’s the best team we’ve ever seen down at Fulham Football Club,’ Pimm admits. 

‘They were like Brazil. It was just incredible that we kept them from being four goals up the first half, I’ll never know how we did that.’

Lewington, who had previously played for and managed Fulham, staunchly agrees: ‘Certainly the best side we played in the competition. Of any side I’ve ever been involved with, we took the biggest slaughtering in the first 20 minutes that I can ever remember.

‘They were a magnificent side, honestly, one of the best club sides I’ve seen.’ 

Ray Lewington was Hodgson's trusted right-hand man for the duration of the campaign

Ray Lewington was Hodgson’s trusted right-hand man for the duration of the campaign

Zamora battles in the first leg at the Cottage, with his second-half winner the critical moment

Zamora battles in the first leg at the Cottage, with his second-half winner the critical moment

But a characteristic – or the characteristic – of Fulham’s entire campaign, resilience was palpably rewarded. Staving off a thrashing soon turned into a 2-1 victory to take over to the Donbass Arena, with an imperious Zamora netting another priceless winner.

Still at long odds to go through, the Lilywhites took advantage of a surprisingly defunct Shakhtar (evidently still leggy off the back of a winter break) performance in the second-leg one week later. 

Brede Hangeland notched a vital away goal and in digging out a 1-1 draw, Fulham had knocked out the holders full of soon-to-be household names. 

‘It was the result of our tournament,’ Lewington says, without hesitation. ‘We had some good other results but for me, that was the pinnacle because Shakhtar were magnificent.’ 

So if not the competition holders, how about the competition favourites? 

Though not at the peak of their powers, next up was Juventus. One of the most successful clubs in Europe. Even if it was to prove the end of the road, for Fulham supporters, it was simply the stuff of dreams.

‘It was just a joy to go and watch Fulham play this great Italian club’, says Pimm. ‘We knew it was the end of the line, but that’ll do us nicely.’

But even after a 3-1 defeat in Turin, and even after David Trezeguet had cancelled out Fulham’s away goal inside two minutes at Craven Cottage, the atmosphere on this famous night did not subdue. 

Fulham chairman Mohamed al-Fayed ahead of the historic second-leg against Juventus

Fulham chairman Mohamed al-Fayed ahead of the historic second-leg against Juventus

That, alongside a controversial red card given to World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro in the first half, with the score level at one apiece, proved the turning point. 

‘I think there was a belief,’ Lewington says. ‘We know we had a massive bit of luck when Cannavaro got sent off, he was their key player. From that moment, we really did think the impossible was on. 

‘The crowd were magnificent because Fulham’s not really a place where there’s loads of noise all the time. But on this occasion, everyone got caught in the wave of emotion that the game was producing – we all know only football can do it.’

Juve captain Fabio Cannavaro hauls down Zoltan Gera, resulting in the Italian's sending-off

Juve captain Fabio Cannavaro hauls down Zoltan Gera, resulting in the Italian’s sending-off

Juventus midfielder Mohamed Sissoko, formerly of Liverpool, was also aware of the atmosphere and momentum building against the Italian giants. 

‘I know English supporters: they are phenomenal,’ Sissoko tells Sportsmail

‘I remember the whole stadium and the players who played as if it were a final. I was surprised by the desire and intensity of Fulham, a team of runners who fought for every ball, and they ended up playing a perfect game.’ 

Yet with the tie heading to extra-time after a Zoltan Gera brace, the standout moment of the whole season belonged to Dempsey. 

Juventus midfielder Mohamed Sissoko admits he was surprised with Fulham's intensity

Juventus midfielder Mohamed Sissoko admits he was surprised with Fulham’s intensity 

Zoltan Gera celebrates his penalty which brought the aggregate scores level on the night

Zoltan Gera celebrates his penalty which brought the aggregate scores level on the night

Clint Dempsey's chipped winner will go down as a monumental moment in Fulham's history

Clint Dempsey’s chipped winner will go down as a monumental moment in Fulham’s history

Starting the night as a substitute, he ended it as a Fulham folk hero, dinking stranded Juve keeper Antonio Chimenti with an imputent right-foot chip into the far corner. To this day, there is still debate as to whether he meant it or not. 

‘I have watched it countless times, and I to and fro depending on what hour of the day it is,’ says Monk, who was positioned right behind Dempsey in the Johnny Haynes stand. 

‘It was the most wonderful piece of individual skill!’ confirms Lewington. ‘It was a fairytale finish and the best game I’ve ever been involved in.

Fulham celebrate at full-time after progressing to the quarter-finals of the competition

Fulham celebrate at full-time after progressing to the quarter-finals of the competition

‘In the dressing room afterwards, it was obviously elation, but everyone was mentally exhausted from it. They all sat down and said “Bloody hell” – it was fabulous.’

So scarred from the night’s proceedings, Juve’s Sissoko admits he couldn’t bring himself to watch the Italian side’s conquerors for the competition’s remainder. 

For Fulham though, it was arguably the greatest night in the club’s history and perhaps the moment when all involved began to believe no end was in sight. Roll on the quarter-finals.   

Two steps, two German opponents. First up, Wolfsburg, the Bundesliga champions at this point. 

In this tie, Fulham oozed professionalism, as they followed up a 2-1 victory at the Cottage with a clean sheet on the road, and a 1-0 win to assure their safe passage. Zamora, again, notching the crucial goal. 

Though the storyline gods had already played their part, in the final four Fulham’s opposition were the actual hosts of the final of the Europa League’s inaugural edition: Hamburg, with the May showpiece set to be played in the Volksparkstadion. 

What is most memorable from this tie, to players and management, is the unusual pre-match buildup to the first leg. 

The trip to northern Germany was hindered by the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud which wreaked havoc with travel plans across Europe in April 2010. 

Preparation for the first leg against Ruud van Nistelrooy's Hamburg was out of the ordinary

Preparation for the first leg against Ruud van Nistelrooy’s Hamburg was out of the ordinary

‘We had to drive all the way,’ remembers Murphy. ‘I remember hitting a traffic jam en-route the day before, so well all got out and had a kickabout.’

‘We didn’t get to the hotel for four hours after we were supposed to, it was a crazy lead-up,’ Lewington adds.  

An unordinary build-up had scant affect on the visitors though. A highly respectable goalless draw to take back to their Thursday night fortress.

Murphy and his team applaud the away fans after a respectable goalless draw in Germany

Murphy and his team applaud the away fans after a respectable goalless draw in Germany

And so from a campaign with nothing to lose, to just about everything to lose. Because a shot at a major European final comes about once-in-a-generation for club the size of Fulham.

On the night, after an early away goal from Hamburg’s Mladen Petric – a stunning free-kick at that – sent pulses raising, Hodgson’s heroes once again rallied in the second half.  

A Simon Davies beauty and a 76th-minute Zoltan Gera (who was so important in the knockout-stages after Andy Johnson’s season-ending knee injury) winner sent all 23,705 in attendance into absolute ecstasy. 

Gera celebrates his winner, sending Fulham through to their first ever major European final

Gera celebrates his winner, sending Fulham through to their first ever major European final

‘It was the biggest night in Fulham’s history, even bigger than the Juventus game, because it was reaching a European final,’ says Murphy. 

‘When we were losing, the whole stadium rose to sing: “Stand up if you still believe”. It still sends shivers.’ 

Both Pimm and Monk refer to Peter Drury’s spine-tingling commentary at the full-time whistle: ‘Now you’ve got to believe it! A night beyond compare! Old Father Thames has never seen the like. Hamburg will host the final… Fulham will play in it!’    

Exhausted players on the pitch hugged, and hugged, and hugged. Hodgson, well on his way to collecting the LMA Manager of the Year award, was given a standing ovation in the press room afterwards.  

Manager and skipper celebrate at full-time after guiding Fulham to the Europa League final

Manager and skipper celebrate at full-time after guiding Fulham to the Europa League final

As supporters slowly staggered out of the stadium and into the pubs, they gathered to see who they would play, with Liverpool and Atletico Madrid deadlocked in extra-time.

A Diego Forlan extra-time clincher gave Atletico victory at Anfield. Little did Fulham fans know how history would repeat itself. 

FULHAM’S KNOCKOUT STAGE 

Feb 18: Fulham 2-1 Shakhtar Donetsk (Gera 3, Zamora 63) – R32, first-leg

Feb 25: Shakhtar Donetsk 1-1 Fulham (Hangeland 33) – R32, second-leg

Mar 11: Juventus 3-1 Fulham (Etuhu 36) – R16, first-leg

Mar 18: Fulham 4-1 Juventus (Zamora 9, Gera 39, pen 49, Dempsey 82) – R16, second-leg

Apr 1: Fulham 2-1 Wolfsburg (Zamora 59, Duff 63) – QF, first-leg

Apr 8: Wolfsburg 0-1 Fulham (Zamora 1) – QF, second-leg

Apr 22: Hamburg 0-0 Fulham – SF, first-leg

Apr 29: Fulham 2-1 Hamburg (Davies 69, Gera 76) – SF, second-leg

May 12: Atletico Madrid 2-1 Fulham AET (Davies 37) – final 

On May 12 2010, Fulham competed for the first major trophy in the club’s history, against a Spanish juggernaut in Atletico. 

Match No 19 in Europe for Fulham that season.

The occasion, as much as the match itself, was an unforgettable experience for the supporters lucky enough to seal a ticket for the final. 

‘We got home from the Hamburg game and the ticket information was already up on the website,’ Monk explains. 

‘And I remember the shock of it being four tickets per season ticket holder. 

‘Incredible at the time because the stadium only held 50,000 and Fulham were only getting 19,000 fans. I remember saying “this is going to cause problems.”

‘Flights were so expensive so me and my family convoyed it in two cars, about 13 hours – it wasn’t the most pleasant of journeys. 

‘But it was very special. You could sense that Fulham fans were there to enjoy the experience and the day regardless of what happened, and every single Atletico Madrid fan felt exactly the same way. It was probably the friendliest final ever.’ 

Nearly 20,000 Fulham fans packed out the Volksparkstadion for the Europa League final

Nearly 20,000 Fulham fans packed out the Volksparkstadion for the Europa League final

Fulham and Atletico Madrid supporters mingle ahead of kick-off in Hamburg

Fulham and Atletico Madrid supporters mingle ahead of kick-off in Hamburg

Come kick-off, Fulham were running on empty. Star man Zamora was nursing an injury, and hobbled his way to the 54-minute mark before being substituted for Dempsey. By this point, Davies’ near-post volley had cancelled out Forlan’s opener. 

As the game progressed beyond 90 minutes, confidence grew in the Fulham camp – if they could hold on to penalties. 

‘We kept it alive until the final minutes of extra-time and we fancied our chances on penalties even though they had David de Gea in goal, because we had Mark Schwarzer,’ says Murphy. 

Murphy battles with Atletico's Simao during a tense final which went the full 120 minutes

Murphy battles with Atletico’s Simao during a tense final which went the full 120 minutes

But Forlan, in the form of his life and who would later that summer win the Golden Ball at the World Cup, poked home Sergio Aguero’s cross to crush the ultimate dream. A sucker-punch, to conclude a memorable fight. 

‘To concede so late was absolutely sickening. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch Atletico lift the trophy,’ Murphy says. 

‘As captain, that could have been me, and it would have been such a massive thing for Fulham in the history books. I can look back at the Europa League run with a huge amount of pride and pleasure, but there is still that little bit missing at the end. 

Diego Forlan celebrates after his extra-time winner seals the cup for the Spanish side

Diego Forlan celebrates after his extra-time winner seals the cup for the Spanish side

Fulham captain Murphy walks agonisingly past the trophy after losing the final in May 2010

Fulham captain Murphy walks agonisingly past the trophy after losing the final in May 2010

‘I was lucky enough to win big trophies for Liverpool, play for England and helped Fulham stay in the Premier League. To have won the Europa League with Fulham would have equalled anything I did in the game but losing the final still hurts, it means I can’t enjoy the run as much.’

Lewington, who is still by Hodgson’s side at Crystal Palace, prefers to reflect on the enormous highs rather than the final, solitary low. 

‘It’s easily the highlight of my career. We were actually getting our penalty-takers in order on the side when they scored the winner.

‘I’m immensely proud of being part of that, and everyone was – Roy, Mick Kelly, it was way above what people thought would happen, and for players, the confidence grew as you beat those teams. That’s how it was that year, it was great.’   

Hodgson and his players wait to receive their runners-up medals after the final in Germany

Hodgson and his players wait to receive their runners-up medals after the final in Germany

Currently residing in the Championship play-off spots before the coronavirus pandemic struck, after a decade of relegation, promotion and relegation again, both Pimm and Monk admit they thought in Hamburg: ‘It doesn’t get better than this as a Fulham fan.’ 

They’re probably right. That summer, Hodgson left for Liverpool and the core of the squad gradually broke up despite another Europa League campaign in 2011-12, which this time saw the Whites fall in the group-stages.  

But for now, when the world is missing football and the bamboozling drama that comes with it, remember the season ‘little, rubbish Fulham’ ridded themselves of their own ridicule.