Pride in defeat
Alex Dunn pays tribute to Roy Hodgson and his players in the aftermath of Fulham's final defeat.
Last Updated: 13/05/10 12:51pm
It can be difficult not to patronise when talking up the merits of a club that has overachieved but in the case of Fulham there is nothing but genuine admiration for a side whose Europa League adventure ended in heartache but far from disgrace in Hamburg last night.
It was a journey that encompassed 18,000 miles and stretches back 10 months; an epic odyssey that saw the club's players spend their July break not on far-flung beaches but in Lithuania.
An away day at FC Vetra holds all the allure of root canal surgery but their application in securing a 3-0 win that day has served them well in a campaign that has seen Roy Hodgson and his players engrave their names in Fulham folklore.
Few would have predicted from the seed of Lithuania would be born a tale that saw Fulham defy the odds to knockout European heavyweights Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus and Hamburg en route to the final.
Diego Forlan's opportunism ensured a comic book story of guts and glory ended in tears of disappointment rather than triumph but while captain Danny Murphy said prior to the game it would all count for nothing in defeat, given time he'll likely reflect back fondly on a cup run that has redefined what is possible when a side's whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Hodgson has proved to be the alchemist par excellence; for while he may not be able to turn base metal into gold, transforming Bobby Zamora into a striker of genuine prowess is a similar achievement. Likewise, the manner in which he has similarly revitalised the careers of Murphy, Simon Davies, Damien Duff and Aaron Hughes is testimony to his man-management finesse.
It's been quite a week for Zamora, whose performance in Hamburg was nothing short of herculean. Barely being able to break out into anything more than a trot, the burly front-man managed the best part of an hour despite grimacing every time the shooting pain of a troubled Achilles flared.
I've never seen a player chest the ball so often and with such economy of possession. Lofted passes were strewn in his direction as he showed all the fluidity of a table football player, but still somehow managed to lead Fulham's line effectively.
His standing ovation was a celebration for not just the bravest of performances on the night, but a season in which he has rightly caught the eye of Fabio Capello.
It was an engrossing, evenly contested final that pitted Atletico's fleet footed South American contingent against Fulham's foot soldiers, disciples of discipline to a man. Hodgson has drilled his side to perfection.
A few in the build-up to the final gently groaned about their manager's obsession with shape, shape, shape but it is a combination of tactics and temperament rather than talent that has taken Fulham so far.
Advocates of the beautiful game will claim Atletico - underachievers to Fulham's overachievers to such an extent some in Spain claim they are cursed - were deserved winners and while pockets of their football was bewitching, it would do an ill-service to call this a simple victory of flair over pragmatism.
In the early sparring the Cottagers were cautious, nervy even, but as the game progressed their own brand of neat and concise football was equally engaging.
Had Zamora been fully fit and at his bulldozing best my money would have been on Hugh Grant still supping in celebration as I write this column. Indeed, Fulham are so honest and likeable even the sight of Hugh in the crowd being served a pint of larger on a silver tray didn't stick in the throat. Not much, anyway.
Rare it is that a side manages to eschew domestic rivalries to be universally supported on continental sojourns, but only the truly curmudgeon would have begrudged Fulham taking the game to penalties.
A 63-game season saw Fulham's players dead on their feet by that stage, 33-year-old Murphy may not get out of bed for a week, yet only Forlan's speed of thought and movement could separate the two sides.
There will have been a few on the flight back home that will have wished the volcanic ash to swallow them up, so acute was the disappointment, but in Hodgson they have a man who never loses perspective; a manager whose own lack of an ego keeps in check those of his players.
The nomadic manager of the year learnt his craft in the unfashionable enclaves of Scandinavia but is now so in vogue I wouldn't be surprised to see him step out with Kate Moss in the next few weeks. He'll certainly be courted by clubs with a pulling power traditionally greater than Fulham over the summer.
And herein lies the problem. Fulham are at a crossroads and while this year's achievements can never be taken away, Hodgson is canny enough to realise that nothing lasts forever in football. On a tight budget he has assembled a squad that complements one another as well as any other in the league but it is one that needs investment, an injection of youth to keep young the old heads like Mark Schwarzer, Murphy, Davies, Duff and Hughes.
Like the rest of us Mohamed al Fayed can't help but have been moved by the decade's first great football story and now he's shifted Harrods to the tune of a cool billion, he might just fancy one last punt at making the club he loves truly great.
He's been accused of being able to peel an orange in his pocket in recent years as Fulham have shown a certain economy of ambition in their transfer dealings. If he wants to keep Hodgson happy in West London he might have to let him do his shopping at Harrods rather than Asda in the summer.
For now though, with Hodgson insisting he is happy at Craven Cottage, Fulham deserve to bask in the painful glory of the most dignified defeat.