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From the Cottage to the Continent

Fulham's European adventure
Fulham will hope to return to Hamburg for the final on 12 May

Vilnius. Perm. Sofia. Rome. Donetsk. Turin. Wolfsburg. Hamburg. It looks more like a list of destinations you could fly to for £9.99 on a low-cost airline, but it actually tells the remarkable story of Fulham's trailblazing adventures through Europe this season.

With more than 18,000 miles on the clock, Roy Hodgson's men have effectively travelled three-quarters of the way round the world to reach the Europa League semi-finals and the journey has not been without its pitfalls.

"I decided to drive to the Wolfsburg away game but didn't realise there were two Wolfsburgs in Germany," Fulham Supporters' Club spokesman John Aitkin told BBC Sport.

"I accidentally typed the wrong Wolfsburg into my sat-nav and ended up 350km away from where I needed to be."

Travel problems notwithstanding, Fulham's foray into Europe - only their second in the club's 131-year history - is a tale of managerial excellence, the growing bond between a group of players and relentless work on the training field.

It all started nine months ago on a scorching summer's day in Lithuania, where the Cottagers beat FK Vetra in the third qualifying round, before moving on to west-central Russia for the qualifying play-off second leg against Amkar Perm.

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And while the victories over Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus and Wolfsburg made the wider football world take note, it was those unheralded early travels that laid the groundwork for the drama that was to follow.

"We've spent a lot of time away from our families and grown closer as a squad," centre-back Chris Smalling told BBC Sport.

"These are people who normally you might only speak to now and again on the training ground but this season we've been on long flights and in hotels together, so you develop a real bond.

"The group stage gave Roy a chance to play a lot of fringe players, so when you get this far in the competition everyone feels a part of the European adventure."

Enormous credit must go to Hodgson, whose shrewd dealings in the transfer market and meticulous planning on and off the pitch have paid dividends.

He not only rejuvenated the likes of Danny Murphy and Simon Davies, but identified unheralded talents such as Brede Hangeland and experienced players who had fallen out of favour at their previous clubs - Mark Schwarzer, Zoltan Gera, Bobby Zamora and Damien Duff to name but four.

Hodgson employs a simple but effective 4-5-1 formation featuring an uncompromising defence, a robust but creative central midfield and two wingers who can both track back and push forward to support lone-striker Zamora in attack.

Bobby Zamora in action against FK Vetra
Fulham's Europa League campaign started on 20 July 2009 in Vilnius

"The right players have certainly been brought to the club," said Hangeland, who helped Fulham to a club-best seventh in the Premier League last season. "The players all buy into what the manager wants to achieve.

"This is a team built on organisation and resilience, the philosophy is about everyone working for the team and trying to limit space for the opposition and their time on the ball.

"We have done so much work on making sure we know our roles and what needs to be done - so much so that I think every player could now write a book on it!"

Over the course of his 34-year managerial career, Hodgson has brought European football to Malmo, Neuchatel Xamax, Blackburn, Viking and now Fulham.

He also led Inter Milan to the 1997 Uefa Cup final and constructed the side that Luigi Simoni took one step further a year later.

"Roy is one of the best managers around," said 20-year-old Smalling, who will join Manchester United this summer after impressing Sir Alex Ferguson. "He's been to many other countries and his knowledge of European football is second to none.

"That's especially important as you get to the latter stages of the competition because you need someone with a cool head, someone who's been there and done it before. He's passed that on to us and he's been a big, big influence."

Hodgson will hope that influence extends to his players in Hamburg on Thursday, and then in the return leg at Craven Cottage a week later.

His opposite number Bruno Labbadia is currently under intense pressure and the 1983 European Cup winners cannot contemplate missing out on the final at their home stadium.

Knocking out some of the best teams in the competition has given us the belief that we're good enough to beat anyone - now we're one round away from the final and it would be bitterly disappointing if we didn't get there

Fulham defender Chris Smalling

Leading their attack will be former Manchester United hitman Ruud van Nistelrooy, who scored 10 goals in nine games against Fulham during his time in England, but the possible loss of his strike partner Mladen Petric to a groin injury would be a big blow.

And with Saturday's defeat by Mainz ending Hamburg's 12-game unbeaten home record, Fulham will arrive in high spirits - despite the arduous 600-mile drive they were forced to take because of the closure of British airspace after the volcanic ash cloud.

It is all a far cry from the final day of the 2007-08 Premier League season, when Murphy's 76th-minute winner against Portsmouth saved the Cottagers from relegation on goal difference alone.

"This is a new experience for us," said supporter Aitkin. "We know it's probably not going to happen again next season so we've got to enjoy while it lasts.

"We've been to cities and stadiums we never thought we'd see Fulham play in, it's been an unforgettable time.

"Tickets are much more affordable in Europe - Wolfsburg was £20 - and many of us have tried to be economical by sharing cars and hotel rooms wherever possible.

"None of us expected to spend so much money because we never thought Fulham would get this far - but how can you complain about costs when you're in dreamland?"

The experience has been just as rewarding for the players.

"In every round we've managed to surpass expectations and each time you go a step further you become more and more hungry to go all the way," explained Smalling.

"We've already knocked out some of the best teams in the competition and that's given us the belief that we're good enough to beat anyone.

"Now we're one round away from the final and it would be bitterly disappointing if we didn't get there."

Beat Hamburg over two legs and a return to the HSH Nordbank Arena beckons on 12 May.

That would provide a dream finish to what has been a fairytale adventure.



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see also
Hamburg 0-0 Fulham
22 Apr 10 |  Europe
Europa semis get Uefa green light
19 Apr 10 |  Europe
Hamburg and Atletico reach semis
08 Apr 10 |  Europe
Hodgson sees Zamora value rising
08 Apr 10 |  Europe
Wolfsburg 0-1 Fulham (agg 1-3)
08 Apr 10 |  Europe
Fulham 2-1 Wolfsburg
01 Apr 10 |  Europe
Fulham 4-1 Juventus (agg 5-4)
18 Mar 10 |  Europe
Juventus 3-1 Fulham
11 Mar 10 |  Europe
Fulham 3-0 FK Vetra (agg 6-0)
06 Aug 09 |  Europe
FK Vetra 0-3 Fulham
30 Jul 09 |  Europe


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