One of two members of the Fulham FC squad to have played in a European final, Mark Schwarzer's experience will prove invaluable when the London club round off their most historic campaign with the UEFA Europa League showpiece against Club Atlético de Madrid.
The goalkeeper was part of the Middlesbrough FC team that competed in successive UEFA Cup seasons from 2004/05, culminating in a 4-0 defeat by Sevilla FC in the 2006 final. En route to Eindhoven, Schwarzer appeared in some memorable matches, notably against FC Basel 1893 and FC Steaua Bucureşti – both times Middlesbrough conceded early in the home second leg but defied the odds by scoring the required four goals to progress.
Nor has drama been in short supply in west London this term. Roy Hodgson's side overturned a 3-1 first-leg loss to Juventus in the round of 16 by winning the return 4-1 at Craven Cottage. Then, after a goalless semi-final opener with final hosts Hamburger SV in Germany, they recovered from shipping an away goal with two strikes in the space of seven second-half minutes.
Throughout Fulham's run to the Hamburg Arena, which has also included the scalps of FC Shakhtar Donetsk and VfL Wolfsburg, Schwarzer has continually drawn upon his Middlesbrough experience. With another final looming on Wednesday, the Australian international will delve into the memory bank once again. "You think back to the times you had before, particularly my times with Middlesbrough," the 37-year-old, who left Teesside for Fulham in summer 2008, told UEFA.com.
"On any given night we could beat any team at home, and that's the way it's run for us this season at Fulham," he added. "The experience you gain in the past, you try to bring forward. You try to use it to help your team-mates along the way, the guys who haven't been in that position."
Fulham's unforgettable night against Juventus is one of the defining moments of a European odyssey which began almost ten months ago with a third qualifying round tie against Lithuania's FK Vėtra. "Those evenings are the sort you've dreamed of," said Schwarzer, who has figured in all but one of Fulham's 18 games in this competition. "You would normally write a movie script about it, but to actually experience it and live it is very special. It's something that will definitely stay with me for the rest of my life, as well as the rest of the players. We'll definitely look back with fond memories."
Defeating the two-time European champions was perhaps the cue for Hodgson's men to dare to dream they could add to the Cottagers' 2002 UEFA Intertoto Cup triumph – the only honour in Fulham's 131-year history. After all, as Schwarzer admits, winning the inaugural UEFA Europa League was the last thing on anyone's mind at the start of the club's second continental campaign.
"At the beginning it was fantastic to be playing in Europe. It was a bit of a journey, a bit of excitement, a challenge, and we thought 'let's enjoy it while it lasts'," he said. "
With each round we progressed through, the self-belief and the confidence grew, not only in the players but also with the fans."
With 14 goals between them, Bobby Zamora and Zoltán Gera have commanded many of the headlines accompanying Fulham's unexpected journey to the final. Schwarzer, though, prefers to champion the collective effort which has taken a team considered rank outsiders to the brink of a fairy-tale achievement. "So far this season the guys have been exceptional – it's very difficult to pick any one individual you would say has outshone the others," he continued.
"Obviously Bobby has scored a lot of goals and that has been a major reason for our success in Europe, as well as in the league. He can turn a game on its head, as can a number of players.
That's the good thing about us – we have a lot of good players but no out-and-out superstars. We are pretty level-headed and everyone gets on extremely well. We fight and pull for one another all the time, all over the pitch."
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