Roy Hodgson has enjoyed his fair share of success since beginning his managerial career with a Swedish league title, including leading an unremarkable FC Internazionale Milano side to the 1997 UEFA Cup final. But, he says, nothing is greater than his run to the inaugural UEFA Europa League final with Fulham FC.
"I'd have to say it really matches anything I've ever done," said the 62-year-old. "
Reaching the final with Inter was a great achievement because we had so many injuries, but we didn't really meet the same level of opponents along the way. You know, we met Guingamp, Anderlecht, Sturm Graz, and Monaco: all good teams, but, quite frankly, not Roma, Basel, CSKA Sofia, Shakhtar, Juventus, Wolfsburg, Hamburg. With respect, I think that Inter team would have had a harder job eliminating those."
It is some achievement for a club who were 14 minutes from Premier League relegation two years ago after a fraught first five months at the helm for the former Finland and Switzerland coach. The Lazarus act has been re-enacted a few more times during this UEFA Europa League campaign, only Fulham's second season of European football. "We finished seventh last season after many years of avoiding relegation on either goal difference or by winning a couple of games at the end to lift us out of the bottom three," said Hodgson. "Our aim was to be a much more solid, respected Premier League team and then give it our best shot at every Europa game and see how far we get."
Fulham's mindset switched from 'lets give a good account of ourselves' to 'we can hold our own here' with victory against UEFA Cup holders FC Shakhtar Donetsk in the round of 32. That became 'hold on, we can actually win this' with their remarkable comeback against Juventus in the next stage, Clint Dempsey sealing a four-goal swing with a memorable late chip. "The players really just played so well that day and the crowd was so unbelievably supportive throughout, that we ended up getting a victory that none of us could really have imagined before the game started," continued Hodgson.
There was similar disbelief when Fulham ended Hamburg's ambitions of a final on home soil. Instead, the Cottagers will line up against Spanish side Club Atlético de Madrid. "As we get closer we get more and more excited about it," said Hodgson, who is looking to add to his haul of six Swedish titles, two Swedish Cups and the 2001 Danish championship he won with FC København. "It's been a magnificent season that will live long in the memory. Reaching the final is in itself an achievement, but
I don't think any team would ever get to a final and think 'now we've done enough, we can take our foot of the pedal'. We're going to be as desperate to win the final as we were to win the semi-final."
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