I was sitting down this morning contemplating a piece on alleged corruption at Fifa. It was the big news story of the day. Elections are pending for the presidency, as the main challenger to incumbent Blatter suddenly finds the finger of suspicion pointing at him. Just before I hit the keyboard mid-morning - a far bigger story broke. Fulham will be competing in the Europa League again next season! Now that's a story... Bribery inside Fifa? The least surprising headline of the year surely.
We can now give the last 10 months its true perspective. While we supporters are all surrogate managers on a weekly basis, barking our unwanted opinions on performance, tactics and team selection, managers and coaches long in the game take a more pragmatic view. One, they've seen it all before from the inside, and two, if they adopted the hysterical knee-jerk reaction we punters lean toward, they'd all be basket cases inside three months. Stop any pro you're lucky enough to meet and ask him two questions. Does individual abuse from the crowd register? Do you regularly read up match reports? The answer to both will be a resounding NO.
Mark Hughes arrived as Hodgson's successor to a considerable chorus of - if not disapproval - then certainly a fair amount of scepticism. Were we about to adopt Blackburn's less aesthetic long ball style? Would we be 'putting the boot in' to dispel the Whites reputation as a 'soft' touch? Early impressions suggested Sparky certainly seemed to lack the warmth and common touch that endeared us to crinkly old Woy. As the injuries took their toll and our team slipped down the table, Hughes frozen grimace to another winless game led many to question his passion for the club and commitment to Fulham.
Through it all, Hughes defiantly stared down the media and maintained we were a top ten club, and that 'his sides always finish the second half of the season stronger.' The mask slipped imperceptibly - and briefly - midwinter. After an abysmal show at home to Citeh the chairman dropped by to make his displeasure known. Hughes was on a warning.
The nadir came four weeks later with a home loss to bottom club West Ham. Hughes job rested on the remaining holiday fixtures. Against all expectations we snatched our first away win in the mist at Stoke. The players high fives on the final whistle clearly showed the gaffer had not lost the dressing room. A narrow defeat at Spurs to a freak goal was tolerable as the Whites put up a fight, and into January we finally hit our straps with a 3-0 demolition of WBA. Our season, even before Bobby galloped back into the reckoning, was up and running.
So in the final reckoning we have to admit, Mr. Hughes - you were right all along. From January on the side played some delightful attacking football. Glorious goals to enjoy arrived in abundance. The Cottage was rocking, Clint climbed to new heights - the embodiment of sheer guts and application above natural talent. Our defence repelled all comers. And so we climbed the table, the away monkey banished from our backs, to finish a praiseworthy 8th.
Now as our manager is called to the head's office on the last day of term his report is handed over with a flourish and a large gold star. Qualification for the Europa League! Who can forsee what our second excursion into the competition will bring. This time round it's going to need 23 matches to win the damn thing next May in Romania (any bets on a Fulham v Birmingham final???). Yes, the squad will barely get 14 days on the sun loungers after the international fixtures at the start of next month, but you're a long time retired. If you're young and a professional footballer it's not such a bad life. One that leaves you financially secure for the rest of your days. And you know the old saying, when you're winning you want to play all the time.
Entry into the Europa League means more game opportunities for the whole squad, no bad thing for a start. Will Gera think twice about leaving? We immediately become a more attractive proposition for transfer targets the club might pursue. Fulham FC benefits from added publicity, additional gate revenues, TV rights and UEFA contributions based on progress. And all down to our Fair Play record across the whole season. I'll take that anyday.
Still got those flags we took to Hamburg? Watch out Europe...Fulham are back!
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