LONDON // Fulham, languishing in the lowest division of English league football only 13 years ago, marched into the Europa League semi-finals yesterday to keep their Cinderella story on course for a fairy-tale ending. With Liverpool joining the unheralded Londoners in the last four, along with Hamburg SV and Atletico Madrid, Fulham's lack of European pedigree was clear, but they produced an impressive performance to beat VfL Wolfsburg 1-0 and 3-1 on aggregate.
They had beaten Italian aristocrats Juventus 5-4 on aggregate last month to reach the quarter-finals in what will go down as one of the greatest nights in the club's history. Fulham have reached their first European semi-final and will next face another German team, Hamburg, after adding Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg to their list of conquests. "We have played some good teams along the way, we've played consistently well throughout to be honest," captain Danny Murphy told ITV television.
"I'd probably say the Juventus game was something that will live in the memory, to come back against them, but that (against Wolfsburg) was certainly a very good performance, a very mature performance I would say in the bigger scheme of things. "We haven't got great experience in Europe but we looked as though we did tonight. We could have won by more in the end." Fulham, who will not be daunted by taking on former European champions Hamburg in the last four, have never won a domestic honour and lost their only FA Cup final in 1975.
After losing their place in the old first division in 1968, they spent 23 years in the lower divisions before returning to the top flight in 2001. In January 1996, they visited Torquay United to play the team at the bottom of the entire Football League. Fulham were second-last, their lowest position ever, and they lost. A year later, with a new owner in Mohammed al Fayed, they won promotion and the rags to respectability, if not riches, story was well under way.
"It ranks pretty much up there with some other very good evenings in my life. I must say I'm delighted with the performance," declared manager Roy Hodgson. "I think with a little bit more energy, because we spend a lot of energy, we could have actually aggravated the score because we had so many chances towards the end of the game. "But 1-0 is always a good score, especially away from home," added the former Inter Milan and Switzerland manager with a typically modest smile.
"It's nice to make history and I'm just so delighted for the players because they were so determined to give a good account of themselves. "They were gutted by the goal we conceded in the last minute at Craven Cottage after a performance that should have seen us keep a clean sheet and it's fantastic that they've come here and kept a clean sheet today." * Reuters