Accidental hero looks for happy ending to Fulham fairytale

Roy Hodgson will become one of Europe's most wanted men if he steers the Cottagers to the most unlikely of triumphs on Wednesday

He has managed in a World Cup and taken two clubs to the finals of European competitions – feats that are beyond the scope of the vast majority of coaches – but Roy Hodgson gives the impression that his success has been some sort of accident. Given that his World Cup, with Switzerland, was in 1994 and the finals have been 13 years apart, you may actually believe Fulham's manager.

If sheer, naked ambition has marked out the career of Jose Mourinho, who has reached this season's Champions' League final, then Hodgson admits that it has been markedly lacking from his work. Yet, despite it all, he will be in Hamburg's Nordbank Arena on Wednesday hoping to guide his club to victory against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League, in what is Fulham's first ever European final.

"Whenever I leave a job," the man who joined the apparently relegation-doomed Cottagers in late 2007, says, "I have a tremendous tendency – and it's probably not always been intelligent of me – to jump at the first job that comes my way that sounds half-decent and interesting and sounds like an interesting experience.

"I jump at it without thinking: 'how does this affect my position on the ladder?' If I'd been a bit more cynical – if I'd thought 'I'm at Inter, or at Blackburn having just left Inter, my position on the ladder is X, I definitely don't want to lose my position' and if I wanted to go higher – I wouldn't have taken the job at Grasshoppers [in 1999].

"I haven't regretted it. That's the strange thing; maybe I should have done. I don't know. They've been good experiences. The United Arab Emirates was a very good experience. I had no notion of the Arab world before I went there. I would like to think I'm better for it. But, if you're thinking that as a coach you should always be looking to take a step up, I haven't done that. I've gone sideways, backwards and upwards again. If you were to do a graph of my career it would look like a Kandinsky painting." Pretty wild, in other words.

You see what he means when you consider what happened after four years in the ascendancy, first due to his work with Switzerland, then with Internazionale of Milan in reaching the 1997 Uefa Cup [they lost on penalties in the two-legged final to Schalke 04], before he moved to Blackburn Rovers that summer, and took them into the Uefa Cup as well. However, he was sacked by Rovers in late 1998 as things went off the rails and they were on course for relegation.

Then came his ambition-free years: Grasshoppers [of Zurich], the UAE, FC Copenhagen, Viking Stavanger of Norway, and then the Finland national team. Scandinavia – Sweden to be precise – was where he had started his coaching career, in 1976.

That high watermark with Inter did not lead Hodgson to thinking he was any sort of Special One. He says: "When I reached the final with Inter my next thought was not: 'how can I reach my next final?' I was just anxious to keep working in football and take what jobs came my way. Most of my career, with the one very obvious, glorious exception of Inter, has not been with the types of clubs who get to European finals. At FC Copenhagen, they had never won the league, so doing that was enough for them – they didn't think, 'let's get Hodgson, we'll be in the final next year'."

Fulham were not thinking that either when they made their surprise appointment at the end of 2007. Lawrie Sanchez had failed to arrest the slide that started under Chris Coleman and the club turned to the man from Croydon who was available and willing to work in his home country again.

It seemed like the impossible job, with the club's eternal inability to compete in the transfer market seemingly pointing to an end to seven years in the top flight. Yet come the end of the 2007-08 season, Hodgson had rallied his players to give them a smidgen of hope. With three games to go and needing to win every one of them, they were 2-0 down away against Manchester City with 20 minutes remaining and won 3-2. On the final day, away against Portsmouth, Danny Murphy scored the winning goal that kept them up on goal difference from Reading.

"I didn't have any expectations of him when he arrived. We just had to keep our Premier League status when he arrived," says centre-half Aaron Hughes. "Maybe that was the beginning of this journey. The first or second day Roy came in, he set out his stall. The work started as soon as he came in, then it took effect just in time."

That game against City also served as a template for arguably the key point in Fulham's European adventure, and proof of how effectively Hodgson has drummed his methods into his players. Having lost the first-leg game against Juventus 3-1, then conceded an early away goal, the side from south-west London clambered back to win 5-4 on aggregate in an epic night that might not be surpassed for drama, even if they win against Atletico.

Hughes says: "The lack of panic sticks out more than anything else from that City game. Against Juve we stuck to what we do in training, it's got us success. We had to keep going. In the Hamburg game we stuck to things, even when we went behind, which is a big reason why we've got this far. If we fall behind against Atletico, we'll just keep going."

Zoltan Gera, one of Hodgson's several canny signings who scored the winner against Hamburg in the semi-final, has his own concise take on his manager's methods. The Hungary forward says: "When I wake up in the middle of the night I know where I need to run in games."

Brede Hangeland, who has been key at the back alongside Hughes, first worked with Hodgson at Viking and puts all the club's success down to the 62-year-old manager.

The Norway defender says: "I hope he will stay for a long time. He's a great manager and we all enjoy working with him. He's the main reason why we've come from battling relegation to a European cup final. It's a bit of a fairytale. And it's mostly down to him. You could probably write a book about why he's special."

Hodgson, who will have doubts over the fitness of Damien Duff and their top scorer, Bobby Zamora, right up until the final, deflects all such generosity directed at him. This is despite an achievement, in underdog terms, that has possibly only been matched in the last 20 years or so by Alaves, of Spain, who reached the 2001 Uefa Cup final, or Mechelen of Belgium, who won the 1988 Cup-Winners' Cup final.

Hodgson's view is that fans come to games to watch players not coaches. Or, as he put it, while sitting next to his director of communications: "If Sarah asked me to the cinema – which she's very unlikely to do, but if she did – I'd be asking which film will we see, then who's in it? I don't think I'd ask who directed it. I'd be very unlikely to do that. It would interest me a damn sight more what it is and who's in it."

There have been rumours Liverpool might move for Hodgson should Rafael Benitez shuffle off, although his last decade in football suggests that would be anathema to him. He also says he is happy and under contract at the Cottage. Yet regardless of the result on Wednesday, a trip to the movies is unlikely to be the best offer he will receive this summer.

Fulham's Europa League miracle

Third qualifying round 30 July and 6 August 2009: Beat Vetra Vilnius 3-0 (a) and 3-0 (h) – won 6-0 on aggregate

Strikes from Bobby Zamora, Danny Murphy and Seol Ki-Hyon made the return leg a formality. At Craven Cottage Andy Johnson with two and Dickson Etuhu were on the mark.

Play-off round 20 and 27 August: Beat Amkar Perm 3-1 (h) and lost 1-0 (a) – won 3-2 on aggregate

Goals from Johnson, Zamora and Clint Dempsey were enough at home against the Russians, and the second leg was safely negotiated, bar a strike in the final seconds.

Group Stage 17 September: Drew with CSKA Sofia 1-1 (a)

In Bulgaria, Diomansy Kamara scored only three minutes after Fulham had gone behind, although CSKA were to prove the weakest team in the group.

1 October: Beat Basle 1-0 (h)

Against the Swiss, Murphy scored to maintain good progress in the group.

22 October: Drew with Roma 1-1 (h)

The first real test in this campaign and Brede Hangeland thought he had secured a famous victory only to be denied in the last minute.

5 November: Lost to Roma 2-1 (a)

In the Stadio Olimpico, Kamara gave the visitors the lead but Paul Konchesky and Erik Nevland were sent off. Claudio Ranieri's men won with a strike from Stefano Okaka, who joined Fulham in January.

3 December: Beat CSKA Sofia 1-0 (h)

Victory was imperative against the Bulgarians, and Zoltan Gera obliged with his first-half strike.

16 December: Beat Basle 3-2 (a)

Fulham had to win. Two goals from Zamora before half-time put them on their way and Gera made sure, despite two late Basle strikes.

Round of last 32 18 and 25 February 2010: Beat Shakhtar Donetsk 2-1 (h) and drew 1-1 (a) – won 3-2 on aggregate

Back to knock-out ties and against last season's Uefa Cup-winners. Gera and Zamora got the goals at home and Hangeland's away strike sealed victory.

Last 16: 11 and 18 March: Lost to Juventus 3-1 (a) and beat them 4-1 (h) – won 5-4 on aggregate

Etuhu's first-leg goal in Turin gave Fulham hope. They conceded early at home but went on the rampage, with Gera getting two, Zamora one and Dempsey's winner sending the Cottage into ecstasy.

Quarter-final 1 and 8 April: Beat Wolfsburg 2-1 (h) and 1-0 (a) – won 3-1 on aggregate

Against the German champions, Zamora and Damien Duff set up the second leg, which Zamora wrapped up with a strike after 20 seconds.

Semi-final 22 and 29 April: Drew with Hamburg 0-0 (a) and won 2-1 (h) – won 2-1 on aggregate

After a stoic first leg from Fulham, Hamburg took the lead in London. However, the hosts recovered through Simon Davies before Gera, 14 minutes from time, completed the Cottagers' remarkable journey to the final.

Conrad Leach

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