Fourteen years ago Fulham finished 85th in the English league set-up, the position currently occupied by Barnet. Tonight they play Juventus, one of European football's most illustrious clubs, in the last 16 of the Europa League.
It is an incredible rise. As Fulham ascended through the divisions their supporters would taunt opposing fans with the chant, "We won't play you any more." It has turned out to be true. A fixture list featuring Gillingham, Brentford and Port Vale has been replaced, this mad March, with matches against Tottenham Hotspur, Juventus and Manchester United.
Rufus Brevett, who was part of Fulham's rise from the third tier to the first, is in Turin, which has seen so much snow that Fulham trained indoors last night, for BBC London. He admits he can scarcely believe why he is here. Shaking his head, he said: "It's madness. Fulham v Juventus. We never imagined Fulham would play matches like this. It's a dream for the fans."
Recalling his move, in 1998, from a QPR side freshly relegated from the Premier League to then Second Division Fulham, Brevett added: "Kevin Keegan [Fulham's manager at the time] rang me up and said, 'I'm calling from the big club around the corner from your little club.' I laughed. He said: 'You can laugh, now, but you won't be laughing at that in a few years' time.' He was right."
Keegan took Fulham up, and was then poached by England. Jean Tigana lifted Fulham into the top flight in 2001. There they have stayed, though that status looked in grave peril when Roy Hodgson arrived two years ago. "I don't think many people at that stage would have given any credence that we could be this far forward in our development," Hodgson said. "One could say what we have done is beyond our dreams, but I am not a dreamer in the first place."
Mohamed al-Fayed is. If his vision when he bought the club in 1997, to make Fulham the "Manchester United of the South", has not quite been achieved, they are enjoying a more golden era than even Johnny Haynes' team knew, with last season's seventh place the club's highest ever.
It surely cannot last, largely because the club are heavily indebted to their 77-year-old owner and unlikely to break even any season soon. At some point there must be a reckoning which is why, indicated Hodgson, this European campaign is so significant, as it widens the support base upon which the club's financial strength is ultimately predicated. "It is an important step in the club's history," he said, "one I hope will provide the stronger foundation clubs like ourselves need to make sure we keep our place in the Premier League, which is where everyone wants and needs to be."
Overturning Juventus would make headlines even if the Old Lady of Turin is a little unsteady on her feet right now. The appointment of former defender Ciro Ferrara as coach this season proved a mistake. Despite signing the Brazilians Diego and Felipe Melo, and the Italian World Cup winners Fabio Grosso and Fabio Cannavaro, Juve were knocked out of the Champions League. At home they trail both Milan clubs and, embarrassingly, Roma, who are coached by the former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri, whom Juve fired last summer. The Serie A veteran Alberto Zaccheroni has been appointed caretaker to oversee the race with Palermo for the fourth Champions League spot but his reign may be brief as Juve hope to attract Rafael Benitez this summer.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, centre-half Giorgio Chiellini and newly naturalised Brazilian striker Amauri are injured and Felipe Melo is suspended. Nevertheless Zaccheroni can still field an impressive all-international XI spearheaded by Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezuguet. The weak link is probably in goal, where former Arsenal goalkeeper Alex Manninger replaces Buffon.
Fulham are poor travellers with a small, increasingly drained squad. The bookies offer 7-1 against them winning. But while this is just another match for Juventus, one they would rather not be playing (the Europa League being somewhat beneath them), for Fulham, said captain Aaron Hughes, "This is a game which will stand out in the fans' minds for a long time. It's great to play in it."
Juventus (4-3-1-2): Manninger; Zebina, Cannavaro, Legrottaglie, Grosso; Camoranesi, Poulsen, Sissoko; Diego; Trezuguet, Del Piero.
Fulham (4-4-1-1): Schwarzer; Baird, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Duff, Greening, Etuhu, Davies; Gera; Zamora.
Referee: F Meyer (Germany).Reuse content