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Fulham go from laughing stock to serious players

Mullery is pinching himself as Cottagers prepare for their European semi-final

Fulham and their supporters have much to thank Alan Mullery for. Not least for keeping the rain off them at the Hammersmith End for so many years. As the club's brightest young player in the spring of 1964 he was told by the chairman, Tommy Trinder, that Fulham had to accept Tottenham's bid of £72,500 for him because they needed to put a cover on the stand behind one goal. It was not one of the old music-hall veteran's jokes and Mullery reluctantly departed to White Hart Lane for eight years before returning to the Cottage to finish his playing career alongside Bobby Moore in an FA Cup final.

These days, aged 68, he is able to combine affection for both clubs by acting as a hospitality host on matchdays, and this season has been as enjoyable as any. Asked if he is surprised at how well Fulham have performed, he replies: "Not surprised. Shocked." It is a sentiment that may be shared by many fans, as a comfortable mid-table position and an FA Cup quarter-final (ending in defeat by Spurs) have been matched and then superseded by a Europa League semi-final, with a trip to Hamburg for the first leg this Thursday.

For many years there has been something of the vaudeville act about Fulham, not least in chairmen like Trinder, the blunt Yorkshireman Ernie Clay ("don't get angry, get even") and now Mohamed Al Fayed, performing a lap of honour before every home game in his garish shirts, whirling a black-and-white scarf. The day Mullery left for Spurs was not unusual by those standards. Sworn to silence about the transfer while playing his last game at home to Liverpool, he blurted it out to Johnny Haynes at half-time, which led to the manager Bedford Jezzard, who had been told nothing of the move, storming off home before the second half. Fulham, typically, went out and beat Bill Shankly's champions-elect 1-0.

Under Roy Hodgson, however, there is a new seriousness of purpose reflected in results. "When you look back over the years," Mullery says, "they've achieved promotion a few times, but to do what Roy has done in the last two seasons, finishing seventh in the League and the semi-final of the Europa League, beating some of the teams they have, is absolutely magnificent. I sent him a text after they beat Wolfsburg in the quarter-final saying for me he was the manager of the season."

As a hands-on, tracksuit-on coach, Hodgson clearly has to take more credit than many modern managers for his team's success. A majority of his signings, including Mark Schwarzer (free) and Damien Duff (£2.5m) have been outstanding and the transformation in form and confidence achieved with the team's leading scorer Bobby Zamora has been remarkable. The player himself says: "He's as good as any coach out there, he really is top drawer. His organisation has got this team playing."

Mullery, still a Sussex resident since his days as manager of Brighton, watched Zamora threaten club scoring records for the Seagulls, only to suffer at a higher level. "He didn't crack it at Tottenham or West Ham and when he arrived at Fulham he had a pretty awful time, getting a lot of stick. But he's full of confidence now and that's everything. As for Duff, who once cost Chelsea £15m, I don't think I ever saw the lad play a good game at Newcastle but he looks a player again. That all comes down to Roy and his coaching staff."

So, a European semi-final, something Mullery experienced at Tottenham (as captain of the 1972 Uefa Cup winners) but had hardly expected to ever see down by the riverside. "You can't rule anything out now, can you? I must admit I thought when they started out in this competition that the squad would be too small and they would struggle. Then I could see them going out when teams like Roma and Juventus popped up, but they were getting through and competing brilliantly. Now it's a train journey that could end up at a station in the final.

"Hamburg will probably be more difficult than Wolfsburg but the second leg is at home, which is good, and you just never know with Fulham this season. They got to the FA Cup quarter-final and I'm sure they would have done a better job against Portsmouth [in the semi-final] than Tottenham did last week."

His only concern is that supporters' expectations will outstrip the realistic possibilities for a club with a stadium capacity of under 26,000 and little scope for development. "I've said to supporters many times that the main aim for this football club is to stay in the Premier League. If we have good runs in any cups, or Europe, it's a huge bonus. It doesn't put a great deal of pressure on the manager, and I like that very much. The fact is they're doing things now that we simply wouldn't have expected them to."