Mike McCarthy: I knew Roy was a star (almost) from the start

A Fulham fan reflects on his club's incredible journey
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The Independent Football

Keeping a diary is a fairly nerdy thing to do, I suppose, but it has its uses, and in the early hours of Friday 30 April, when the semi-final had been won and the last joyful drunken fan had staggered home over Putney Bridge, I went up to the attic and found my diary volume for 2007. I remembered I had written something down when Roy Hodgson became the Fulham manager, after the previous incumbent Lawrie Sanchez was booted out with the club down among the dead men of the Premier League.

After a spot of page-turning I found the entry. It was for Friday 28 December. It was brief. It said: "Roy Hodgson was appointed manager of Fulham. He won't save them."

But I had a feeling I had written something more a bit later, so I dug out the diary for 2008, and the entry for 1 January said: "Seb [my son, then 11] and I watched Match Of The Day. Fulham were beaten by Chelsea 1-2, after being 1-0 up. It was Hodgson's first match in charge. I heard him speak on MOTD. He struck just exactly the right note, positive but very realistic. He is very intelligent. I think he might be their salvation, even if it takes the long term rather than the short."

Well, no one likes a smartarse, and no one will thank you for informing them how bloody brilliant you were at spotting stardom before it happened, but I offer this account nevertheless as an indication that the special qualities in the man who has taken Fulham from the brink of catastrophe to the Europa League final were visible early on, even to such a footballing dunce as me.

There are two ways of looking at Fulham's European odyssey, which, after the defeat of Hamburg in that semi-final second leg at the Cottage, reaches its climax back in Hamburg's stadium tonight against Atletico Madrid.

One is from Fulham fans' point of view. You don't need words to describe it. A long sequence of exclamation marks will do. Imagine. You have seen your team climb from seemingly certain relegation when Hodgson took over, to snatching Premier League survival in May 2008 on goal difference, by a winning goal scored 10 minutes from the end of the season's last match. Then you have seen your team in the following season finish seventh and qualify for Europe. And then you have seen your team, in the season after that, chew their way through the Europa League in 17 games in eight countries, beginning in Lithuania last July.

Along the way they have despatched Shakhtar Donetsk, last season's Uefa Cup winners, Wolfsburg, the German champions, and on a never-to-be forgotten night at Craven Cottage in March, they hammered Juventus, the great Juve, 4-1. This is Fulham, west London's longtime Premier League makeweights. No wonder they were singing down the Fulham Palace Road, all the way to Putney Bridge.

But the other way of looking at the journey to tonight's final, of course, is to see it as the astonishing personal achievement of Hodgson, the 62-year-old from Croydon who spent most of his career abroad, and who brings an application of intelligence to the game without any of the egotism of Jose Mourinho, the tyranny of Alex Ferguson, or, for that matter, the occasional petulance of Arsène Wenger. Hodgson, fair-minded, generous and clearly kind-hearted, does it with something else, something as rare in football as it is in the rest of modern life. He does it with grace. Yet he still has the steely streak necessary to succeed.

I'm not saying all that was visible at a glance, two-and-a-half years ago, but something of his essence as a character was obvious from the start, and if he wins tonight – a victory that would make him a Fulham legend indeed, right up there with Johnny Haynes – it will be no more than his just reward.

Win or lose, though, it'll definitely be going down in the diary.

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