As the last Englishman to lead a club into a European final Roy Hodgson would relish the opportunity to take Fulham into the Europa League. However, he is also well aware that the competition’s demands could put an intolerable strain on the club’s slim resources.
The revamped Uefa Cup would entail, for the team finishing seventh in the Premier League, a July 30 start and a putative 18 matches before reaching the May 12 final. Considering nine Fulham players have started at least 30 of their 36 league matches it is clear such an enterprise would mean embarking on a major recruitment programme, or fielding a near-reserve team in Europe.
Hodgson reflections suggested the latter option would be pursued. “Qualifying is not the be-all and end-all for us but it would be nice, not least of all because it means we finish seventh. If we get there, let's be proud of the achievement but then let's not put too much emphasis on being bitterly disappointed if we don't do well. Let's try to get there, and then do the best we can.”
He added: “If it doesn't happen, I'm not going to be terribly disappointed or hard on the players because we are running a little on empty. We've had to use the same players all season and we’re pushing people to their physical limits. Clint Dempsey is looking very tired. It's his heart and his lungs that have taken him through. But we've injuries at the moment and we don't have a vast degree of alternatives.”
The players, he indicated, need their break, whatever the Europa League fixtures. “We come back on July 1 and we couldn't possibly bring them back earlier,” said Hodgson. “We do have this self-made problem having signed an American, an Australian and two Africans who have World Cup qualifiers in June. That's a further complication we have to take into account.”
Hodgson was given a reminder of the perils inherent in this situation by the effervescent performance of Diomansy Kamara. Making his first start of the season he was fouled, by James Milner, for the early penalty Danny Murphy converted, then scored two well-taken goals to quell a Villa revival sparked by Ashley Young’s equalizer.
Kamara has been absent this season after damaging knee ligaments playing for Senegal last summer. He only returned to the first team squad in February. Fortunately for Hodgson Senegal have already been knocked out of World Cup qualifying but John Pantsil’s Ghana are in Sudan on June 20, the same day as Dickson Etuhu’s Nigeria are in Tunisia. Mark Schwarzer’s Australia and Clint Dempsey’s USA also play World Cup qualifiers in June.
It is not just the far-flung internationals who face a long-haul summer. Villa, who look shattered having begun their season in July with the Intertoto Cup, could have several players travelling with England to Kazakhstan in June. They at least do not have to start their Europa League campaign until August 20.
O’Neill refused to use the tiredness of another small squad as an excuse for his team’s poor second half, though he did not deny it was present. “It does take its toll, mentally as well as physically as they are a young side, and that is something we can learn from. We do need more players but it is not just about quantity, you need quality which is hard to come by and costs money.”
*Hodgson managed Internazionale, who lost the 1997 Uefa Cup final to Schalke 04 on penalties seven days after Bobby Robson's Barcelona had defeated Paris St-Germain to win the European Cup-Winners’ Cup.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Gera, Murphy, Etuhu (Dacourt, 86), Dempsey (Gray, 84); Kamara, Nevland (Zamora, 82). Substitutes not used: Zuberbühler (gk), Stoor, Baird, Smalling.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young (Reo-Coker, 63), Knight, Davies, Shorey (Heskey, 63); Milner, Petrov, Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor, Carew. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Sidwell, Delfouneso, Gardner, Clark.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Booked: Fulham Murphy.
Man of the match: Kamara.