This time last season Fulham were 14 minutes from relegation when Danny Murphy scored at Portsmouth to keep them up. A year on and the supporters left Craven Cottage chanting, "We're all going on a European tour," as Fulham booked a place in next season's Europa League. Tottenham's defeat at Anfield meant their place was secured regardless of this defeat to an Everton team that looked in very good shape ahead of Saturday's FA Cup final against Chelsea.
The only caveat was the early withdrawals of Phil Neville, their captain, and Steven Pienaar. "They both have a little bit of a hamstring problem," said David Moyes, Everton manager. He added: "Phil's a bit worse. I don't think they'll be struggling [for Wembley] but we'll see how they go during the week." Moyes had fielded his likely FA Cup final XI, with the exception of Marouane Fellaini who was on the bench, teenager Jack Rodwell replacing him in the starting side. A risk? "I don't think so," said Moyes. "I wanted to finish fifth, and for the players to go to the final in good mental condition."
Fulham finished two places behind, seventh being the highest in their history. It has been a remarkable transformation which puts Roy Hodgson alongside Sir Alex Ferguson and Tony Pulis as candidates to be manager of the season.
"I've had a long career and been lucky that quite a few honours have come my way," Hodgson said , "but I'm really proud of the work these guys have done for me this year and will remember this as one of my best seasons. In years to come I'll forget the result of this game, but I won't forget coming to Fulham when they seemed doomed, and a year-and-a-half later qualifying for Europe."
He added: "I'm just a cog in the wheel, it's the players who have done it." Not all Fulham supporters are convinced European football is to be celebrated, given their slim resources, but Hodgson is up for the challenge. "I'm delighted," he said. "For a team like us being in Europe crowns a season. We can look back and say, 'That was a great season, we got into Europe'. It sounds better than, 'That was a great season, we came eighth'.
"We will have to bolster our squad but it's not as if we're guaranteed to play 17 games." As important as squad-strengthening will be holding on to the players he has. Brede Hangeland, who has been such a rock at centre-half, is being linked with a move and Hodgson said: "He knows we love him here and we'll do everything in our power to keep him, but our power cannot be compared to the power of some other clubs."
Hangeland had his hands full yesterday with Louis Saha, the striker hitting the bar in the opening minutes to set the tone for a match Everton largely controlled. The inclusion of Rodwell, composed in possession with an eye for a pass and a great future ahead of him, gave Everton a touch more polish in midfield and they always looked more penetrative.
Equally impressive was the unsung Leon Osman who scored towards the end of each half to earn the points. His first followed a loss of possession by John Pantsil. Pienaar played a neat diagonal pass and Osman ran off Paul Konchesky to walk the ball around Mark Schwarzer and tap in. His second was all his own work, Osman running at and bamboozling Fulham's defence before curling a left-foot shot inside Schwarzer's far post.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Hughes (Smalling, 77), Hangeland, Konchesky; Gera (Dacourt, 72), Murphy, Etuhu, Dempsey; Nevland (Zamora, 68), Kamara. Substitutes not used: Zuberbuhler (gk), Gray, Stoor, Baird.
Everton (4-1-4-1): Howard; Hibbert, Yobo, Lescott, Baines; Neville (Gosling, 75); Osman, Cahill, Rodwell, Pienaar (Vaughan, 85); Saha (Castillo, 78). Substitutes not used: Nash (gk), Jo, Jacobsen, Fellaini.
Referee: M Riley (Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Osman.