LONDON (AFP) – Roy Hodgson believes Fulham's fairy tale run to the Europa League final should be acknowledged as the one of the best achievements by an English team in recent memory.
After coming from behind to defeat Hamburg 2-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals, Hodgson's club will play in a European final for the first time in their 131-year history when they face Atletico Madrid on May 12.
The unfashionable Premier League outfit looked to be on their way out with 21 minutes to play in the second leg at Craven Cottage on Thursday as they laboured to recover from Mladen Petric's first half goal and the loss of Bobby Zamora to injury.
But the Cottagers have delivered some remarkable performances in Europe this season and once again they defied the odds thanks to two goals in seven minutes from Simon Davies and then Zoltan Gera.
|Fulham's defender Brede Hangeland (2nd R) runs after the ball pursued by Hamburg's striker Ruud van Nistelrooy (R) during their UEFA Europa League, semi-final 2nd leg football match at Craven Cottage in London on April 29, 2010. AFP PHOTO|
Just two years after avoiding relegation from the Premier League with a win at Portsmouth on the last day of the season, Hodgson has led his team into uncharted territory.
A magical journey which started way back in July has now seen Fulham overcome holders Shakhtar Donetsk, Italian giants Juventus, German champions Wolfsburg and now Hamburg, who had the extra motivation of knowing the final was to be played at their own Nordbank Arena stadium.
It is undoubtedly the feelgood story of the season and Hodgson insists it is just as significant a feat as any success enjoyed by the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea.
"The club has had some bad times and we have looked into the abyss a few times," Hodgson said.
"I think everyone is pretty proud we will start our 10th Premier League campaign next season but to reach the Europa League final, I don't care if you are Fulham or one of in the top four in the country, I think that is an achievement to be acknowledged.
"We are in the final because we have played very well in every round and knocked out some very good teams, none more than Hamburg who are one of the biggest European teams of all time.
"I can only enjoy the moment and ensure the players don't have any credit for their achievement deflected off them."
While his players will rightly be lauded for their feats, Hodgson deserves tremendous credit for the way he has transformed a threadbare squad into one of the most well-organised units in England.
Several bigger clubs will be casting envious glances at Fulham's success and it would be no surprise if Hodgson found himself linked with higher-profile positions - and possibly even the England job - in the near future.
The much-travelled coach has unfinished business in this competition after losing the 1997 final to Schalke when he was in charge of Inter Milan.
But for the moment, he was just savouring this latest milestone.
"It's been a wonderful journey and an achievement as a coach I am really proud of," he said.
"I've been lucky to have some great moments in my career and the next one is always the best.
"When I look back on my career I will think of nights like this when the team has produced better football and results than we are entitled to ask for."
Now the focus will turn to ensuring leading scorer Zamora is fit for the final after he was substituted when the painkilling injection he had taken to numb an Achilles problem finally wore off.
"The injection worked quite well but at the start of the second half he was beginning to feel the effects," Hodgson added.
"Now we have got two weeks to try to get him fit for the final. The problem will exist until he can get more serious treatment but if I can rest him in one or two matches perhaps he will be fit for the final."
Hamburg caretaker boss Ricardo Moniz admitted there was a sombre atmosphere as the reality of missing out on a final on home soil began to sink in.
"It is a sad evening for us but we just didn't do what we needed," he said.
"It was totally quiet. Nobody spoke or blamed each other. Maybe we wanted it too much. But if you lose a game you didn't do well enough and that is that."