After last season’s dramatic escape from relegation, Fulham have had an excellent season so far. Roy Hodgson has clearly vindicated himself as a manager in England. He has a very good reputation outside England, but after a disappointing time at Blackburn he didn’t work here again until he was brought in to save Fulham at the end of 2007.
To put this season in context, Fulham have never finished above ninth in the top flight of English football (including, of course, the pre-Premiership structure). They currently lie in seventh, with four games left to play. Two of the games that are left at home to the teams currently in fifth and sixth – Aston Villa on 9 May and Everton on 24 May (the last day of the season). It’s possible that Fulham overtake both, although pretty unlikely. However, they still stand to qualify for Europe next season if they don’t fall back a place, because Everton will already qualify by dint of being in the FA Cup final.
The UEFA CUP has changed, however, and after the initial qualifying rounds there will be groups of four teams who play each other twice (until this season it was groups of five who play each other once) followed by an 32-team knockout competition. If Fulham finish in seventh, they will face the last two qualifying rounds – played over two legs each, followed by a guaranteed six group games, all to play during the first part of the domestic season. As a reward for a high finish, it is quite a tough challenge. On the other hand, the TV revenue might come in handy and Fulham have not had much success in Europe during their history*, so it is not to be avoided at all costs. If they do finish in seventh or above, it does mean coming ahead of Spurs and West Ham, which is satisfaction enough as far as I can see. If not, eighth would still be a club record and a far cry from last season’s 17th (and only ahead of the relegation places by goal-difference).
Of course, to start off the run in, there’s a nice easy away game to play at Stamford Bridge…
*In 2002, Fulham entered the Inter-Toto Cup, and won to get into the first round of the UEFA Cup for the first time ever. They were knocked out in the third round by Hertha Berlin, abd ended the season at 14th in the Premiership. The only other international honour was as runners up to Middlesbrough in the Anglo-Scottish Cup in 1975.