First of 23?

The new football season starts early for Fulham. A mere 39 days after the last Premiership game of the 2010/11 campaign will see the first match of the 2011/12 Europa League. When Fulham got to the final in 2010, it was the 19th game in Europe. Then, the Whites entered at the third qualifying round. However, this time because the qualification was through the Fair Play place, Fulham have to begin at the very beginning. Should they reach the final again, it would mean 23 games in Europe (on top of 38 Premiership games and at least two more in the Carling and FA Cups).

Today was the draw for the first two of those qualifying rounds. The first opponents for Fulham will be NSI Runavik, from the Faroe Islands. NSI have lost all eight of the matches they’ve played in Europe so far. The first leg will be played at the Cottage on the 30th June, with the away game the following week. Runavik’s ground is not rated for UEFA competitions, so Fulham will play at the national stadium in Torshavn.

Providing that the Faroese don’t cause a massive upset, the second round games will be against Crusaders from Northern Ireland. The away game in Belfast (on a plastic pitch!?!) on the 14th Julyand the home leg by the Thames on the 21st. Crusaders have a slightly better record in Europe than NSI Runavik, having won one, drawn four and lost fifteen. Still, they’ve never progressed beyond the round they entered.

As lowly as these teams are,  these four games are not trivial. After reaching the final lat time out, it would be highly embarrassing to be knocked out by minnows before we get to the stage we started at in 2009/10. But they are games that Fulham should win with the squad they have, even if not all of the first team are available.

The new manager, Martin Jol, has only just officially started his job. When Mark Hughes announced his resignation I was worried that the timing was awful. I still can’t see why he went – if he was intending to go for the Villa job it was not going to be much different in terms of a task to Fulham, and without European football. I heard rumours that he was angling for a role at Chelsea, perhaps as assistant to a bigger name. But Jol is an excellent appointment. He did well at Spurs, getting them to 5th place two seasons in a row and was unfairly sacked to make way for the disastrous Juande Ramos. He was first choice to replace Roy Hodgson last summer, but Ajax would not let him leave, so Fulham went with Mark Hughes. Jol resigned from Ajax in November – probably a pre-emptive resignation given their form at the time – and apparently Fulham had been keeping in touch since.

Hopefully, Jol will have time to get to know the team, and will be able to continue where Hughes left off. Friendly games may have been a better run-in for a new manager, but perhaps these qualifiers will concentrate minds over the next few weeks.

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