What a difference a year makes. This time last season, Fulham Football Club headed into the final fixture in dire straights. A loss would see them tumble into the Championship, perhaps never to rise again. They won that last game, thanks to a Danny Murphy header 14 minutes from the final whistle.
That win, and their superior goal difference, kept them afloat. They would live to fight again in the Premiership—and find themselves on the cusp of Europe this time around.
Manager Roy Hodgson, mastermind of the 2008 rescue act, was now entering his first full year at the helm. There was much to do at a maligned club like Fulham, but he seemed to have the right plan during the summer break.
Fulham lack the spending power of Chelsea or Manchester United. With money hardly at a premium, the signings in summer 2008 were few and far between. Hodgson had to make sure he brought in players who would make an impact.
Andy Johnson, the prolific goal scorer from Everton, and Bobby Zamora, from West Ham, were added in an attempt to give the Fulham attack more bite. Mark Schwarzer was brought over from Middlesbrough to solidify the goalkeeping.
The start of the 2008-2009 season brought a small glimmer of hope, as Fulham managed a 1-0 win against Arsenal at home. Results away from the Cottage were significantly improved—though no games on the road were won in the fall of 2008, seven of the nine games ended in draws.
The addition of Schwarzer turned out to be massive, as his presence in goal led to 11 clean sheets before the end of the year was up. By the end of the season, he would concede just 34 goals—down from 60 the previous season.
As a result of this defensive stability—also due to the Norweigan international Brede Hangeland—the Cottagers found themselves in a rather unusual position. Instead of being mired in the muck of relegation, they were in the top half of the table. All of a sudden, a position in the newly christened Europa League was a possibility.
With a steady string of results in 2009, Fulham kept par for the course. A 1-0 win against Newcastle United in the second-to-last game of the year ensured the Europa League was in sight. A win against Everton, and seventh place was clinched.
That last game didn't go as planned. It became forgettable as Everton stifled Fulham at home, winning 2-0. Fortune was on their side that day, as neighboring club Tottenham, just two points off the pace for seventh place, couldn't muster a win at Anfield.
Spurs' 3-1 loss to Liverpool rendered the Everton game meaningless. Their final haul of 53 points stood up for Fulham's best finish in nine seasons of top flight football.
What Roy Hodgson has done in one season is nothing short of remarkable. To go from a floundering club, rescued last season by goal difference, to qualify for a European spot is sensational. There's no doubt that Hodgson should run away with the Manager of the Year award. It would be heinous to allow another manager near it.
It will be even more interesting to see what happens next year. Can a club like Fulham make a significant run in Europe? Or will Hodgson be conservative and simply trot out a reserve side?
There's nothing wrong with trying to maintain a top 10 finish in the Premier League. After all, with the startling lack of parity in the English top flight, finishing where they have this year is almost the best Fulham fans can ever hope for. With that said, it shouldn't take anything away from their incredible achievement.