The Exile

Thursday 29 August 2002

Superb. Magnificent. Unbelievable. I am repeating it to myself, over and over again. Fulham, this club to which I have given my heart and soul for over 50 years, have won a European trophy. It makes you want to sing for sheer joy, run out into the street and tell everyone you meet, share this great night with total strangers.

You have to realise where I am coming from. This is a club I have followed with utter devotion since I was 8 years old. I have seen ups and downs, near misses such as the Cup Final of 1975, promotions and relegations. But this is something different.

We have never even been in a proper European competition before (I discount the Anglo-Italian Cup, which was a bit of a joke). We only got into this one by the skin of our teeth, and most of us thought it would give us a couple of useful warm-up games before the Premiership season started.

Instead it has led us on a magical mystery tour of Europe, a rollercoaster ride through Finland, Greece, France and Italy back to London and our final destiny. I was privileged to be in Bologna when we laid the foundations for Tuesday's success. I wish I had been at Loftus Road to see the job finished.

I had the next best thing. For once I got the technology to work and rode along with Paul and Jim's breathless commentary. I was angered with them as the Italians cynically (but totally predictably) exploited a weak referee in the first half, worried with them when half-time came and it looked as if Bologna were getting the measure of us, and then exulted with them as Junichi Inamoto turned on the style bigtime to see us through.

BBC1 showed the goals (all of them!) at halftime in the Man United match and wonderful they were to behold. I always thought Inamoto was an inspired signing. He could become our man of the season, and I think he should be given free rein to express himself in the Premiership. We had a wee cameo in Bologna, but at Loftus Road we saw the scope of the player and the deadly power he possesses.

It all adds up to something incredible. Our honours list, which up to 1997 featured modest successes such as promotion from Divisions 2 and 3, has suddenly burst into incandescent life with the Division 1 Championship and now an amazing European night of glory.

But of course this is not the end. It is almost a beginning, and on Friday we learn who we will face in the Uefa Cup. Whoever it is, we will go into the tie with confidence, and especially with the knowledge that we are back doing what we love best, scoring goals. There is no finer sight in football than Tigana's Fulham pouring forward on the attack, switching the ball around on the ground and looking to score, score and score again.



Now we must take this high-octane performance into our Premiership season. We stuttered at Middlesbrough last Saturday, but came back with a glorious minute of magic to snatch a vitally important point. As we were beating Bologna, Arsenal were overwhelming West Brom 5-2, and we will go to The Hawthorns on Saturday knowing that they are vulnerable and we can pick up more goals and more points.

But for the next three days, let us simply be happy. I just feel immensely proud of the 14 players (no, heroes) who wore the Fulham shirt against Bologna, and of everyone at this club I love so dearly. Make no mistake about it, this is a significant achievement - many Premiership clubs have never won anything in Europe. And well done Tig for putting Ina, Zat and Fancy on from the start - good selection and it worked.

Whatever next. It is all an amazing dream which started 5 years ago and just goes on and on. The Super Whites, backed by Tigana's Army, are top of the world. And our new Japanese friend has already booked his place in Fulham folklore. If he was big before, Lord knows what headlines he'll produce now.

I can't end without a wee word to my friends in Bologna, who were so kind to my wife and myself two weeks ago. Sorry, guys, but the better team won on the night. We hope you have the best Serie A season ever and get back into Europe - but please tell your players to get there by football, not by conning the referee.

I know they'll be disappointed, but I also know Max, Riccardo, Eddie and the others will be happy for Fulham. If you had told me all those years ago when I started going to the Cottage that one day we would win a European trophy and that our star in the final would be a Japanese player, I would not have believed you. It still feels more like a dream than reality.

Let the dream go on. I never want to wake up.

Roger is always pleased to hear from other fans. You can contact him at roger@smithwalk.demon.co.uk