After the nerve-shredding final-day drama of the 2007/08 season, few would have predicted what would unfold the following term for Fulham as the Whites finished the campaign in a record-breaking place of seventh to qualify for Europe. Fratton Park seemed like a lifetime ago.
Over the summer of 2008, Roy Hodgson set about revamping his squad for the new campaign. In came two free transfers in the form of Mark Schwarzer from Middlesbrough and Zoltan Gera from West Bromwich Albion. What signings they would turn out to be.
Hot on their heels were Bobby Zamora and John Pantsil from West Ham United, Andrew Johnson from Everton and Dickson Etuhu from Sunderland. Out went Carlos Bocanegra, Tony Warner, Dejan Stefanovic, David Healy and Steven Davis as Hodgson put his stamp on the Whites.
Things didn’t get off to the best start as newly-promoted Hull City came from behind to earn a 2-1 win on the opening day, but a victory over Arsenal in our first home game of the season was a result the Fulham fans savoured.
Bolton Wanderers were dispatched of in SW6 in our next league fixture but a run of five games without a win, which included three defeats, then left supporters fearing another nail-biting campaign.
We returned to winning ways against Wigan Athletic in October at the Cottage before defeat at Goodison Park was followed by a major change in fortunes as the Whites went on a run of nine games undefeated. This included a memorable win over Tottenham Hotspur, a point at Anfield, and a last-gasp draw with Chelsea at home, before West Ham United finally brought us back to earth with a 3-1 victory at Upton Park in mid-January.
The Spurs game proved to be Jimmy Bullard’s last in a Fulham shirt. He hobbled off injured in the first half and was sold shortly afterwards to Hull for £5m. If anything, his departure strengthened Fulham’s resolve. Etuhu and Danny Murphy proved a formidable force in the centre of the park, while Simon Davies and Clint Dempsey were given more licence to roam down the flanks.
Fulham proved increasingly difficult to beat as the season continued. From the end of January, Hodgson’s men defeated the likes of Portsmouth, West Brom, Bolton, Manchester United, Manchester City, Aston Villa and Newcastle United. A European place suddenly looked a possibility.
Fulham’s success was built on hard work and organisation. Schwarzer was the goalkeeper Fulham had been crying out for since the departure of Edwin van der Sar. Indeed, the Australian was named Fulham’s Player of the Season, while Pantsil, Brede Hangeland, Aaron Hughes and Paul Konchesky formed a formidable back four.
Pantsil quickly became a cult hero in SW6. His lung-busting runs down the wings, wild clearances, prayers before kick-off and laps of honour after each home win saw the Fulham fans take him to their hearts.
In midfield, Davies, Etuhu, Murphy and Dempsey were aided by Gera and January loanee Olivier Dacourt, while Johnson, Zamora, Diomansy Kamara and Erik Nevland chipped in with some important goals.
Defeat to Everton on the final day at a sun-drenched Cottage mattered not a jot in the end as the Whites finished with 53 points to claim seventh spot – our highest-ever finish in the top flight. It was a magnificent achievement on its own but even more so when compared to the previous campaign. Then, the Whites had been in deep, deep trouble and in danger of dropping out of the Premier League until Murphy’s intervention at Portsmouth. Now, Europe beckoned - and that would prove to be a memorable campaign in itself.
“To be part of a record-breaking season gives me tremendous pride,” said Hodgson. “Every person at the Club played their part. From the Chairman’s unquestionable support, to the backroom teams in each department, everyone here can reflect with satisfaction that they were part of something special.”
Whites skipper Murphy added: “I feel immense pride. I’m pleased to have been part of a team that has been the most successful in the Club’s history. There are so many players in the team that deserve recognition; it’s hard to go through them all, because everyone added something.”