Fulham aren’t a big club. For most of their existence, they’ve lived in the shadow of their more glamorous neighbours Chelsea. The two sides even share a postcode. But in 2009-10, Fulham enjoyed one of the most remarkable European runs in living memory, playing 18 games to reach the Europa League final, overcoming questionable refereeing, an Icelandic volcano and the might of Juventus on the way. As it turned out, they were finally undone in Hamburg by a Diego Forlán goal in the last few minutes of extra-time. But the journey there was remarkable enough for a side that had only escaped relegation from the Premier League on the final day two seasons previously.

The run to the final had started more than nine months earlier as Fulham began their first European campaign in seven years against Lithuania’s FK Vėtra. The third qualifying round first leg was played on 30 July 2009 – just under two weeks before the opening weekend of the new Premier League campaign. Twelve months prior, Roy Hodgson’s side had miraculously avoided the drop into the Championship when Danny Murphy’s header with 14 minutes of the season remaining secured a 1-0 win at Portsmouth – their third victory in a row. A year on, despite a 2-0 loss to Everton on the final day, Tottenham’s defeat to Liverpool ensured Europe awaited Fulham in the rebranded Uefa Cup.

“I can still remember everything about that run to the final,” said Chris Baird, who played 16 times in the competition for Fulham that season. “From the very first qualification round against FK Vėtra, I can still recall every game and every result. We never expected to get that far. It was the most enjoyable season of my career. We played 63 games in total and I played 52 of those. It was non-stop, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, for a long, long time, but it was really enjoyable.”

Bobby Zamora inspired a 3-0 victory in hot and sticky conditions against Vėtra, who had finished third in the A Lyga the previous season. For Zamora, it was the perfect response to a section of Fulham fans and members of the media who had criticised his tally of just four goals the previous term. A week before the Vėtra game, Fulham had agreed a £5million deal with Hull for the striker, only for Zamora to turn the move down. “From upstairs maybe the deal for me to go to Hull was good, but Roy didn’t want me to leave and when I said I was staying he was absolutely delighted,” recalled Zamora. “I wanted to prove a few people wrong in that second season and I think I did that.

“My role in the team in my first season at Fulham was one I liked to call a defensive forward. I used to sit on the opposition playmaker, the Paul Scholes type, and make their life hard. 

“When I did get the ball, I had to try and play AJ [Andrew Johnson] in as soon as possible on the break. That takes a lot of energy out of you and you’re also that bit further away from goal. I did my job, the gaffer and players appreciated what I did, but ultimately people look at a piece of paper and see this striker has scored x amount of goals and think it’s not good enough.

“It really didn’t play on my mind. It was more of a big deal for the press and the fans – strikers, goals, blah, blah, blah. Ideally, I’d like to have been up the other end in AJ’s position and ultimately in my second season when he got injured, I ended up being the one up top and Zoltán Gera was the defensive forward. In that position I scored a lot more goals.

“People don’t know the ins and outs of what the manager wants you to do. If I wasn’t doing a good job, then I wouldn’t have been playing. I know, and the team knows, how important the job that I did was. The press didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes and what the tactics were. I just did the job as I was told to do.”

A week after their first-leg victory, Fulham were victorious by the same scoreline at a rain-drenched Craven Cottage as the Cottagers progressed 6-0 on aggregate. That set up a play-off match with Amkar Perm, a Russian side founded just 15 years previously and named after the two main products produced by a fertiliser company. With Hodgson unable to secure a visa to travel to Russia, Fulham had relied on videos of three matches to scout their opponents, but the Whites took just four minutes to go in front through Johnson in the home leg.

Dempsey made it 2-0 in the 51st minute and Zamora added a third with a quarter of an hour left. But a late away goal from Vitaliy Grishin put the dampeners on Fulham’s 3-1 win and added to Hodgson’s anger following an injury to Johnson. The forward was body-checked when clean through in the 62nd minute and suffered a dislocated collarbone. He would be ruled out for eight weeks.

After the disastrous and short-lived reign of Lawrie Sanchez, Fulham had found a new identity under Hodgson. While training sessions could be monotonous, there was no doubting they were productive. “Roy made us such a hard team to play against,” said Baird. “We never really had any massive players in the squad. We were just a really organised, hard-working, hard-to-beat team with good players. That was all down to Roy.”

Zamora agreed: “Roy was brilliant. He was very hands on, but at the time we didn’t appreciate the training sessions he did. They were so regimented. We did pretty much the same thing every single day and we used to beg him for a bit of five-a-side or some fun!

“We didn’t realise what he was doing was so beneficial to us. I probably could have played any position in that team because we all understood everyone else’s jobs. I understood what the left-back had to do, where the central midfielders were supposed to be and so on. It was a well-oiled machine and that’s why we did extremely well.”

Murphy, the captain, is clear about the importance of Hodgson. “Roy and his staff were the ones that gave us the freedom and organisation to play better football and get results,” he said. “He also possessed the calmness and leadership qualities you need.”

Despite being without the injured Murphy, Zamora, Paul Konchesky and Johnson, Fulham secured their place in the group stage, but only after enduring an unpleasant welcome and a late scare against Amkar in the second leg. Amkar fans greeted Fulham at Perm airport dressed as grim reapers and with a banner showing a line of graves, one bearing the name of Johnson. One local explained the unmarked tombs were supposed to signify that the rest of the Fulham side would suffer the same fate as striker Johnson. The club president Valery Chuprakov apologised. “Unfortunately,” he said, “pseudo Amkar fans showed a very peculiar way to interpret the laws of the Ural hospitality and decided to behave in such a dubious way. We are categorically against such behaviour and we apologise to management, staff and players of Fulham.”

After Martin Kushev had grabbed a deserved goal in the 90th minute, the substitute Nikolai Zhilyaev could have pinched an away-goals victory but blasted over the bar from eight yards with the last kick of the game.

Fulham were drawn in Group E alongside CSKA Sofia, Roma and Basel. They began in Bulgaria. The 44,000-seat national arena was preferred over CSKA’s Bulgarian Army Stadium, despite the state of the pitch, which had been damaged when Madonna had taken her Sticky and Sweet world tour to Sofia that August. The end Fulham attacked in the first half was churned up and dotted with muddy patches before play had even begun. The hosts took the lead when the substitute Michel lashed home from 20 yards, but Diomansy Kamara levelled soon after and it finished 1-1.

Hodgson was adamant Fulham were not neglecting the competition but he had made nine changes from the side that had beaten Everton 2-1 in the Premier League the previous weekend. Simon Davies started a first match in nearly five months after being sidelined with a foot injury while the 19-year-old Chris Smalling made his full debut, just over a year after joining the Whites from non-League Maidstone. Kamara had not been allowed to join Newcastle on loan as Hodgson wanted to use him in Europe.

In the next game, Murphy gained revenge on Basel – seven years after the Swiss club had knocked his Liverpool team out of the Champions League. The Fulham captain settled a lively encounter with a second-half shot from the edge of the box. It was the Whites’  only effort on target but enough to move them top of Group E. 

Murphy insisted the victory proved wrong the critics who claimed Fulham had no interest in the Europa League. “People talked about the Premier League being the priority but our desperation to stay in the competition was there for all to see,” he said.

Brede Hangeland remains of the same view: “The Europa League gave players and fans alike an opportunity to experience new oppositions and arenas. If you play together more often and are challenged in different ways, you will improve, as was clearly the case with our team that season.”

Then came Roma at the Cottage. Fulham took the lead when Hangeland headed home from six yards, but Roma improved after the break and earned a penalty following a foul by Stephen Kelly. There was confusion as Hangeland was wrongly red-carded before the referee eventually sent off Kelly, but Jérémy Ménez saw his spot-kick saved by Mark Schwarzer. A last-minute volley from Marco Andreolli earned Claudio Ranieri’s side a point.

Hangeland had joined the Whites in January 2008 as Hodgson’s first signing, helping Fulham achieve Premier League survival against the odds. The Norwegian centre-back went on to make 272 appearances for Fulham and few players in the club’s modern era are held in as high esteem. “When I joined Fulham there was really no way I could imagine all the games and adventures I eventually went on to experience,” he says. “I feel fortunate to have been part of some great teams and a fantastic football club for that long. Looking back on my career as a footballer, my time with Fulham stands out as the best for me.”

Hangeland would form one of the strongest central defensive pairings Fulham had ever known, linking up with Aaron Hughes to create the ‘Thames Barrier’. “What was the secret to our partnership? First, you have to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Hangeland said. “Try to establish consistency in terms of being injury-free and get picked together on a regular basis. And gain a similar level of understanding of how to play and of the manager’s philosophy.” 

For Hughes, who made 250 appearances in six and a half years at Fulham, balance was the key. “We just complemented each other in defence,” he said. “The hours spent on the training ground helped; we were always working on the partnership. It got to the stage where we both knew what the other was thinking on the pitch. It helps when you’re good friends off it as well. Right through the team, there were similar little match-ups and that’s why we did so well.”

Meanwhile, Hodgson, whose Fulham contract was due to expire in the summer of 2010, had rejected advances to coach Sweden and Norway. “Roy was very to the point,” said Hughes. “There was a purpose to his methods that we quickly bought into. His training was very consistent – you knew what you’d be doing pretty much every day – but I never found it boring and we started to see the changes on the pitch.”

The return game in Rome was a fiery affair. Leading through a Kamara penalty, Hodgson’s men went into half-time in control. Within four minutes of the restart, the Dutch official Kevin Blom had changed all that. The dismissal of the Fulham substitute Erik Nevland for a clumsy rather than malicious lunge from behind on Daniele De Rossi changed the course of the match and Group E.

The cruelty of the outcome was compounded by the manner of Roma’s 69th-minute equaliser as John Arne Riise’s shot was deflected into his own net by his younger brother Bjørn Helge. Roma could have won by a handful by the end. As it was, a Stefano Okaka header from a Rodrigo Taddei cross 14 minutes from time sealed a 2-1 win. Blom then reduced Fulham to nine men in added time by sending off Konchesky for a foul, this one on Taddei, which really only warranted a yellow card. “That was the lowest point of my career,” said Nevland. “We lost the game because of it, but luckily it didn't ruin it for the team in the end. I’d never felt so small in all my life. It was a really bad moment.”

The result left Fulham third in the group and, with Basel going well, needing to win both their remaining fixtures to reach the knockout stages. First came CSKA at the beginning of December. The Bulgarians were without their coach Lyuboslav Penev for the first half; he had been banned from leaving the country because of a bank demand for £1m, but at 1.15pm on Wednesday the suspension was lifted and he raced to the airport and then to south-west London. He missed Todor Timonov firing against the bar, Murphy squandering a penalty and Gera heading Fulham into the lead. Numerous chances to extend that advantage were passed up and Fulham were almost punished late on when Damien Duff was forced to clear a Kosta Yanev strike off the line. 

They still had to win away to Basel, who had won all five of their previous European home games that season by two goals or more; Fulham hadn’t won away in the group stage. With the temperature at -5ºC and snow falling, Zamora put Fulham ahead in the 42nd minute and added a second on the stroke of half-time. Alexander Frei pulled one back from the spot after Smalling handled, but Gera then slotted in Fulham’s third. Marco Streller nodded home a late corner to ensure a tense finish but Fulham held on to progress alongside Roma, who won 3-0 at Sofia to finish top of the pool. 

“We’d gone into the competition not really knowing how far we’d go but we took our chances against Basel to progress,” said Kelly. “It was absolutely freezing – probably the coldest game I’ve ever played in. For a club the size of Fulham and where they’d been in the seasons before, it was a momentous occasion.”

Murphy regards the win as a seminal moment. “We went there having to win and put in a really good performance in awful conditions,” he said. “It showed the application and the desire we had in the squad. To go there against a hell of an experienced European side – I’d been there with Liverpool and not won – was pivotal.”

The draw for the round of 32 pitted Fulham against Shakhtar Donetsk. “They had a great team with Brazilian players like Fernandinho and Willian,” said Baird. Shakhtar’s trip to London did not go entirely smoothly, as their players were turned away from Harrod’s, owned by Fulham’s chairman Mohamed Al Fayed, because of the size of their group. “The players decided to increase the earnings of one of London's reputable shops – Harrods,” a Shakhtar statement read. “The footballers, who have money, were certain to leave a big sum. The staff said that the group of customers was too big and suspicious. All of them were wearing similar tracksuits. The players explained this was the football team and were not in the habit of taking tuxedos to the training camp to go shopping. But those explanations were fruitless.”

The first leg, played at a rain-drenched Cottage, saw goals from Gera and Zamora sandwich an Adriano strike as Fulham won 2-1.

Fulham couldn’t lay claim to many glorious European nights in their history, but the shortlist was growing longer and in the second leg they produced a backs-to-the-wall display to seal a 1-1 draw and progression by virtue of a 3-2 aggregate win. The Ukrainians, who had won the competition in its former guise as the Uefa Cup the previous year, dominated in a near-freezing Donetsk before Hangeland headed in Fulham's first chance. Jadson swept home an equaliser from 12 yards and Murphy was sent off for kicking out at Darijo Srna late on, Fulham’s fourth dismissal in Europe that season, but the Whites survived. “They were probably one of the best teams we played against,” said Schwarzer. “The performance away in Ukraine was unbelievable, although Murph made it a bit difficult for us getting sent off. Shakhtar had some brilliant Brazilians, but we hung on.”

Their reward was a last-16 tie against one of the true giants of the world game – Juventus. Hodgson, aware of the magnitude of Fulham’s task, asked his players to try to ensure that Juventus would come to Craven Cottage with the tie still alive, but things quickly went wrong in Turin. Nicola Legrottaglie headed home to silence the 1,800 Fulham supporters in a sparsely populated Olimpico. Things got worse for the visitors when Juve’s right-back Jonathan Zebina struck a cross-shot from 25 yards that flew past Schwarzer. Fulham needed a break and got one when Dickson Etuhu’s effort took a deflection off Legrottaglie’s heels and rolled into the net. Back came Juve, though, and they made it 3-1 in first-half stoppage time at the end of the first half through David Trezeguet.

After the fireworks of the first half, the contest fizzled out. For Fulham the flame was not yet extinguished but their chances of advancing looked slim. They got even thinner when Trezeguet scored after two minutes in the second leg. Nobody could have predicted what was to follow.

Zamora fired the Cottagers level on the night and Fabio Cannavaro’s sending off for a professional foul on Gera in the 26th minute swung the game in Fulham’s favour. Gera’s neat finish put the hosts 2-1 up before the break. Just four minutes after the restart Fulham levelled on aggregate, Gera scoring from the penalty spot after a handball by Diego.

After a lull, Hodgson introduced Clint Dempsey and the American won it with a stunning chip from the edge of the area. A frustrated Zebina then kicked out at Duff to earn a red card. It was an unpleasant moment on which to end the match, but nothing was to deny Fulham their most famous night. “Even when we went 4-1 down on aggregate, I didn’t believe the journey was over, such was our sprit and belief as a team,” said Baird. “I can’t remember exactly what Roy said at half-time, but I’m sure it was something along the lines of, ‘Go out and give it everything you’ve got.’ You know what happened next! The buzz and the thrill of that match is something the players and fans that were involved that night will always share.” 

It was a night that will never be forgotten at Craven Cottage. “This has to be my favourite Fulham game ever,” said Schwarzer. “We didn’t admit defeat, we roared back. An amazing occasion. Phenomenal.”

“This was probably the biggest game in the club’s history in the sense of what we achieved that night,” said Kelly. “To go into the game 3-1 down from the first leg in Turin against Juventus, with the players they have, and then to fall further behind after two minutes at the Cottage… it just makes the comeback even more special. When Trezeguet scored early on, I think that took the shackles off and we just went for it.

“It was just a legendary night in the story of Fulham. The atmosphere was simply breathtaking. I was extremely privileged to have played a part in that game. I was fortunate enough to get Alessandro Del Piero’s jersey and I still have it in pride of place.”

Hangeland had almost missed the game through an injury picked up in the Premier League match at Manchester United the weekend before. “I couldn’t even walk two days prior to the game,” he said. “The medical department pulled off a miracle in getting me ready for the match, and that taught me a very valuable lesson: You cannot ever succeed on your own in life, it’s always a team effort. Always help and appreciate your team - that’s Fulham for you. So much has been said and written about this magical night and looking back I just feel privileged to have been part of it.” 

Time seemed to stand still as Dempsey’s chip floated over Antonio Chimenti. “Getting to the final was amazing but the Juventus match is the stand-out memory for me,” said Murphy, “and to play a part in that was a fantastic experience. To come back and win was incredible.”

Fulham marched into the quarter-final where goals from Zamora and Duff put them 2-0 up in the first leg at home against Wolfsburg. But, just as Fulham were thinking of the semi-final, Alexander Madlung’s late header changed the complexion of the tie ahead of the return leg. But in Germany, Fulham took just 21 seconds to make amends as Zamora, who had passed a fitness test on an Achilles injury shortly before the game, sent a cool finish past Diego Benaglio for his sixth Europa League goal of the season and 19th in total. “I enjoyed that goal,” said Zamora. “It really settled our nerves. Wolfsburg were German champions at the time, so it was a big occasion, but I got us that early lead and we clung on to win.”

Fulham were back in Germany for the first leg of their semi-final, against Hamburg. This time the journey was much, much harder. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull meant flight restrictions across Europe and so Fulham had to make the 595-mile journey by coach and ferry. When they got stuck in a three-hour traffic jam near Bremen, the players wandered up and down the side of the motorway to stretch their legs. But they put in a battling display to draw 0-0, in front of around 2,500 Fulham fans who had made the trip by whatever means they could.

Had it not been for the previous round against Juventus, the home leg against Hamburg would have been the game everybody still talks about now. Mladen Petrić’s stunning first-half free-kick seemed to have put Hamburg on course for a final to be played at their own stadium, particularly when Zamora was forced off soon after half-time with a recurrence of his Achilles injury.

But Simon Davies’ instinctive turn and finish after 69 minutes gave Fulham the first of the two goals they needed, and Gera pounced from close range soon after to cap another memorable night at the famous old ground. “In by Davies, beyond Hangeland, it’s in, from Gera!” Peter Drury screamed on ITV. “How about that! Fantasy Fulham! There’s a tidal wave on the Thames!” 

“Beating Hamburg was a magic moment,” said Schwarzer. “We had a hell of a trip to get over to Germany for the first leg because of the ash cloud issue, so to go and get a 0-0 draw was a big achievement. We went 1-0 down in the second leg but turned it around to win 2-1 on the night and on aggregate. An amazing accomplishment.”

For Hangeland it was a moment of great satisfaction. “The celebrations after the match are moments that will stay with me forever,” he said. “I felt so completely at home and happy with everything on and off the pitch, it was the perfect team in the perfect club. Our journey in the Europa League was my best time in football. A team effort in every way. Discipline and togetherness on the pitch, selfless players, incredible support staff, fantastic management and a very strong bond with our fans.”

And so, it was back to Hamburg for the final, an unthinkable achievement for a club the size of Fulham, whose boss Hodgson had just been named Manager of the Year by a record margin. But it proved a bridge too far. Atlético made the breakthrough their supremacy merited after 32 minutes. There was an element of good fortune about it as Sergio Agüero’s miscued shot was transformed into the perfect pass for the lurking Forlán to steer past Schwarzer from close range.

Fulham reacted well to adversity, fighting back to equalise through Davies. Zamora and then Duff departed as injuries caught up with Fulham and the game drifted into extra-time. The match was heading for penalties when Atlético won it with four minutes left. When Agüero crossed, Forlan flicked the ball goalwards, his effort clipping Hangeland to beat Schwarzer and break Fulham hearts. 

Murphy rues what might have been. “One of the biggest mistakes we made collectively is that we really thought we could win it after the semi-final, no matter what,” he said. “It was a subconscious thing. Don’t get me wrong – we knew we were playing a team with Agüero and Forlán up front. Atlético had some tremendously experienced players.

“We weren’t firing on all cylinders – we had an injured Bobby Zamora and Andy Johnson, and Clint Dempsey had damaged his arm – but we gave it a go. There was nothing between us. We were both tired. I remember talking to one of their guys in the middle of the park during extra-time and he smiled and said, ‘Let’s do pens.’ I still believe to this day that Schwarzer would’ve won us the game on penalties. Losing that final was the biggest disappointment of my career, by a long way. Even more than missing out on the World Cup.”

For the dream to continue Fulham had needed a fully fit Zamora. In the event, and with the aid of yet another pain-killing injection, the forward couldn’t last an hour, although he played a key role in his side’s equalising goal. It was astounding that he was even able to take to the pitch, given he was grimacing with pain every time he touched the ball.

Zamora would be forced to undergo surgery on his Achilles, which also meant he withdrew from the provisional England squad for that summer’s World Cup in South Africa. “Fabio Capello phoned me before the final and said he wanted me to be a part of his squad,” Zamora said. “But I couldn’t train, let alone play. I didn’t want to go to the World Cup and not be able to train as then I wouldn’t be picked to play.

“Looking back now I probably should have just gone for the experience, but I wanted to have an operation and get my Achilles sorted. I did that straight after the final and I didn’t have a problem after that. It was unfortunate it came at a time when we were on a good run, but I was gutted not to be able to perform at my best in the later rounds of the Europa League and also miss out on the World Cup.”

Schwarzer, who made 218 appearances for Fulham in a five-year stint, cut a tearful figure at the final whistle. “We were really unlucky,” he said. “We played against an unbelievable side in Atlético. You’re talking about Sergio Agüero, Diego Forlán, they had David de Gea in goal… They scored two incredibly lucky goals to take the trophy, but I felt that we performed really well. We should at least have gone to penalties and then you never know what might happen.”

But just being there was remarkable enough. “To lose in the way we did, having pushed Atletico so close to a penalty shoot-out, was gutting,” said Baird. “But looking back, the achievement of getting to a Europa League final was truly incredible. It’s an achievement that will never be forgotten.”