Fulham 4 Crusaders 0 (Fulham win 7-1 on aggregate): The party is over but it was fun while it lasted.
The floodgates opened by the Thames last night and at Craven Cottage you could hear the roof coming down on Crusaders’ short but sweet Europa League adventure.
After struggling to turn on the style at Seaview, the Premier League side showed little mercy in the return leg of this second qualifying round battle.
Martin Jol’s men, never in danger of underestimating the Crues after the first instalment of this glamour tie for the underdogs, cut through the Hatchemen at times with a ruthless, professional approach.
Of course, not even the most deluded or optimistic Crusaders supporter would have predicted a win over the Cottagers so the 420 visiting fans in the Johnny Haynes Stand weren’t going to let anything ruin their party mood.
The part-time players, not familiar with the task of wrestling with World Cup and international stars, return to north Belfast with their heads held high and dreams of doing it all again.
The 2010 Europa League finalists, boasting a healthy 3-1 lead from the first leg, showed a distinct lack of complacency in front of the 15,676 crowd but the Shore Road side battled hard in west London.
Fulham led only 1-0 at the break through Andy Johnson’s 19th minute strike but they cut loose after the interval with goals from Damien Duff, Bobby Zamora and Steve Sidwell.
Northern Ireland skipper Aaron Hughes fulfilled a right-back role as Chris Baird dropped to the bench with former Liverpool full-back John Arne Riise making his debut after joining from Roma.
Crues boss Stephen Baxter handed Ciaran Gargan a starting slot on the left, with David McMaster dropping to the bench.
Rather than showing signs of nerves, the visitors producing the first shot in anger when Stuart Dallas cleared the crossbar with a drive from just outside the area.
The hosts broke down Crusaders’ resistance in the 19th minute and it was a sweet move. Duff’s cross was dummied by Zamora and Johnson skipped past Stephen McBride before slotting the ball low past Sean O’Neill from 10 yards.
But Crusaders, wearing their blue strip, held their nerve and even came close to conjuring up an equaliser on 35 minutes, Gargan’s left wing cross flicked over the crossbar by Timmy Adamson.
The Crues rode their luck four minutes before the break when Sidwell dragged his shot wide of the target while well placed.
Sidwell was guilty of another miss at the start of the second half as his downward header went narrowly wide. Philippe Senderos also missed the chance to net when he nodded the ball straight at O’Neill from close range.
But on 56 minutes Senderos made up for his glaring error by sliding through a perfectly timed pass for Duff who beat the offside trap and David Magowan’s last ditch tackle to poke a low angled drive into the bottom corner of the net.
Fulham were now getting into the groove and on 65 minutes it was 3-0. This time Johnson’s cross was dummied by Duff and Zamo
ra curled a sweet strike past O’Neill. Five minutes later the Crues defence was hesitant again as Sidwell dived low to head in Duff’s corner from close range.
As expected, Fulham march on in Europe without too much stress but Crusaders’ performances hint at another successful season.
Supporters and players have placed the club in a very positive light following this remarkable chapter in its history.
And they can dream, if at full strength, Crusaders would have beaten Fulham!
FULHAM: Schwarzer, Hughes, Hangeland, Senderos, Briggs, Duff, Murphy, Sidwell, John Arne Riise, Zamora, Andrew Johnson. Subs: Etheridge, Kelly, Baird, Bjorn Helge Riise, Etuhu, Frei, Trotter.
CRUSADERS: O'Neill, McKeown, Magowan, Leeman, McBride, Gargan, McCann, Watson, Dallas, Adamson, Owens. Subs: Murphy, Rainey, McMaster, Halliday, Gibson, Faulkner, Roy.
Referee: Marios Stamatis (Cyprus)