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Hughes and Fulham hope to slay one more giant

Fulham’s journey to tonight’s Europa League final against Atletico Madrid has been interesting to say the least. Northern Ireland captain Aaron Hughes lets Stuart McKinley in on the inside story

Nothing has been able to stop Fulham in the Europa League this season. Not last season’s UEFA Cup winners Shakhtar Donetsk, not the mighty Juventus and even the volcanic ash cloud that grounded almost an entire continent couldn’t bring them down.

Euro jackpot: Northern Ireland skipper Aaron Hughes is hoping unfancied Fulham can stun Atletico Madrid in tonight’s Europa League finalThey have been flying high since entering the competition almost ten months ago and no matter what has been thrown at them, Roy Hodgson and his players have refused to be brought down to earth.

The journey which took them from Lithuania last July to this evening’s final in Hamburg against Atletico Madrid has been an epic adventure.

There have been thrills, excitement and no shortage of entertainment, as well a 450 mile journey on a previous visit to tonight’s final venue — thanks to that ash which spewed out of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

Northern Ireland captain Aaron Hughes and his Craven Cottage team-mates have dealt with everything thrown at them and now they stand just 90 minutes away from their amazing efforts being rewarded with the prize of European glory.

“A lot has happened on this run. We travelled a long way for the first couple of rounds and we needed to win our last group game to make sure we got through,” said Hughes.

“We’ve had lots of big games, lots of special nights at the Cottage and it’s been tough, but all along it’s just been about the next game, be it the league, Europa League or a cup game.

“It has been tough playing Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, but we’ve never let it bother us. It’s just been play one then focus on the next one and all along trying to keep on winning.

“I think when we got as far as the quarter-finals we started to think that we’d have as good a chance of winning it as anyone else — and now we really do.”

European football is nothing new to Hughes, indeed it’s part of his make-up as a footballer.

As a raw 17-year-old he made his Newcastle United debut in a Champions League game away to Barcelona and nothing at home or abroad has ever phased him in the 13 years that have passed since then.

Even trailing 4-1 on aggregate to Juve, who went 1-0 up at Craven Cottage after a 3-1 first-leg win, wasn’t enough to panic Hughes or Fulham. They just scored four to win the tie.

Having to go by road and sea to Hamburg for the first-leg of the semi-final also had to be dealt with. A scoreless draw allowing Fulham to win 2-1 at home to make the final.

“Everyone talks about the Juventus game, probably because of the comeback and because it was Juventus, but every game has been different and for me the Shakhtar Donetsk game was the toughest, but it’s not talked about so much,” said Hughes. “It wasn’t ideal that we had to take a 15 or 16 hour journey to get to Hamburg, but we had to do it, there was no other alternative once we were told we had to play the game and we just looked upon it as something else we had to deal with.

“It wasn’t too bad once we got our heads around what we had to do. We got ourselves settled with books, DVDs and things. It didn’t help that we were held back when there was an accident on the road in Germany, but again, that was just something else we had to overcome.”

European victory would bring a great reward for another Fulham journey that started 13 years ago, when Mohamed Al-Fayed bought the club.

The former Harrods owner — he sold the famous London store last week — set his sights on making Fulham a Premier League club within five years when he took over in 1997, with the club in the third tier of English football. He managed it in just four. A win tonight, however, won’t be the end of that journey, just a milestone along the way.

“The chairman wants to take the club forward. He has put a lot into the club and he believes in us,” said Hughes.

“He’ll come into the dressing room after games and say well done. I am sure he is proud that we’re in the final and I hope we can win for him as well as ourselves.

“He’s passionate about his football and he will come and talk to us one-to-one sometimes as well as talking to us as a group, which is nice. We have discount cards for Harrods as well, which is a nice little bonus, but now he’s sold it.”

Belfast Telegraph