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Life at Fulham just great for Hughes and Hodgson

Fulham Football Club in a European final. Who would ever have thought it?

Not many when almost exactly two years ago they trailed Manchester City 2-0 at half-time and were heading towards relegation to the Championship.

Amazingly the Cottagers turned that one around and a victory over Portsmouth on the final day of the 2007-08 campaign kept them in the Premier League.

Since then it’s been up all the way. Their highest ever league finish last season secured Europa League qualification and a win or score draw at home to German side Hamburg tonight will see them possibly face Liverpool in an all-English final.

Defeating last season’s UEFA Cup winners Shakhtar Donetsk was a big enough result for Fulham, but then they went and pulled off an amazing comeback to knock out Italian giants Juventus.

You could say they are destined to make the final, a clash with Liverpool would be intriguing, but it wouldn’t be entirely English, with Fulham having a strong Northern Ireland influence in their team.

Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird both joined the club when Lawrie Sanchez left his job as Northern Ireland boss, with David Healy and Steve Davis making up a quartet of Ulstermen by the Thames.

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Only Hughes and Baird remain after Davis and Healy were sold on by Roy Hodgson (pictured) when he succeeded Sanchez who lasted just six months in the post.

Hodgson never had much of a playing career. And it was abroad where he made his name as a manager, starting off in Sweden before spells in Switzerland, Italy, Denmark and Norway, as well as managing the Swiss national team plus being in charge of the United Arab Emirates and Finland.

He did have an 18-month spell at Blackburn Rovers, but never really gained recognition in his native country until becoming Fulham boss in January 2008 — and now he’s being tipped as the next England manager!

It’s not hard to see why and guiding unfashionable Fulham to European glory would be his finest moment — and would see him go one better than when Inter Milan lost the 1997 UEFA Cup final to Schalke.

“I think I speak for a lot of the players here when I say the signs were there from when Roy came,” said Cookstown native Hughes. “Straight away we became a lot more organised, more compact and slowly but surely we were began to make more and more progress.

“I was worried when he came in, after I’d been signed by Lawrie. It’s natural that a new manager would want to make changes and a lot of the players that I came in with have now moved on.

“You just don’t know what a new manager’s plans are and he will always want to bring in his own players. It was a concern, but all I could do was what Roy asked and show I could fit into his plans. I’m 30 now and I’ve been in the game a while, but he’s still teaching me new things and I feel like I’m constantly learning.

“In the couple of years that I have worked with him, I have improved more than any other two-year period in my whole career.”

Baird is ruled out of tonight’s game after picking up a second yellow card of the tournament in last week’s scoreless first-leg.

It will be the first European game this season that he’s missed — the positive is that if Fulham reached the final he is guaranteed to be available.

It’s a great turnaround for Baird, who had never really found favour with Hodgson and last season he looked to be on his way out of the club.

“Up until a few months ago I wasn’t even getting in some of the squads, never mind the team, which was hard to take,” admitted the Rasharkin-man.

“At one point I was thinking the time had come to move on.

“I was patient and I have been working hard and I think Roy has made a lot of us better players because he has got all that experience.

“Lawrie was a very quiet man. He would just deal with things with his staff and not come to players and speak to them one-to-one, as much as Roy Hodgson does. Roy would do it every day. He comes out, he shakes your hand, says good morning and all the little things like that.

“It makes a big difference. If you have any problems as well you can speak to him and if you are not doing well he will speak to you.”

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