Expecting the Unexpected

May 16, 2010

In Michael Lewis’s excellent book ‘Moneyball: The art of winning an unfair game’ there is a section that describes the motives behind supporting a perennial underdog rather than a perennial winner. I scoured the book for the exact quote and couldn’t find it, but it goes something along the lines of ‘When you support a big team, the joy comes from expecting to win, when you support an underdog, the joy comes from the unexpected’. This is worth keeping in mind after Fulham’s amazing run to the Europa League final.

Part of the joy of the Hodgson era at Fulham has been the unexpected. The ‘Great Escape’ Season looked to be Fulham’s last in the premier league until Hodgson unexpectedly turned it around in the last few games.  Last season we were treated to the unexpected sight of a Fulham side not shipping goals and eventually reaching the heights of 7th spot and a place in the Europa League. This season has revolved around Fulham’s unexpected run in the Europa League mixed with some enjoyable, but unexpected, home wins (Man Utd and Liverpool to name but two). Ultimately it is the unexpected that has made supporting Fulham over the past 2 1/2 years so damn enjoyable.

The Europa League final in Hamburg may have ended in disappointment but ultimately I think the sense of pride and general enjoyment from the whole competition will overtake any lingering feelings of frustration and unhappiness. I was certainly pretty crushed when Diego Forlan snuck in Athletico Madrids AET winner with little/no time for a Fulham response. The thoughts of a missed chance and the idea that never again would Fulham have such a chance for a major piece of silverware clouded my mind on the oh-so long coach trip back home.

However, if we look at what this competition was all about for Fulham then we get some perspective. Pretty much all of the games up until the semi-final were an adventure where the only thing that mattered was the journey, new experiences and the moments. To me that is what Fulham is all about. If I had wanted to spend my life bathing in the glory of my team I would have chosen a Manchester United or Arsenal to follow not Fulham. Up until the semi-final the enjoyment of something new was driving the Fulham  faithful forward, but this all changed at the semi-final stage. Suddenly it looked as though Fulham might be able to go all of the way. The mood changed completely and I spent the majority of the Hamburg second leg feeling ill and incredibly nervous. Again for the Final the mood was more one of a tense nervousness rather than an enjoyment of the unexpected. We had moved from the motivation of the underdog closer to the motivation of the favourite, not completely by any means, but  certainly closer. This made the subsequent disappointment far more crushing than it ought to have been.

Now when I look back on this competition I am pretty amazed. Putting on a defensive masterclass when knocking out Shakhtar. Beating Juventus 4-1 when Fulham were on the verge of exiting the competition. Outplaying Wolfsburg over two legs. Beating Hamburg in a semi-final of a European competition with the crowd seemingly helping the team to an unforgettable win by creating an unforgettable atmosphere. And of course pushing Athletico Madrid all of the way in a European final. Pride is the only word that can describe Fulham’s achievements. I have never felt as attached to a group of players as the current Fulham squad. I felt more upset for them at the final whistle on Wednesday night than for myself, the club and the other fans combined. Unfortunately the completely unexpected didn’t happen this season, but it came very close to happening and that has been the thrill of supporting Fulham.

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A few comments from my trip to Hamburg. The whole trip was enjoyable despite the result. I feel very lucky to of had the opportunity to support my team in a European final. The atmosphere along the Reeperbahn was fantastic and the Athletico fans were friendly and loud. A personal highlight was the trip to the stadium. I somehow managed to get into the underground at exactly the right time to get an early train to the ground, surrounded by hundreds of others all in a jovial atmosphere. The sound of chanting echoing off of the enclosed spaces of the station and then the train will live long in the memory. Hopefully Fulham will have another chance to visit Hamburg in years to come.

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