DANNY MURPHY: Fulham are playing their best football since reaching the Europa League final in 2010

The Fulham team I captained in 2010 remain the last English team outside the Big Six to reach a European final.

We punched above our weight then and they are punching above their weight now. The top six at the start of this weekend featured financial heavyweights Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Newcastle United and Tottenham — and my much smaller former club.

I went back to Craven Cottage to catch up with old friends and celebrate their rebirth under Marco Silva, having been a yo-yo club for 10 years.

Marco Silva has turned Fulham into a competitive Premier League side this season

Marco Silva has turned Fulham into a competitive Premier League side this season

The club is beginning to challenge much bigger sides after years as a yo-yo club

The club is beginning to challenge much bigger sides after years as a yo-yo club

Their last two seasons in the Premier League ended in immediate relegation but there is a different buzz this time. Beat Spurs on Monday night and they’ll go ahead of Antonio Conte’s men, even though some of Tottenham’s substitutes cost more than Fulham’s most expensive player, Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Fulham’s summer recruitment has been clever, having been scattergun in 2018 and lightweight in 2020 — their previous two promotion years.

This time, bingo! Andreas Pereira from Manchester United has been brilliant; bringing quality and energy. Portugal international Joao Palhinha is a steal at £17million (Wolves were also interested in case they lost Ruben Neves). In my opinion Palhinha is better, with more to his game than him. Willian was a shrewd signing: been there, done it. Goalkeeper Bernd Leno has added stability, reminiscent of Mark Schwarzer from my era.

When Fulham appointed Silva, there were skeptics but he’s beginning to gain respect. Even that partisan Geordie Alan Shearer told me how impressed he was with Fulham after their game at Newcastle.

They have made shrewd acquisitions in the transfer market such as Andreas Pereira

They have made shrewd acquisitions in the transfer market such as Andreas Pereira

I’d picked Fulham to go down again but changed my mind after one game. Watching their 2-2 draw against Liverpool, I realized Silva was going to vary Fulham’s tactics and not stick to the formula that dominated the Championship via possession.

Fulham aren’t afraid to use the air power of Mitrovic. They can adapt to different situations. They are good at pressing but can defend the box. Those survivors from the relegation teams have gained from the experience, such as defender Tim Ream, who has been unbelievable this season.

Back at the Cottage, I bumped into Mark Maunders, who has been at the club 25 years from the Mohamed Al-Fayed/Kevin Keegan days. He’s still player care officer and can see similarities in the way former boss Roy Hodgson and Silva work. They are both tracksuit managers who get on the training pitch to develop players.

They create an environment where players can transfer what they’ve learned at bigger clubs. I came to Fulham having dealt with the intensity that came with playing for Liverpool and Tottenham. I saw a difference right away.

Aleksander Mitrovic has been excellent, despite having a penalty disallowed against Newcastle in his last game

It’s a friendly club where all departments work alongside each other at the training ground. It feels less pressurised, the crowd are still passionate but support rather than intimidate if things go wrong.

Any successful team also needs a manager to convey their vision. We had it in Roy. We escaped relegation, then finished seventh, then beat Juventus on the way to reaching the Europa League final, losing late to Atletico Madrid.

Schwarzer sets the tone for the whole team. He was the best keeper I played with, a leader and communicator. He was dedicated to the point of training the day after matches when he didn’t need to. If we’d gone to penalties against Atletico I’d have backed him above their keeper, David de Gea.

The Cottage has a brilliant new stand these days which Fayed’s successor as owner, Shahid Khan, has built, allaying any fears supporters had that the club would move to a different stadium.

Joao Palhinha has also established himself as a key player after joining over the summer

Joao Palhinha has also established himself as a key player after joining over the summer

The capacity isn’t greater than 25,000 but creates a fantastic atmosphere with fans close to the pitch. I was suspended for their famous win against Juventus but the semi-final second leg against Hamburg will always live in my mind.

We drew the first leg 0-0, having driven rather than flown to Germany because of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud, and fell behind. The fans started chanting ‘Stand Up If you Still Believe’ — an anthem they still sing — and we came back to win 2-1.

I’m proud to have assisted with the equalizer for Simon Davies, one of my most notable contributions outside the header against Portsmouth that kept us up. When we got back into the dressing room, I heard Liverpool had lost the other semi-final to Atletico. I was pleased at the time — I didn’t want to come up against my pal Steven Gerrard in a final!

A story that never made the papers happened before the semi-final. Clint Dempsey expected to start but Bobby Zamora declared himself fit so Roy had to break the bad news. Clint was furious and smashed a thick window with his fist — there was blood everywhere and when he came on as sub, his hand needed a covering.

This Fulham side bare comparison to the 2010 side that reached the Europa League final

This Fulham side bare comparison to the 2010 side that reached the Europa League final

Roy’s success saw him lured by Liverpool that summer. Mark Hughes came in but after a Boxing Day defeat by West Ham, Fayed called me to see if the players wanted a change of manager.

I was a big fan of Mark, backed him, and thank goodness nothing happened.

Mark eventually left of his own accord, feeling the budget on offer couldn’t take the team forward. Martin Jol came in, I’d had him at Spurs and felt it wasn’t a good fit because he was better working with young players than senior pros.

The club stalled on new contracts for players like Dempsey, AJ (Andy Johnson) and myself. There was an exodus, Clint and Mousa Dembele went to Spurs and I joined Blackburn in 2013. It was the end of a fantastic period and fans have had to wait until now for another.

They can leapfrog Antonio Conte's Tottenham side into fifth with a win on Monday

They can leapfrog Antonio Conte’s Tottenham side into fifth with a win on Monday

If Liverpool was the club for me from birth, Fulham is my second football home. I was 30 when I signed, knew my strengths and weaknesses, and was comfortable when Roy made me captain. We spoke all the time and sometimes I’d become the messenger for any s**t the lads wanted to get off their chest!

I wasn’t alone in striving for high standards. Damien Duff, Schwarz, AJ were the same. The club built the medical and sport science side; blood tests, hydration tests, supplements by the locker. We weren’t the biggest team but we were professional. Some staff are still there. Like Mark, Tracy in the ticket office has been there 25 years. Chief executive Alistair Mackintosh joined in 2008.

For Fulham to compete, there has to be full collaboration between the manager and other parts of the club. Transfers have to be right in terms of cost, statistics and the player having the right personality. So far all parts are working in tandem. You’ve got to applaud the housekeeping. They have matched Spurs this season, even though they operate in a different area of ​​the transfer market to sign Richarlison, Cristian Romero and Davinson Sanchez.

Mtirovic looks like a real focal point this season but needs to work on his penalties

Mtirovic looks like a real focal point this season but needs to work on his penalties

Khan flew to Portugal to meet Silva before the appointment, so the manager knew he had buy-in from the very top. On the first day, Silva met senior players and together they came up with the in-house rules. It shows clarity, much better than a gimmicky ‘team-bonding day’.

I remember Jol taking us paintballing during a bad spell. It was peeing down with rain and nobody wanted to go. We felt extra training was more necessary.

The 2020 team under then-boss Scott Parker could have stayed up if they had built on a win at Anfield. Their best signings were loanees Mario Lemina and Joachim Andersen but you couldn’t compare their impact with what Palhinha, Pereira, Leno and Willian have done this season.

Mitrovic will again be key against Tottenham tomorrow, even though I could give him some advice on penalty-taking after his slip last week! That’s the third spot-kick he missed this season.

The Serbian striker can even drop deep at times the way Harry Kane does for Spurs

The Serbian striker can even drop deep at times the way Harry Kane does for Spurs

The Serbian striker actually wanted to leave Fulham after the last relegation but they persuaded him to wait until a new manager had come in. And Silva won him round. It probably helped that Silva had tried to sign Mitrovic when at Watford.

Player performances can depend on team style. In the wrong system, Mitrovic can look isolated. At the moment he is a proper focal point and can even drop deep at times the way Harry Kane does at Spurs.

My link with Fulham continued after retiring. My advice was sought on appointing new managers — though not always taken!

Then my media career began, which put ideas of coaching or being a director of football on the back foot. But the Cottage still holds a special place in my heart. I will be there tomorrow night covering the game for radio.

It is huge credit to Fulham that both teams on show will have European ambitions.

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