Fulham kick off Europa League quest with win

LONDON - Fulham kicked off their season with a Europa League qualifier on Thursday at a time of year usually reserved for late drama in the tennis, a leisurely pint in a pub on the banks of the River Thames or a casual stroll on Wimbledon Common.

But the match at Craven Cottage, less than 6 km from where Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova were enjoying a different kind of summer success by reaching the Wimbledon final, left no doubt European club football is almost a never-ending year-round affair.

With Pimms and strawberries and cream still being served up among the aces at Wimbledon, Fulham's first qualifying round, first-leg match against NSI Runavik of the Faroe Islands, which they won 3-0, took place at a time when football used to be in summer hibernation.

But now, just six weeks after Porto beat Braga in last season's Europa League final in Dublin, barely a month since Barcelona beat Manchester United in the Champions League final at Wembley, and six weeks before the start of the Premier League season, European club football has sneaked back into the schedule.

Fulham's new manager Martin Jol, who only took over last week, had no complaints about his side's first game taking place now, but had one eye on what was going on at Wimbledon.

"I hope to get there in the next couple of days and would love to see Andy Murray win the men's title, but I think he has an almost impossible task," said the Dutchman referring to the Briton's semi-final against top-seeded Spaniard Rafa Nadal.

"I was going to go the other day but it was raining."

Coming back to the task at hand, Jol felt he needed a bigger squad if Fulham were to negotiate their way through 23 matches and win the Europa League final in Bucharest next year.

"At least 20 very good players," he smiled, although he refused to complain about the early start to the campaign.

"Most of the other clubs will be playing their first friendlies in the next few days, so it makes no difference," he said.


Runavik, from the village of Nes on the southern tip of the island of Eysturoy, are fourth in the Faroese first division and about 20 fans from the local population of 3,800 came to see what the club's chairwoman Ragnhild Knudsen described as a "great, fun match for the club."

They gave a good account of themselves too with Runavik's shaven-headed Hungarian goalkeeper Andras Gango their man of the match and, although they will almost certainly be eliminated after next week's second leg, they were not disgraced.

Reflecting trends across the continent, Runavik have a multi-national squad with players from Ghana, Georgia, Cameroon and Hungary, but while they never stopping buzzing around in their yellow and black striped shirts, they rarely stung goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer into action.

In reality it was not much more than a pre-season warm-up for a full-strength Fulham side in front of an impressive crowd of 14,910.

To underline the fact that European club football is back - less than a week after the European Under-21 Championships ended in Denmark - the game was one of 25 being played across Europe by the game's lesser lights such as FC Honka of Finland, Qarabag FK of Azerbaijan and Tre Penne of San Marino.

Fulham, who lost the 2010 Europa League Final to Atletico Madrid, qualified for this season's competition as one of three Fair Play winners meaning they began their campaign so early.

Fulham dominated from the start but only took a 1-0 lead into the break thanks to a well-taken 32nd minute curler from Damien Duff.

Gango produced the other real show of quality in the first half with a brilliant tip over the bar to deny Bobby Zamora and in the second half did well to save again from Zamora and Duff.

However, he had no chance with Danny Murphy's penalty on the hour or Andy Johnson's third for Fulham nine minutes later.

The second leg is scheduled for next Thursday in the Faroes with Fulham already looking towards a meeting with Crusaders of Northern Ireland in the second qualifying round next month.

It will still be summer but by then the novelty for the fans, if not their holiday tans, will have already worn off.