FULHAM EARN EUROPA LEAGUE FAIR PLAY SPOT
The Premier League confirmed on Thursday afternoon that Fulham will be awarded a place in the 2011-12 Europa League through their final Fair Play ranking, giving Clint Dempsey and his teammates another shot at European glory.
"Fulham FC has finished the season as the highest placed club in the 2010/11 Fair Play League that has not already qualified for UEFA competitions via the 2010/11 Barclays Premier League," the Premier League stated in an official press release.
"The club will take the additional European place awarded to England and compete in next season's UEFA Europa League."
The distinction places Fulham in the first qualifying round, which begins on June 30 with a home-and-home series against a yet to be determined team.
UEFA awards additional places in the competition to the three countries placing highest in their own Fair Play ranking for European games, which this season were Norway, England and Sweden.
These places typically favor the Scandinavian leagues, with at least one team from Denmark, Sweden, Norway or Finland earning their place in Europe through this route during the four seasons in which it has been in place.
Only two of the previous nine teams entering Europe through Fair Play have advanced to the group stage, both in the 2008-09 UEFA Cup where Hertha Berlin were eventually knocked out at the group stage while Manchester City advanced all the way to the quarterfinals before losing on aggregate to Hamburg.
There was some question as to whether a red card by Zoltan Gera in Fulham's final league game against Arsenal last weekend could cost them their spot in favor of Blackpool who were just behind them in the Premier League's rankings. This would have given England the comical situation of having two teams who had been relegated to the Championship set to represent the country in Europe, as Birmingham had already booked their spot thanks to their League Cup win.
Fulham, however, have a much higher European pedigree than either of the two Championship-bound clubs, having memorably reached the 2010 Europa Cup final in a run which saw Dempsey and Bobby Zamora regularly put in star performances.
The early entry into the competition means that Fulham's players will have a very short break, as the first qualifying round is set to be contested over two legs occurring already on June 30 and July 7.
Since practically every other team placed in the first round of qualification is a relative minnow as compared to the London-based squad, chances are this will allow head coach Mark Hughes to field largely b-team lineups in the early rounds.
This, combined with a widely expected June 26 date in the Gold Cup final for Dempsey means that he will in all likelihood not take part until later qualifying rounds, should the Cottagers manage to reach them.
This could open the door for Fulham's other American Eddie Johnson to see some playing time to try to show his worth to potential suitors as the summer transfer window opens, should he still be signed to to the team at this time.
They will find out their first- and potential second-round opponents in the June 20 draw, which could give them a trip as short as the bus ride to Wales to meet The New Saints, or a long expedition east or northwest to face one of the teams from Kazakhstan or Iceland.