Celebrating the 4 non-Big Six clubs to reach a European semi since 2000
Fans of West Ham United are eagerly awaiting their Europa League semi-final with Eintracht Frankfurt, having embraced the competition with relish this season – but they’re not the first non-Big Six side to reach this stage in Europe in the 21st century.
While the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United participate in continental competition every season, perhaps taking the edge off from these occasions, the rarity of a European adventure creates a different type of excitement among fans of less successful clubs.
West Ham have already seen off Sevilla and Lyon in the Europa League knockout stages and face their biggest game in decades against Eintracht, with their supporters looking for omens that they’ll succeed.
Four other non-elite English sides have progressed to a European semi-final since 2000 and, while two have suffered defeat, the other pair progressed to the final.
We’ve recalled each of their unforgettable journeys in Europe.
Fulham’s run to the Europa League final in 2010 under Roy Hodgson was truly remarkable, encompassing 19 matches and seeing them triumph against Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk, Wolfsburg and Hamburg.
Never mind that the Cottagers lost the final to a star-studded Atletico Madrid – the side included David de Gea, Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan among others – because their fans were left with memories that’ll warm their hearts till the end of their days.
“We were so unlucky,” goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer told the BBC in 2020. “Both goals involved heavy deflections – but I think after the disappointment people realised we had done something special.
“We had a fantastic manager, but we also had the right group of players with the right mentality and approach.
“Everyone had a common goal to be as successful as we could, to prove all the doubters wrong. We wanted to rewrite the history books and create something special and there was an opportunity.
“Did anyone expect Fulham to get to a European final? No.
“It was dreamland for the fans who had followed the club with such loyalty and I think everyone acknowledged we had something really special.”
Four years prior to Fulham’s heroics, Boro’s march to the 2006 UEFA Cup final was marked by, not one, but two incredible comebacks that instantly entered Teeside folklore.
Having knocked out Roma in the last 16, Middlesbrough were trailing by three goals to Basel in the quarter-final but scored four times on a ravenous night at the Riverside Stadium.
Incredibly, they repeated the feat in the semi-final against Steaua Bucharest. Stewart Downing, who set up all four goals against Steaua, was their star man and their European exploits helped manager Steve McClaren secure the England job.
— Classic Premier League (@_PLFootball) February 16, 2021
“I just thought it was the norm, but now you think how unbelievable it was to do what we did, as a so-called unfashionable club, not one of the big ones,” Downing said last year.
“We just had momentum, that was the big word; we deserved to be there and we were full of confidence.
“We had lads in the box like Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Mark Viduka who thrived off service. That is how we got through a lot of games. Maybe teams just thought: ‘It’s only Middlesbrough, we’ll beat them.'”
Unfortunately for Boro, the final was no contest. In the tight surroundings of the stadium in Eindhoven, the Teessiders were rolled over by Sevilla and suffered a 4-0 defeat. Three of the goals were scored in the final 12 minutes with a tired squad of players having nothing left to give.
“It was one match too far,” Steve McClaren said. “We’d had a backlog of fixtures; we had to play Fulham and Everton and we were on our last legs. Maybe if the FA Cup run hadn’t happened, we’d have had the energy for the final.
“Sevilla were head and shoulders above anyone in that competition. We took risks like before, but we got punished.”
Gareth Southgate retired and replaced McClaren as manager that summer, but Boro were never able to match those heights again. They were relegated in 2009 and have only appeared in the top flight once since.
Didier Drogba would become one of the best strikers in Premier League history but he was a relative unknown on these shores when he destroyed Newcastle’s hopes of UEFA Cup glory in 2004.
A goalless European semi-final first leg at St James Park convinced Newcastle that a final against Valencia could be on the cards – but then Drogba took over.
The future Chelsea legend netted a first-half breakaway opener, before ending the contest by tucking the ball past Shay Given from a neat set-piece routine.
“I don’t want to talk about Marseille no, it does [still hurt],” Darren Ambrose said on talkSPORT in February 2022.
“Newcastle supporters will tell you, the squad we had then we should have won that tournament, and Didier Drogba broke our hearts, I’m telling you.
“I was third penalty taker or fourth penalty taker so I was a bit nervous then and he came on and scored so potentially did me a favour!”
In truth, Newcastle were only in the UEFA Cup because they lost a Champions League play-off to Partizan Belgrade in August 2003.
And the club were disappointed to only finish fifth in the Premier League that season. But the Toon Army relished their European tour and Newcastle knocked out the likes of Basel, a Mallorca side featuring Samuel Eto’o, and PSV Eindhoven en route to the semis.
Bar runs to the quarter-finals in 2005 and 2013, Newcastle haven’t made such an impact in Europe since and a similar run in the future would surely be met with immense enthusiasm by a success-starved fanbase.
🤩 D R O G B A 🤩
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) May 6, 2019
Three years after reaching the Champions League semi-final in 2001, Leeds were relegated from the Premier League – making their incredible run in Europe a bittersweet memory for the club’s supporters.
After beating 1860 Munich in the qualifying round, Leeds were drawn into a ‘Group of Death’ with Milan, Barcelona and Besiktas. The omens looked bad after a 4-0 spanking at Camp Nou in their opening fixture.
“I think that was a wake-up call,” Erik Bakke recalled. “That match was good for everybody to see that European football was different to English in the style of play.”
But Leeds kickstarted their journey with an unexpected victory over AC Milan at Elland Road, Lee Bowyer scoring an 88th-minute winner that squirmed under Dida in the Milan goal, and scrambled out of their group.
— Leeds United (@LUFC) September 19, 2019
“It was a great night. Elland Road was packed, dancing,” full-back Ian Harte told the BBC in 2020 about the famous win against a Milan side containing Andriy Shevchenko, Paolo Maldini and Oliver Bierhoff.
“It had rained all day. It was very, very wet. They had unbelievable players in their team, but it was that little bit of luck that you need.”
The draw for the second group phase (ask your parents) was no kinder to Leeds than the first.
Despite being pitted against Real Madrid, Italian champions Lazio – managed by Sven-Goran Eriksson and boasting world-class stars such as Pavel Nedved, Juan Sebastian Veron and Hernan Crespo – and Anderlecht, Leeds were confident of progression.
“We realised we could compete after we got out of the first group stage and we thought we could go on,” Jonathan Woodgate remembered.
Deportivo La Coruna, who would fall on their own hard times, were seen off in the quarter-finals to send them into a final four clash with an excellent Valencia side.
A goalless first leg at Elland Road left hope alive before the two sides reconvened at the Mestalla, but two strikes from Juan Sanchez – the first with his arm -and a Gaizka Mendieta effort saw Leeds’ race come to a crashing halt at the penultimate hurdle.
“Everybody in the stadium could see that he scored with his hand,” said Harte. “We were all devastated and gutted, but we’d had a taste of the Champions League and every player involved in that run absolutely loved it.”
Leeds would narrowly miss out on Champions League qualification for the following season and would soon enter a doom spiral that ended up in League One.
But David O’Leary’s side created memories that no Leeds fan will ever let go of.
By Michael Lee