Great Escape Half DL

The Great Escape of 2008: How two Sounders — Kasey Keller and Marcus Hahnemann — starred in the EPL’s most famous relegation battle

Marcus Hahnemann knew something wasn’t right.

He sat at his dining room table on the night of April 12, 2008, alongside his wife, Amanda, Kasey Keller and Keller’s wife, Kristin. Hahnemann hung his head, upset. As the 2007-08 English Premier League Season neared its conclusion, things were not going Reading’s way.

His Royals had just lost at home to Keller’s Fulham on Matchday 34, and Hahnemann and Keller’s families dined together afterward as they so often did. Reading is roughly 40 miles west of London, and the two American goalkeepers would chat and meet up regularly after Keller transferred to the Cottagers in 2007 from Germany’s Borussia Monchengladbach.

The win that night was Fulham’s first road victory in the Premier League in nearly 18 months. It offered slight hope of avoiding relegation in what had been a terribly disappointing and underwhelming season. Reading, however, was three points clear of relegation and five in front of Fulham, but Reading wasn’t playing to its potential.

“Marcus was really down for Marcus, which was kind of unheard of,” Keller recalled of that evening. “He really felt that that was a big problem. At that point, Reading was in lower-mid table but not getting the results they needed, losing to a team at home in the relegation zone. He looked at it like, ‘Hey guys, we need to pull our heads out of our asses, this is a wake-up call that we can get sucked into this thing.’ They were like, ‘No, we’re fine.’ Then we [at Fulham] get ourselves on a run.”

***

Reading dominated the English Championship, the second tier in English football below the Premier League, in 2005-06. It finished with 106 points, a remarkable 14 points more than second-place finisher Sheffield United.

Midway through that season, promotion to the EPL seemed inevitable. The front office sold the remaining season tickets in the Championship as a bundle with tickets for the following season, guaranteeing a seat in the Premier League for those who purchased them. Reading even acquired season-ticket memberships from fans of Swindon Town FC, a team 40 miles west that competed in Football League One, England’s third tier. Reading was an inexpensive and close option to watch the EPL in person.

“They were pseudo-Reading fans,” Hahnemann explained, “because they had another club to support but they wanted to see Premier League soccer and it was the only way they were going to get to see it.”

The financial boost for clubs going from the English Championship to the English Premier League is almost unfathomable. According to The Telegraph, a team joining the top tier of English football today can earn upward of £200 million, or around $258 million. Much of that sum is comprised of hefty broadcast and commercial revenue, but increases in sponsorship and kit manufacturing deals also play a key role. The final major contributor is what’s known as a “parachute payment,” a newer rule that ensures that clubs that are relegated after a single season still receive two years of payment. This number could reach as high as £80 million, or $103 million.

“I look back on how crazy and competitive the Premier League is with the money involved,” said Hahnemann. “There’s such a massive difference in going up and down [in leagues] for the clubs and what it means not only to the clubs, but for the fans.”

Reading had no such trouble in its first EPL season in 2006-07. The Royals finished comfortably in 8th place with 55 points from 38 matches, but with great success came poaching from the league’s best and most expensive clubs.

Chelsea signed midfielder Steve Sidwell on a free transfer following the 2007 season after he starred for Reading for four years. Sidwell reportedly denied a four-year deal with the Royals before signing a massive contract with the Blues and tossing Reading into unexpected turmoil.

“That was a big disruption,” Hahnemann lamented. “It’s not about the money, but it sort of becomes that when it’s your profession. Some jealousy crept into the team and it really hurt us.”

***

Nothing went Fulham’s way for the majority of the 2007-08 season. It defeated Bolton on Matchday 2 in August, but then won only one match in the next six months as it flirted more and more with a seemingly resigned fate.

Northern Ireland manager Lawrie Sanchez took over interim managerial duties in April of the previous year after the club sacked Chris Coleman. Fulham then signed Sanchez to a long-term deal, but ultimately fired him in December 2007, just four months into his first season in charge.

Fulham then brought in Finland manager Roy Hodgson, an English coach with over 30 years of experience. Things got better under Hodgson, but not convincingly and certainly not as expedited as management or the fans hoped.

“[Hodgson’s hiring] kind of took everybody by surprise,” Keller said. “Roy pretty quickly assessed the team and reorganized. It wasn’t one of those things where it was instantaneous where the team just automatically changed results around. We were picking up a few results here and there and staying within touching distance, but weren’t making the run we needed to get ourselves out of trouble.”

Following the win at Reading and the dinner at Hahnemann’s house, Fulham lost 2-0 at Liverpool, and with three matches left were all but guaranteed to be going down. But Fulham, which had been in 19th place since the new year, hung around long enough.

Down 2-0 at Manchester City in the 70th minute, Fulham incredulously struck three times in 20 minutes to steal three points. Diomansy Kamara beat Joe Hart to cut the deficit in half before Danny Murphy equalized in the 79th minute. Hart stopped Murphy’s initial penalty kick, but Murphy tapped in the rebound to make it 2-2. Kamara found the back of the net again in stoppage time to cap the miraculous comeback.

“It looked bleak at halftime, and we had a mountain to climb,” Hodgson said afterward. “At 2-0, I honestly thought we weren’t out of it. I never lost hope, but to win it was extraordinary. We’ve given ourselves a chance now.”

Said the BBC announcer calling the game after Kamara’s goal: “And the great escape for Roy Hodgson’s Fulham is definitely on.”

***

Fulham still had work to do and needed help from other results. In the penultimate match of the season, Fulham downed Birmingham City for its third win in its last four matches while Reading fell at home to Tottenham.

“I remember our last home game,” said Keller. “We won and it took us out of the relegation zone at the expense of Reading, which had slipped down after a foreshadowing of Marcus’ thought process.”

Heading into the final week of the season, Fulham and Reading were even on points. Fulham entered with a six-goal edge in goal differential, the ultimate tiebreaker, but needed a win at Portsmouth to all but ensure safety.

“We were away at Portsmouth, and the last thing we wanted to do was get ourselves in a situation where you get yourself out only to mess it up in the last game,” recalled Keller. “The hard part of that last game was that with the teams around us, we couldn’t have a draw. We had to win the game to guarantee it. Everybody around us won. If we did slip up, if we did draw against Portsmouth, then Reading would have come out of relegation.

“A lot of people had written us off,” he continued, “so to string together clean sheets and a series of results … it was great do that.”

Hahnemann and Reading defeated league bottomdwellers Derby County 4-0 on the final day, but it wasn’t enough given Fulham’s win over Portsmouth, a side that Hahnemann believes threw in the towel.

“Portsmouth didn’t field anybody in the game against Fulham,” Hahnemann said frustratingly, “because they were in a cup final the next week and they rested a bunch of guys.”

  

Fulham’s dramatic survival and Reading’s disappointing end to the season — the Royals only won once in their final seven matches, losing four — was bittersweet for Keller. His success and performance helped demote his friend and fellow Pacific Northwester out of the Premier League.

“We were together the whole time,” Keller said of his stint in England with Hahnemann. “That’s one of those things a lot of people don’t understand. Yes, you play for rival teams and you’re friends with guys from different teams, and you want to succeed and you will do your best. When you’re on the field, you’re on the field. That’s completely separate. Once you’re off the field, it’s a completely different life.”

Keller and Hahnemann were part of an even larger contingency of American goalkeepers in the EPL at that time. Along with Blackburn’s Brad Friedel and Everton’s Tim Howard, one fifth of the Premier League’s starting goalkeepers were American. The fact that two were originally from an hour apart in Western Washington is even more rare.

“It’s one of those strange anomalies that happens, and you hear about it in different sports where these three guys went to the same high school and they’re playing against each other in the NBA or in Major League Baseball,” said Keller. “That’s something that will probably never happen again.”

Keller left Fulham after that season and one year later he started in goal for the expansion Seattle Sounders in their inaugural Major League Soccer match. Hahnemann would stay with Reading for one more season before joining Wolverhampton and then Everton before signing with his hometown Sounders himself in 2012, a year after Keller’s retirement.

“Marcus and I have been good friends for a long time,” Keller said proudly, “and just because we were battling relegation didn’t mean we stopped being good friends.”

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