Pain and pride for Fulham's Hodgson
Roy Hodgson did everything in his power to let pride dull the pain but it was a futile exercise, condemned to join Fulham's Europa League final defeat as a gallant failure.
The wound inflicted by Atletico Madrid's Diego Forlan, just four minutes from the conclusion of a 63-game season stretching back 10 months to the start of Fulham's European odyssey in Lithuania, was still too raw.
Hodgson, as decent in defeat as in victory, tried to find solace for himself and his players, who have captured the imagination of the nation and beyond with their European exploits.
Pride will come, as it must, but as Hodgson sat in Hamburg's Nordbank Arena to reflect on the sad end to this remarkable Fulham story, there was no consolation.
He admitted: "It doesn't matter how much comfort I try to find, there is not a lot to be found. It is difficult for me to find any real joy and enthusiasm - and you would be surprised if my attitude was anything else in among the bitter disappointment and great sadness at seeing another good performance go unrewarded."
Hodgson admitted on the eve of the game that if Fulham were to lose he hoped it would be to the better team and not as a fallen victim to the fates. The Cottagers were beaten by the better team in Atletico, but the agony still looked almost unbearable.
As the final whistle sounded and Atletico's substitutes and staff sprinted on to the pitch to join the celebrations, Hodgson turned to shake the hands of his trusted backroom and support staff, as well as those who had not figured in the final.
He then consoled the tearful Zoltan Gera and stopped to tend to other players slumped heartbroken on the rain-sodden turf, players who had once again given everything only to run out of fuel just inches from the finish line. Mutual respect.
Hodgson embraces goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer after the game. Photo: AFP
Hodgson lavished praise on the men who almost made up for another night of torment in this competition. Thirteen years ago, his Inter Milan side lost the Uefa Cup final on penalties, beaten by Schalke 04 in the San Siro.
This whole Europa League run is rightly a source of pride to Fulham, not just because of deeds on the pitch and victories against teams of the calibre of Shakhtar Donestk, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Hamburg.
Fulham's supporters have played their part in adding colour and atmosphere to a competition that is viewed by many as the Champions League's unloved brother. That opinion is not shared at Craven Cottage, where "Stand Up If You Still Believe" has become an enduring anthem.
Hodgson's tactical acumen makes him aware of the fine margins that decide major finals - and Fulham lost because Atletico had two strikers of genuine menace in Forlan and Sergio Aguero, while their own main weapon was operating below 100%.
Bobby Zamora could not have given more, but this was not the man who spearheaded Fulham's campaign earlier this season. His lingering Achilles tendon injury meant his race was run by 55 minutes. How Hodgson needed him fully fit.
Fulham were also, more than usual, guilty of carelessness in possession. Rare indeed - but it is churlish to aim any harsh criticism at the team when all serious expectations in Europe were exceeded long ago.
Forlan entered the media arena moments after Hodgson's departure to receive his man-of-the-match award, still in his kit and draped in a club flag. What a charming and polite chap. What a gigantic pain in the neck if you are a Premier League club.
The Uruguayan is the smiling assassin of a striker. Not content with wrecking Liverpool's hopes in the semi-finals, he scuppered Fulham's fairytale with two poacher's goals either side of an equaliser from Simon Davies.
Forlan seems too nice to carry a grudge, but he seems intent on making Premier League opposition pay for his fruitless time at Manchester United. If we did not rate him then, he is going to make sure we rate him now.
Diego Forlan - a deadly striker and perfectly nice bloke. Photo: AP
For brief spells of a largely undistinguished final, especially at the start of the second half, Fulham looked like they would have the finale of their dreams. But the double act of Forlan and Aguero proved too much.
Talk swiftly turned to Hodgson's own future in the aftermath of defeat, but he reassured Fulham's supporters that his plan was to be at Craven Cottage next season.
And with no chance of a repeat of the European run that added such gloss to this campaign, there is a school of thought that Fulham could be vulnerable to an approach for their manager. Hodgson and his players will undoubtedly miss what the Europa League has given them this season.
It is a debate for another day, but the other side of the argument is that Hodgson is nobody's fool and he will know he has a good thing going at Fulham. He is too sensible to sacrifice it lightly.
Fulham's feats saw partisan Premier League fans unite behind a common cause to wish them well against Atletico, this fact alone illustrating the range of their achievement.
The final fling ended in failure. Defeat yes, but not a shred of disgrace.
Fulham and Hodgson may have left the Nordbank Arena empty-handed and without a trophy to show for their efforts this season, but rarely has a season without silverware been such an outstanding success.