It is the Championship play-off final most neutrals wanted. The might of Aston Villa against Fulham, the team that is most beautiful to watch. Not many can argue they don’t deserve to be there. They were the two best teams in the semi-finals and of course they finished third and fourth in the table.
I wondered whether Fulham had the mentality to get past Derby. They certainly scoffed at the idea of Plan B after the first leg, just do Plan A better was the motto. No doubt the timing of the Ryan Sessegnon goal early in the second half of the second leg changed everything. But they were the better side and more importantly showed they were mentally strong enough to get through.
Aston Villa have had to deal with that type of pressure all season and after a very tough start, have dealt with it so well. All that is down to Steve Bruce. Not many managers could have kept his team together while facing the backlash of their supporters in the way he has. Top players were brought in from other Championship clubs but struggled to handle the expectation that comes with wearing the Villa shirt. Many are still struggling but Steve has guided the club, one with the stature of being a top eight Premier League side, to within one game of re-joining English football’s elite.
The theme so far in this piece has all been about pressure and that is the key to winning this game and achieving promotion. The team that deals with it the best, wins. The team that is able to treat this like any other game and to play their way, wins.
I didn’t play in a play-off final game but I did play in an FA Cup final. It was over 20 years ago when the Cup meant more than what it does now and I worked very hard on my mind, sometimes with a sports psychologist but also daily with myself to make sure I was in the right frame of mind. It worked. No negativity, just positive thoughts and not only did we win the cup but I was very happy with my performance.
Straight after this season’s play-off semi finals I thought Fulham were the best side of the four, that their swagger was back and I fancied them for promotion. But the more I think about it, as we edge ever closer to the big day, the more I’m thinking it will be harder for Fulham to play their exciting, expansive, risk-taking game on the biggest stage of all, a game worth £170 million, than it will for Villa.
From the starting 11’s of both sides from their second legs, 10 of Villa’s players have played at Wembley, two from Fulham. Six of Villa’s starters have play-off final experience, none from Fulham. This is no ordinary game, this is the richest game in football blowing any comparison in terms of finance with the Champions League final out of the water. On top of all that, Bruce has been promoted twice through the play-offs. He has that knack of winning games when he has to.
Look, if Fulham come with their ‘A’ game, if Tom Cairney can dominate the ball, if Ryan Sessegnon can pop up in positions that bely his tender age, if Aleksandar Mitrovic continues to terrorise upfront, if Fulham play to their potential then they will win because they are the better side. But I think the experience and know-how of Villa will just about see them through.
Scott Minto is a former Chelsea, Benfica and West Ham defender and is the lead anchor for EFL coverage on Sky Sports.
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