Fulham had never won a play-off game in their history until 12 days ago, and now they have won two of the most important imaginable and are back in the Premier League. Never let anyone tell you that a team is always the hostage of its own record.
Slavisa Jokanovic’s side have been proving people wrong all year and they were emphatically rewarded here with a draining but deserved 1-0 win over Aston Villa. They played the better football, of course, just as they have done for months in the Championship. But they also had to show traits people said they lacked – not least courage, nerve and focus – to hold off a relentless Aston Villa fight-back even after Denis Odoi was sent off in the second half. A complete performance to round off a season that few would have banked on back in the autumn.
And how better to fire your way into the Premier League than with a goal which, with its obvious quality, proves that you deserve to be there. For months now Fulham have been playing the best football in the Championship – they took even gave Wolves a lesson back in February – and the opener was as good as anything they have done this year.
Fulham knew that John Terry and James Chesters were Villa’s weak points and Slavisa Jokanovic did not mind mentioning it when he spoke to the press this week. So they came here with a plan, to use the speed in their front three to get in behind and down the sides of Villa’s ageing centre-backs. Every time Fulham had the ball – which was most of the time – they would slide a pass into those danger areas, hoping to do some damage.
It was no surprise when Sessegnon and Cairney – the Championship’s two best players outside Wolverhampton – combined to put Fulham ahead. What was a surprise was who did what. It was Sessegnon, the winger, who collected the ball in midfield, touched it away from Conor Hourihane, whose slide tackle sent him hurtling desperately into the wrong direction.
Sessegnon looked up and slid a perfect pass through the gap between Terry and Alan Hutton, skidding through into the space. It was the type of pass you would expect from Tom Cairney, Fulham’s midfield conductor, towards Sessegnon. But in this moment of role –reversal, it was Cairney himself making the run, collecting the pass, opening his body to stroke the ball into the net.
This was a Premier League quality goal from two Premier League quality players. Sessegnon was always going to be playing in the top flight next year whatever happened here today, and had Fulham lost, and Sessegnon left, then only the Champions League sides could afford him. But promotion was his priority and even after the first goal, he continued to scare Villa more than anyone else. He popped up at the far post to head straight at Sam Johnstone, then, at the end of the first-half he leaped like a striker to head Mitrovic’s cross over the bar.
Fulham’s 1-0 lead at half-time was well deserved, and not many will have expected how different the second half was. Villa had looked short on ideas in the first half, lacking quality and leadership. In the second half they got more of all of those than they could ever have expected, delivered entirely by the magic boots of Jack Grealish.
This was Sessegnon’s triumph but Grealish, left devastated and in tears at the end, played just as well. At 22 he is four years older than Sessegnon but his talent is just as exciting, even if he is slightly more known to us by now. And while he has nothing to show for this performance, his brilliance was obvious. Shimmering past opponents with the ball glued to his feet, sensing space where his more limited team-mates did not, he was unlucky not to score. With a volley from a clever free-kick in the first half, then a header from an Albert Adomah cross, Grealish just missed the target.
Then, with Villa now in control, Grealish came inches away from scoring what would have been one of the great ever play-off final goals. Taking the ball in midfield, he sped away from Stefan Johansen, shimmied past Tim Ream and towards goal. It was only the slightest deflection off Kevin McDonald that sent the ball flying into Marcus Bettinelli, rather than into the net.
That moment summed up an important fact: Fulham had no way of stopping Grealish. Ryan Fredericks had stamped on him in the first half in a moment of obvious violent conduct. Denis Odoi was booked for fouling him in the second half and then got a second yellow with 20 minutes left for volleying Grealish in the stomach. Grealish himself might have seen red for jumping into one tackle with Cairney when the frustration got too much, but he stayed on the pitch.
With that one-man advantage, Villa continued to push and threw three substitutes on. But they still only had one player with any real threat and even he could do not do it all by himself. As Villa tired, the pressure relented and in five added minutes the only half-chance was a Scott Hogan far-post header that rolled wide.
That was as close as Villa came and for all their hard work they never quite had anything as incisive or precise as that first half Fulham move. The goal that will send them back into the top flight, and deservedly so.
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