Fulham are back in the big time after winning a thrilling Sky Bet Championship play-off final against Aston Villa, with Scotland international Tom Cairney ending their four-year Premier League absence in a pulsating encounter.
The Champions League final may have dominated the sporting agenda yesterday but the financial implications of the English second-tier showpiece – worth at least £160 million of additional revenue to the victor – dwarfed the Kiev showpiece in monetary terms at least.
Fulham were favourites with the bookmakers – and perhaps the neutrals – on their first trip to Wembley since 1975, and emerged 1-0 winners against Steve Bruce’s Aston Villa after clinging on to Cairney’s first-half strike.
Denis Odoi’s sending-off 20 minutes from time led to a jittery end for Slavisa Jokanovic’s side, but they dug deep to secure the biggest financial prize in world football.
The decisive blow came midway through the first half as Fulham offered a glimpse of the football that has earned so many plaudits this term, with 18-year-old Ryan Sessegnon superbly threading through for Cairney to fire home.
Villa looked ripe for the taking as skipper John Terry struggled but Bruce, a man who knows a thing or two about promotion, got them firing in the second half. Jack Grealish was a constant thorn in the side and a mazy run was ended by a fine save, before he was taken down by a clumsy Odoi challenge that led to a second yellow card and an anxious conclusion.
Yet Fulham showed grit to match their skill to win and leave Villa, on the 36th anniversary of their European Cup triumph, facing another season in the Championship – and the financial ramifications that brings.
Villa worked hard during the opening stages as Robert Snodgrass found Albert Adomah and Conor Hourihane’s half-hearted penalty appeal was ignored. But Fulham managed to contain Villa and burst into life two minutes after Aboubakar Kamara’s deft touch and looped effort went over the bar.
Sessegnon showed awareness and a maturity that belied his years to thread through for Cairney, whose low first-time finish beat Sam Johnstone.
Villa started the second half on the front foot as Hourihane charged down a Fredericks clearance to get the claret and blue hordes on their feet. Grealish raced to head just over with the goal gaping before Hourihane’s cross-shot threatened.
Grealish looked Villa’s biggest threat and came close to drawing his side level in the 60th minute, jinking inside and out on a run before Marcus Bettinelli denied the attacking midfielder.
The 22-year-old and the Villa fans were incandescent when handball appeals against Odoi were ignored – anger that bubbled over as he launched into an over-zealous challenge on Cairney that led to a booking and on-field commotion.
Odoi missed the ball and instead wiped out Grealish, collecting a second booking to leave Fulham a man light. The west London club were running out of energy as the clock wound down, with Snodgrass and Scott Hogan having attempts before a late Grealish penalty claim and the welcome sound of the full-time whistle.