Days like this don’t happen to Fulham. The Whites, famously making their first visit to Wembley in 43 years, are usually runners-up in finals. But Slavisa Jokanovic’s side are different. They shrugged off the disappointment of failing to clinch automatic promotion at Birmingham City earlier this month, overcame a one-goal deficit against Derby in the play-off semi-finals, and produced a performance that married potency with sheer tenacity to see off Aston Villa under unimaginable pressure.
That the goal that clinch their return to the top flight after a four-year absence came from the left boot of Tom Cairney was fitting. The Fulham captain, the fulcrum of this easy-on-the eye side, was crestfallen following the agonising play-off exit at the hands of Reading last year, tearfully applauding the travelling support after the final whistle as the Royals fans invaded the pitch. He was magnificent this afternoon, driving Fulham forward, and clinically slotted the decisive goal under the advancing Sam Johnstone from ten yards. Cairney was found by a wondrous pass from Fulham’s teenage prodigy Ryan Sessegnon, who made light of a heavy touch after attempting to control Stefan Johansen’s pass, beat Conor Hourihane and spun before threading a brilliant ball between John Terry and James Chester.
The goal was what Fulham’s fast start merited, but Jokanovic’s men could have been three-up by the half-time interval. Sessegnon headed straight at Johnstone at the back post after a mistake from Terry, whilst the excellent Aleksandar Mitrovic, who led Terry a merry dance for much of the afternoon, slammed a goalbound shot into Chester’s legs when he looked favourite to score. Villa, for all their experience, were muted as an attacking force on the big occasion – with only Jack Grealish offering a significant threat to Marcus Bettinelli’s goal, but the gifted midfielder spooned a clever free-kick from Robert Snodgrass well over the bar just before the break. Bruce was furious that Ryan Fredericks escaped after a late lunge at Grealish just after the Fulham goal, but the Villa man was fortunate not to see red himself for a terrible tackle on Cairney in the second half.
Fulham had dictated both the tempo and the play in the first 45 minutes, but the pattern of the second period was entirely different. Jokanovic’s men began brightly, with Chester toeing a dangerous Mitrovic centre clear with Sessegnon waiting to pounce, and Stefan Johansen forcing a save from Johnstone, but Villa were soon pushing the white shirts back. Albert Adomah found far more room than in the first half and whipped over a number of threatening crosses, but first Snodgrass and then Grealish failed to find the target with headers.
Villa were becoming far more adventurous and then almost found an equaliser when an incredible slalom run from Grealish took him past four Fulham defenders and into the penalty area, but Bettinelli was equal to his deflected shot. Shortly afterwards, the Villa playmaker went studs-up into Cairney sparking a mini-melee outside the Fulham box but was only cautioned by referee Anthony Taylor, who was also to wave away decent penalty shouts for both sides.
Fulham spurned two good chances to double their lead when in quick succession, McDonald glanced a header wide from a corner, and then Sessegnon did brilliantly to play in Johansen but the Norwegian’s rising drive flew over the crossbar as Terry and Chester converged on him inside the box. It looked as if Jokanovic’s side could rue those misses when Odoi received his marching orders after catching Grealish in the chest to earn a second booking, but their confidence never wavered despite Villa ending the contest with three strikers on the pitch as Bruce threw on Jonathan Kodija and Scott Hogan.
The Londoners had to absorb a barrage of late pressure but Bettinelli had little to do in a nerve-shredding final quarter of an hour, although substitute Ollie Norwood produced a sensational block to deny Hourihane inside the area. Fulham’s defence, superbly marshalled yet again by the peerless Tim Ream, survived five anxious minutes of added time unscathed, sparking joyous celebrations in front of Fulham’s delirious 38,o00 fans.
ASTON VILLA (4-1-4-1): Johnstone; El Mohamady (Kodija 77), Hutton, Terry, Chester; Jedinak (Onomah 77); Hourihane, Grealish, Snodgrass, Adomah; Grabban (Hogan 82). Subs (not used): Bunn, Bree, Bjarnason, Whelan.
BOOKED: Chester, Grealish, Jedinak, Hutton.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks (Christie 82), Targett, Odoi, Ream; McDonald, Johansen (Norwood 72), Cairney; Kamara (Kalas 77), R. Sessegnon, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Button, Piazon, Ayite, Fonte.
BOOKED: Odoi, Kamara.
SENT OFF: Odoi (70).
GOAL: Cairney (23).
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor (Wythenshawe).