It has taken a couple of days to set aside the euphoria and be able to put those ecstatic feelings that followed Fulham’s still scarcely believable triumph over Aston Villa into words. Days like Saturday don’t come along too often for followers of the Whites and, after Denis Odoi’s sending off, you could sense the Fulham players were determined not to throw away this opportunity so soon after passing up automatic promotion at St. Andrew’s.
The win, whilst narrow, vindicated Slavisa Jokanovic’s implementation of his own brand of total football in a league as physical and demanding as the Championship. Fulham might not have steamrolled their way to the Premier League as they did under Jean Tigana during that magnificent season at the start of the millennium but, as the Sky Sports commentator breathlessly intoned at the final whistle, they played some swashbuckling football along the way. What was most pleasing was that the style, which could have merited a three-goal lead by half-time, was matched by a steel that meant Fulham were able to weather a serious spell of Villa pressure after the break.
Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon will rightly receive plenty of plaudits for their roles in the game’s most decisive moments – and it was fitting that two of Fulham’s most stylish performers combined so superbly for the goal that secured a return to the Premier League, but everyone wearing white was a hero out there. Although he didn’t get on the scoresheet, Aleksandar Mitrovic’s hold up play and movement was first rate, whilst at the other end of the field Tim Ream was a colossus once again. The American was probably my man of the match after turning in another calm display on the biggest day of his career – and for his consistently excellent performances, he has to be Fulham’s player of the season. Behind him, Marcus Bettinelli didn’t have an awful to do but when he was called upon, the Fulham academy graduate produced an outstanding save to deny Jack Grealish one of the great Wembley goals. Bettinelli’s sprint towards the Fulham faithful after the final whistle with a black flare was my moment of an unforgettable day – and there was plenty of competition.
The massed ranks of white did their job too. Whoever had the idea of the white wall to create a see of support behind the goal deserves a pay rise – the visual effect of that was quite something and the Fulham fans generated some noise too. After the dark days of the eighties, nearly dropping out of the Football League altogether in the nineties, the heartbreak in Hamburg, relegation and the Felix Magath malaise and coming so close last season, this was something to savour. The memories will last a lifetime and so special was the walk down Wembley Way afterwards I didn’t want to get on a tube at Wembley Park.
It’s worth thinking about the consequences of the result going the other way as well. The financial pitfalls of remaining in the Championship, with the parachute payments coming to an end, would have been devastating. The side Slavisa Jokanovic built so painstakingly would have been stripped bare, with the likes of Cairney, Sessegnon, Ryan Fredericks and probably many others heading for pastures now. It wouldn’t have been too much of a surprise had Jokanovic left Craven Cottage either. Instead of worrying about falling into a financial hole, we can now look forward to the prospect of Jokanovic constructing a side to compete at the top table of English football. Perhaps Tommy Trinder was right all along and we’re lucky people after all.