If you had to nominate a man to bag the brace at Wembley to secure Fulham’s return to the Premier League at the first attempt, nobody would have picked Joe Bryan. The likeable left back has had his critics since enduring a difficult start at Craven Cottage, but he wrote his name into Fulham folklore with a tremendously inventive free-kick that broke the deadlock deep into the first period of extra-time and, incredulously, followed that with a beautifully predatory finish that put the biggest game in English football beyond the bookies’ favourites, Brentford.
It was Bryan’s first double in senior football and it highlighted his attacking prowess, which it is a pivotal part of the modern game. Bryan’s first goal owed much to Scott Parker’s preparation – with the Fulham backroom staff noting that David Raya often straying high off his line at defensive free-kicks. After Raya had almost been embarrassed by a fluffed clearance way out of his penalty area, Christian Nørgaard’s professional foul on Josh Onomah presented Fulham with a set piece on the left flank 35 yards out. Noone expected Bryan to go for goal, least of all Raya who was stationed in the middle of his goal, but after a touchline discussion with Parker, the former Bristol City full-back bent a cheeky finish in at the near post.
The one-goal cushion, something Fulham have turned protecting into an art form this season, allowed Parker to switch to his favoured back five to soak up the inevitable Brentford pressure. He sent on Maxime Le Marchand and Cyrus Christie to shore up Fulham’s advantage, but the Whites actually looked the far more likely scorers. It was fitting that Aleksandar Mitrovic, who stepped off the substitutes’ bench to test his hamstring during extra time, laid on the assist with a gorgeous one-two on the edge of the box. Bryan kept his cool to slide home the second to kill the contest – capping a glorious move that started with a long kick from Marek Rodak that found Ivan Cavaleiro on the left flank. Tom Cairney, excellent from a deeper position all evening, released the onrushing Bryan who surged onto a cushioned lay-off from Mitrovic and slotted home his second.
That made Brentford’s last hurrah at the death when Henrik Daalsgard headed home from eight yards in the final minute of stoppage time almost academic. Fulham’s fortitude and Parker’s tactical acumen, derided at times by the armchair critics in his first full season in management, was rewarded as his side produced a defensive masterclass in shutting down one of the divsion’s most potent attacking outfits. They restricted Brentford’s much-vaunted three-man attack to a single shot on target – Rodak smothering Ollie Watkins’ close-range effort in the second half – making a mockery of Emiliano Marcondes’ pre-match suggestion that Fulham feared facing their local rivals on the big stage.
If anything, it was Brentford who suffered from the early stage fright. They struggled to cope with Josh Onomah’s athleticism at the top of the Fulham midfield, whilst Bobby Decordova-Reid’s ceaseless running dragged their centre halves right across the midfield. Onomah, a revelation in the second half of this the longest of seasons, started brightly – drawing a smart save from Raya in the fourth minute before the Brentford goalkeeper almost handed Fulham the lead with two casual clearances that put his team in trouble.
This was a cagey affair that lacked the bite of what is usually a tempestuous derby, although strong challenges from Harrison Reid and Cairney were punished by bookings from a lenient Martin Atkinson. Cairney crafted another opening for Onomah with a beautiful slide-rule pass down the side of the Brentford defence and the midfielder’s angled drive looked destined for the far corner had Raya not pushed it clear with a firm right hand.
Bryan Mbeumo was largely anonymous all evening but he had Brentford’s best sights of goal in the first period. A looping header was easily fielded by Rodak before Michael Hector produced another perfect piece of defending, stretching out a leg at just the right time to prevent Mbeumo from touching home Mathias Jensen’s cross at the near post.
Although Brentford saw much more of the ball in the second half, Fulham still fashioned the clearer openings. Kebano ruffled the side netting with another free-kick and the Congolese winger, who had made a miraculous recovery to start the final after coming off against Cardiff with a hamstring strain, dug out a delicious cross for Decordova-Reid, who probably should have tested Raya from thirteen yards out. Rodak pushed a rising drive from Watkins over the bar from the edge of the box whilst, at the other end, Reid and Onomah sent speculative shots over from distance.
Mitrovic and Anthony Knockaert were introduced in stoppage time at the end of normal time and a tight contest grew even more tense in extra time. Hector, immense at the back once again, instinctively snuffed out the danger when substitute Sergi Canos, a regular scourge of Fulham down the years, sought to link with Watkins in the box – and the Championship’s second top scorer could only screw a shot wide. Kamara, a willing runner all night, blasted an effort straight at the goalkeeper after seizing on another weak Raya clearance – and you wondered whether the stalemate would ever be broken.
Bryan’s brilliant double settled matters with all the assurance of a seasoned goalscorer. His audacious first will live long in the memory – and caught Brentford like a bolt from the blue. The second, a classic counter-attacking goal, made a nervy last few minutes all the more tolerable. They might have made it three but Knockaert delayed releasing Cavaleiro a fraction too long, allowing Raya to race off his line. It wouldn’t be Fulham without a wobble, which came when Daalgard forced home a header and grabbled with Rodak for the loose ball, but it came so late as not to prove terminal. Parker, the recipient of heavy criticism from sections of the fanbase this term, deserves fulsome praise for righting a horribly listing ship and returning the Whites to the top flight at the first time of asking. Not too bad for a rookie.
BRENTFORD (4-3-3): Raya; Dalsgaard, Henry (Fosu 105), Pinnock, Jansson; Jensen (Dervisoglu 105), Nørgaard, Dasilva (Canos 83); Mbeumo (Marcondes 61), Benrahma, Watkins. Subs (not used): Daniels, Jeanvier, Rasmussen, Zamburek, Valencia.
BOOKED: Jensen, Nørgaard.
GOAL: Dalsgaard (120).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Odoi (Christie 110), Bryan, Hector; Ream; Reed, Cairney; Kebano (Knockaert 81), Kamara (Cavaleiro 105), Onomah (Le Marchand 110); Decordova-Reid (Mitrovic 90). Subs (not used): Bettinelli, S. Sessegnon, McDonald, Johansen.
BOOKED: Reed, Cairney, Hector, Knockaert, Mitrovic, Cavaleiro, Rodak.
GOALS: Bryan (105, 117).