Fulham have been promoted to the Premier League after beating Aston Villa in the Championship play-off final at Wembley.
Captain Tom Cairney was their goalscorer, finishing neatly underneath Villa goalkeeper Sam Johnstone after latching onto Ryan Sessegnon’s pass midway through the first half.
A fractious game ended with Fulham down to 10 men after centre-back Denis Odoi was sent off for two bookable offences – both for fouls on Jack Grealish.
Villa were furious that Ryan Fredericks escaped a card during a first-half tangle with Grealish, the Fulham right-back landing studs first on Grealish’s leg, while the Villa man was later booked for a lunging tackle on Cairney.
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Several Villa penalty appeals were also waved away by referee Anthony Taylor, including one in second-half stoppage time when Grealish fell under a challenge from Matt Targett.
The game opened up after the interval, with Villa much more incisive and Grealish looking most likely to find a reply.
However, the midfielder headed over the bar under pressure from Marcus Bettinelli and then saw his mazy run thwarted by a combination of the Fulham goalkeeper and Kevin McDonald.
Odoi’s red card invited further pressure, but Fulham held firm during a late Villa onslaught to clinch a win that is worth an estimated £160m – a figure which financial experts Deloitte say could rise to as much as £280m if the Whites survive for more than one season in the top flight.
Captain Cairney secures promotion
It was perhaps fitting that Sessegnon and Cairney, the two shining lights in an impressive Fulham team this season, combined to score the goal that sent them back to the top flight after a four-year absence.
The pair were two of the three nominees for the EFL’s Championship Player of the Season award, which was won by teenager Sessegnon.
The 18-year-old winger had been largely anonymous early on, but he found space in the centre of the Villa half and picked his pass perfectly to find the onrushing Cairney, who slotted coolly into the net.
Sessegnon could have doubled Fulham’s lead before half-time but his back-post header was directed straight at Johnstone, while he almost set up Stefan Johansen for a second goal midway through the second period.
Fulham’s transformation from mid-table underperformers to promotion winners has been one of the feature points of the Championship season.
Defeat at struggling Sunderland on 16 December left them 12th in the table, 18 points behind the top two. Twenty-three unbeaten matches later, they were on the brink of automatic promotion and, had they won their final game at Birmingham, they would have finished second behind champions Wolves.
There was to be no repeat of last season’s play-off disappointment, though. The Whites saw off Derby over two legs in their semi-final before beating Villa at Wembley.
While many have played their part, two January loan additions have been critical to their success. Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic has netted 12 goals in 20 appearances and given the team a physical presence up front, while the arrival of Southampton left-back Targett has allowed Sessegnon to push further forward and excel in a more advanced position.
Fulham spent 13 successive seasons in the top flight before their relegation in 2014 and the hope is that the nucleus of this team, helped by the financial backing of owner Shahid Khan, can see them become an established Premier League club again.
Their possession-based style has been as eye-catching as anything on show in the second tier and that brand of football should transfer well to the higher level, although there is very little top-flight experience in Fulham’s ranks and that is likely to be an area that Slavisa Jokanovic will look to address in the next couple of months.