Aston Villa 0 Fulham 1
Fulham stormed back into the Premier League, as Tom Cairney’s Wembley winner shattered Aston Villa hearts in a nail-biting Championship play-off final.
Slavica Jokanovic’s Fulham secured the £200m windfall up for grabs in the richest game in world football, as they rocked Villa on to the back foot with a fine first half display and then clung on to secure a famous victory.
Amid several second half flash points, Denis Odoi was shown a red card for Fulham after a reckless challenge on Villa’s Jack Grealish, but the man advantage was not enough to give Steve Bruce’s side a route back into the game.
Redundancies for key staff and cost cutting are now likely to be on the agenda at Villa after their Wembley failure, while Fulham can fund the rebuilding of their Craven Cottage home with the cash that will roll in from their Premier League elevation.
Those stark facts highlight just how important this game was for both sides, with the agony etched onto the faces of Villa players as they failed to hide their agony at the final whistle a painful end to what has been a tough season for Bruce, who has mourned the death of both of his parents in the last few months.
There was to be no fairy tale ending for Villa and they only had themselves to blame after a poor first half showing handed Fulham all the incentive they needed to push for the win.
John Terry (below) has been the king pin of the Villa defence over the course of this season, but he veteran centre-back was exposed as the highly-rated Ryan Sessegnon picked out a perfect pass to send Cairney in on goal after 23 minutes.
He has time to think about the gravity of his moment to shine on the Wembley stage, but held his nerve to slide the ball past Villa keeper Sam Johnstone to give this Play-Off final its opening goal.
In what was Fulham’s first Wembley appearance in 43 years, supporters of the London club duly toasted the goal as if it was a game clincher, yet Villa have warning that they would not surrender without a fight as they battled back in the final 10 minutes of the first half.
While a Villa side that featured the silky talents of Ireland midfielder Conor Hourihane and the impish skills of Jack Grealish, who famously turned down the chance to play for Ireland, failed to catch fire amid a deflated first half display, they had a chance to draw level five minutes before the break.
Grealish found space in the box as he was picked up by a cleverly worked Robert Snodgrass free-kick, with the youngster fluffing his lines on the big Wembley stage as he blasted the ball over the bar from the angle.
Fulham were fortunate to reach half-time with all eleven players still on the field after Ryan Fredericks stamped on Grealish in full view of the match officials, yet Villa’s grievances over that decision were tempered by the lack of quality they had served up in the first half.
Lacking a focal point in their team with Ireland striker Scott Hogan left on the bench, Villa’s attempts to grind out a win against a more energetic and youthful Fulham side had come up horribly in what was a limp first half display from Steve Bruce’s side.
Grealish had another chance to draw his side level as he challenged Fulham keeper Marcus Bettinelli to a 50th minutes cross, as Villa started the second half with more intensity and intent than they showed before the break.
There was no doubting who Villa’s dangerman was and Grealish showed his class again with a brilliant mazy run on the hour mark that ended with a fine save from Bettinelli.
Tempers frayed as Grealish ploughed into Cairney with a feisty challenge that could have resulted in a red card for the young playmaker, yet it was Fulham who went down to ten men when Odoi was shown a second yellow card for a wild challenge on Grealish.
Ten-man Fulham had a great chance second the decisive second goal when Aleksandar Mitrovic blasted over the bar with the goal at his mercy after 74 minutes, with the tension in this game reaching boiling point as the game entered its final quarter.
The prize at stake in this game was worth so much more than just promotion to the Premier League, with the cash windfall that it brings with it meaning so much to the future of both clubs.
"After we missed out on promotion last season, a lot of people wrote us off. We got a lot of stick. But football won today," declared match winner Cairney.
"I've been playing the whole season not fully fit. My knee still hurts not, but my manager said he needed me so I just played. I'll need the summer to rest and get fit."
As ever, the ramification from the Championship play-off final will rumble on for many years to come and for Fulham, the glory is all theirs.