Bruce hits out after Fulham foil Villa bid
Aston Villa 0 Fulham 1
Having passed their way to the brink of the Premier League, earning all the praise that comes with being the Championship's prettiest team, Fulham were forced to show their nasty side when it mattered most.
Slavisa Jokanovic's side snapped into challenges and cracked bone upon bone.
They ran, tackled, blocked and cleared. Reduced to 10 men for much of the second half, after Denis Oboi was sent off, they abandoned everything that had taken them this far, everything that had carried them to a 23-game unbeaten run this year, and simply ground it out.
It was not the Fulham we have grown used to this season. But it was, in the end, enough to carry them all the way back to the promised land.
The riches of the Premier League, which will be at least £160m, are theirs to savour, and their concerns over keeping this side together next season will have been washed away, at least temporarily, by the champagne that flowed last night.
There is no denying that a team of this quality deserved to be promoted, although Aston Villa and Steve Bruce will feel their second-half showing merited more.
Villa chased the ball in the first half, then chased the game after Tom Cairney's 23rd-minute strike, but they were the dominant side and, in Jack Grealish, possessed the game's standout player.
There was a lack of quality around Grealish, though, and Bruce will rue the absence of clarity in attack that prevented him from securing a record fifth promotion to the Premier League.
It would have been doubly special for the Villa manager, who lost both his parents in the space of 88 days earlier this year, but the play-off final remains the most brutal of fixtures.
And so, when the final whistle blew, it was Jokanovic who celebrated, not Bruce.
Hours earlier, both sides had arrived at Wembley knowing how much there was to gain from victory, but also how much they could lose in defeat.
For Fulham, there was the fear that this wonderfully technical group of players - and their manager - will be feasted upon by Premier League vultures this summer.
Villa, meanwhile, prepared for the so-called 'richest game in football' in the knowledge that another year in the Championship would result in huge financial pain and, potentially, a transfer embargo.
Yet again, it was Ryan Sessegnon, Fulham's teenage prodigy, who created the defining moment.
The 18-year-old, Fulham's top scorer, turned creator by skipping past one challenge and slipping a weighted pass through to the unchallenged Cairney, who rolled a calm finish into the far corner.
Sessegnon soon had an opportunity to double the lead, but headed his effort straight at Villa goalkeeper Sam Johnstone after he had eluded a back-line well marshalled by 37-year-old John Terry.
This dominance was no doubt expected by Jokanovic, but Bruce would surely have hoped for more intensity from his experienced side.
Villa's only avenue of attack seemed to be through the slick-haired Grealish, who had spent much of the half on the floor as the Fulham players took turns hacking him down.
Ryan Fredericks was lucky not be sent off for what Bruce claimed was a "deliberate" stamp on his playmaker.
Fredericks brought one boot down hard on Grealish, lying on the ground, right in front of the managers and the fourth official, prompting protest from Bruce but no punishment from referee Anthony Taylor.
"In the first half, no, I don't think we did enough," Bruce said afterwards. "But there were big decisions that went against us too.
"The boy (Fredericks) for me should have had a red card very, very early. It was right in front of the fourth official and the referee. No one wants to see the spectacle ruined. Nobody wants to see someone sent off. But when it is as deliberate as that, he deserves a red card."