Fulham had embarked on a remarkable 23 match unbeaten run to give themselves a chance of stealing the second automatic promotion spot on the last day of the season. A defeat at Birmingham left us facing the dreaded playoffs where we’d previously never won a game. Defeat at Derby left us fearing the worst but a glorious night at the Cottage saw us overturn the deficit and book ourselves a trip to Wembley for the first time in 43 years.
There we were to face an Aston Villa side packed with experience including arch pantomime villain John Terry. They had been on a decent end of season run themselves which made it a very close game to call. We were hoping that our possession-based style and more youthful side would prevail on a very hot late May evening.
Fulham had homegrown favourite Marcus Bettinelli in goal with the rapid Ryan Fredericks and loanee Matt Targett flanking the imperious Tim Ream and Denis Odoi in defence. In midfield were our usual triumvirate of Kevin McDonald whose qualities dovetailed nicely with the athleticism (and shithousery) of Stefan Johansen and playmaking skills of our skipper Tom Cairney. Aleksandar Mitrovic was up front flanked by the precocious talent of Ryan Sessegnon and the more maverick qualities of Aboubakar Kamara. Oliver Norwood, Tomas Kalas and Cyrus Christie were all to make important contributions from the bench.
Fulham: Bettinelli, Fredericks (Christie 83′), Odoi, Ream, Targett, McDonald, Johansen (Norwood 72′), Cairney (c), Kamara (Kalas 77′), Sessegnon, Mitrović.
Unused Substitues: Button, Ayite, Piazon, Rui Fonte.
Aston Villa: Johnstone, El Mohamady (Kodjia 77′), Chester, Terry (c), Hutton, Jedinak (Onomah 77′), Snodgrass, Hourihane (Hogan 82′), Grealish, Grabban, Adomah.
Unused Substitutes: Bunn, Bree, Whelan, Birkir Bjarnason.
Fulham were on the front foot from the off and were dictating play in their usual fluid style. The breakthrough came in the 23rd minute when some instant control and a slide-rule pass from Ryan Sessegnon put Tom Cairney in on goal where he clinically finished the chance. We remained in the ascendancy for the rest of the half but were maybe fortunate that Ryan Fredericks wasn’t punished by the officials for a moment of recklessness just before the interval.
As expected Villa came out in a far more focused fashion after the break. Jack Grealish was in the thick of things; missing a decent headed chance before scything down Tom Cairney and being lucky himself not to see red. The red card was to come our way in the 70th minute though when Denis Odoi was dismissed for a second bookable offence. Fulham dug deep with the White Wall of 38,000 Fulham faithful roaring them on. We defended intelligently and restricted clear cut chances although we were grateful to Oliver Norwood for one stunning last-ditch block. The last 20 odd minutes seemed to last forever until the referee’s whistle signalled an explosion of joy and relief in the Fulham masses to trigger a night of titanic celebration for the better half of SW6.
Man of the Match: Tom Cairney
Slavisa Jokanovic speaking after the match: “I am so excited for my club, for these supporters. We showed we could follow the style that we followed for the past two years, in this stadium
“I’d have preferred to do the job earlier but, to be promoted at this place in front of these fans, I have to be satisfied.
“I’m happy with what my team offered today and how we played our football.”
Tom Cairney speaking after the match: “We knew we wouldn’t shrink in this environment. The pitch suits us, with the way we play football.
“In my eyes, over the past two seasons, we’ve been the best team in this league.
“I signed a contract extension for a reason. I believe what we’re doing here is something special.”
Kevin McDonald speaking after the match: “You wait your whole life for moments like these. The whole season the fans have been fantastic. How else can we repay them than like this?
“There’s no better way to do it than at Wembley in front of all your friends, family and fans.”
Aleksandar Mitrović speaking after the match: “I’m so tired right now, like never in my life. I can’t feel my legs. I’m really happy and proud.
“I’ve had an amazing three or four months. I want to enjoy the moment, prepare for the World Cup and then we’ll see what happens. I want to say thank you to the club and the fans.”
Stefan Johansen speaking after the match: “I think we have been one of the better teams in the Championship all the way through the season and we deserved this.
“We have played more as a team this year and fought for each other – if someone makes a mistake, the next man sticks up for him. It’s great to be a part of this team.
“I haven’t seen too many of the play-off finals, but I’ve always heard it’s always exciting and strange things happen. One of the big things we have done this season is keep grinding out results – if teams put us under pressure, we can respond.”
Denis Odoi speaking after the match: “If it goes wrong, everyone is looking at you. It’s so unfortunate and I’m just so relieved.
“I can be happy with my performance – I was very happy with my performance in the first half, but getting sent off sucked.
“The owner’s trying to buy Wembley so it felt like home. I’m so happy and I’m looking forward to next season – what else can I say.”
Matt Targett speaking to Fulham Focus: “Wembley… what a day out!! First half was incredible, we bossed the game and played very well! Second half they were the better team. They pinned us in our half! Grealish was coming into the game and started causing lots of problems. Then Denis got sent off, so we knew we had to defend for our lives. Everyone was putting their bodies on the line.
“Best day of my life!”
Les Strong speaking to Fulham Focus: “With the anniversary of our playoff final looming and after a disappointing season, it’s great to look back and remember what a truly magnificent occasion it was.
“I shared the day with Fulham legends, George Cohen, John Mitchell, Gerry Peyton and our Director David Daly. The build-up was exciting and to see the magnificent white wall of supporters made the day even more special. The game was comparable to the historic Juventus one and will live in Fulham fans memory for a very long time.
“The players should be proud of their achievement and as perfect as automatic promotion will be next season, you certainly can’t beat going up at Wembley.”
Alan Smith speaking to Fulham Focus: “Wembley last season with Fulham and my family (Rob over from Sydney) was one of the best days ever. The Fulham family all in white celebrating a proud day for all connected. A great day in our long history.”
Robert Wilson speaking to Fulham Focus: “Well it’s a year to the day that I had the most amazing experience watching FFC win at Wembley.
“It was overwhelming, so emotional and I’m not afraid to admit that I cried my eyes out at the final whistle with just pure elation. The wife and I cut short our holiday in Spain in order to be there and it was well worth it. To have my wife Karen and all the family there, 21 of us in total including my 82-year-old mum was brilliant.
“To see the White Wall gave me goosebumps. Such a magical time to be a Fulham fan. I will cherish the whole day and build up for life.”
my view… pic.twitter.com/W0vR3d4Iub
— LBNo11FFC (@LBNo11FFC) May 22, 2019
Just an incredible day with my family and my extended family. pic.twitter.com/bWUbKxtJKS
— Brian Tea ?? ⚽️ (@brian_tea) May 22, 2019
Been going to Fulham since 81/82 season!! Easily my best footballing day out !! But having said that I hated the 90 minutes of football!! I was so nervous ? pic.twitter.com/IEAm4cpUly
— Fulham till i die (@paulfisher68) May 22, 2019
— FulhamFruits (@Tookstein) May 22, 2019
— Bransen Gibson (@BransenGibson) May 22, 2019
THAT moment pic.twitter.com/RwYrtu74Nr
— ⚪️ #StoptheGreed (@BxbeI_) May 22, 2019
— Graham (@kimgraleo) May 23, 2019
Best day EVER, photo with Mum & cousin who were there in ‘75. Amazing we did it & despite the disappointing season glad we got our day at Wembley… and we won!! pic.twitter.com/bBYXensC46
— Jo G (@FulhamJo) May 23, 2019
— Gráinne #FBPE ☘?️ (@Grainne_) May 22, 2019
The euphoria of our victory let us all dream that with a bit of tinkering Jokanovic’s silky style of football would thrive in the PL. The last 12 months have shown us it was a fanciful hope although for any Fulham fan present on that wonderful evening it still seems a price worth paying.
For a while it looked like defeat would send Villa into financial meltdown. However new ownership has funded a squad that once again finds itself in the playoff final with Frank Lampard’s Derby. The jury remains out on who we want to lose more?