Cairney carries Fulham to Premier League
Agony for Aston Villa as they miss out in Wembley showdown.
Fulham are back in the big time after winning a thrilling Sky Bet Championship play-off final against Aston Villa, with Tom Cairney ending their four-year Premier League absence in a pulsating encounter.
Saturday may be the day of the Champions League final but the financial implications of the second-tier showpiece – worth at least £160million of additional revenue to the victor – dwarfs the Kiev showpiece.
Fulham were favourites with the bookmakers – and perhaps the neutrals – on their first trip to Wembley since 1975, and emerged 1-0 winners against Steve Bruce’s Aston Villa after clinging onto Cairney’s first-half strike.
Denis Odoi’s sending off 20 minutes from time led to a jittery end for Slavisa Jokanovic’s Whites, but they dug deep to secure the biggest financial prize in world football on a day to cherish.
The decisive blow came midway through the first half as Fulham offered a glimpse of the football that has earned so many plaudits this term, with 18-year-old Ryan Sessegnon superbly threading through Cairney to fire home.
Villa looked ripe for the taking as skipper John Terry struggled but Bruce, a man who knows a thing or two about promotion, got them firing in the second half.
Jack Grealish was a constant thorn in the side and saw a mazy run ended by a fine stop, before being taken down by a clumsy Odoi challenge that led to a second yellow card and an anxious conclusion.
Yet Fulham showed grit to match their skill to win and leave Villa, on the 36th anniversary of their European Cup triumph, facing another season in the Championship – and the financial ramifications that brings.
The Cottagers, by contrast, could earn £280million in extra revenue if they survive next season in the top flight after winning at the ground owner Shahid Khan hopes to buy.
Villa fan Prince William was among the 85,243 in attendance on a baking Wembley day, where intensity from the stands translated onto the pitch.
Villa worked hard during the opening stages as Robert Snodgrass found Albert Adomah and Conor Hourihane saw a half-hearted penalty appeal ignored.
But Fulham managed to contain Villa and burst into life two minutes after Aboubakar Kamara’s deft touch and looped effort went over the bar.
Teen sensation Sessegnon showed awareness and a maturity that belied his years to thread through Cairney, whose low first-time finish beat Sam Johnstone.
Kamara and Sessegnon had attempts either side of a break in play after Ryan Fredericks trod on Grealish, whose quick feet lead to a booking for Odoi as half-time approached.
The boyhood Villa fan fired over when the resulting free-kick when it was quickly taken.
Sessegnon headed over before the break as Villa’s defence struggled, but Bruce’s men started the second half on the front foot as Hourihane charge down a Fredericks clearance to get the claret and blue hordes on their feet.
Grealish raced to head just over with the goal gaping before Hourihane’s cross-shot threatened, but Fulham were looking dangerous on the break and Aleksandar Mitrovic nodded wide.
Grealish looked Villa’s biggest threat and came close to drawing his side level in the 60th minute, jinking inside and out on a run before Marcus Bettinelli denied the attacking midfielder.
The 22-year-old and the Villa fans were incandescent when handball appeals against Odoi were ignored – anger that bubbled over as he launched into an overzealous challenge on Cairney that led to a booking and on-field commotion.
Kevin McDonald and Kamara had penalty appeals overlooked either side of Stefan Johansen flashing over 20 minutes from time.
Odoi missed the ball and instead wiped out Grealish, collecting a second booking to leave Fulham a man light.
Mitrovic saw a close-range effort blocked as tensions mounted, with substitute Oliver Norwood flying into a superb challenge to deny Hourihane.
Fulham were running out of energy as the clock wound down, with Snodgrass and Scott Hogan having attempts before a late Grealish penalty claim and the welcome sound of the full-time whistle.