Tom Cairney sends Fulham back to the Premier League after playoff win over Aston Villa
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from Fulham's 1-0 win over Aston Villa in the Championship playoff final at Wembley, which sees the Cottagers return to the Premier League after four seasons in England's second division.
1. Cairney sends Fulham back to the big time
Fulham are back in the Premier League after four years away, Tom Cairney's 23rd-minute winner edging them past Aston Villa in a tense and increasingly chaotic Championship playoff final. They won despite playing the last quarter of the game with 10 men after a red card for centre-back Denis Odoi, weathering a storm to seal their top-flight return.
The west London side made the crucial breakthrough midway through the first half. Cairney's finish, slotted past Sam Johnstone after a slick run inside and through pass from Ryan Sessegnon, was ice cool and opened up a game that had started cagily. There had been signs in the moments prior to the goal that Fulham were beginning to get into their stride, Aboubakar Kamara hooking a shot over from their first genuinely incisive move, and this was early reward for their commitment to playing fast, adventurous football.
Villa were second best, although had cause for complaint when Fulham right-back Ryan Fredericks appeared to deliberately tread over Jack Grealish after he fell to the ground. No card of either colour was given, and the pattern resumed; Sessegnon nodded straight at Johnstone just after the half-hour mark, and Matt Targett scraped wide from range.
When Villa did show some creative spark, it almost paid off, Robert Snodgrass chipping an inventive free kick to Grealish, who blazed over from a tight angle. But that was the sum of their first-half threat, and they went in for the break requiring an improvement.
They duly produced one, and Grealish, getting in front of Marcus Bettinelli but heading over, had a half-chance to equalise in the 51st minute. Now Villa were playing several yards higher up the field. On the hour, Grealish almost scored one of the great Wembley solo goals but was denied by Bettinelli after a bewitching run.
Grealish, centre stage now, made his own pitch for a red card with an awful challenge on Cairney. It was a blood-and-thunder affair now, and Odoi's 70th-minute red card -- both bookings coming for fouls on Grealish -- was little surprise in the circumstances. It set the stage for a siege in which Villa, now camped in the Fulham half, had several glimpses of goal. But there were no clear chances and Fulham, resolute to the last, celebrated the whistle deliriously.
2. Cottagers' steel, style will grace Premier League
What a deserved reward this was for a free-flowing, attack-minded Fulham side that will be a breath of fresh air in a stale Premier League. The fear was that Slavisa Jokanovic's side, which blew their chance of automatic promotion on the final day of the regular season after a 23-match unbeaten run, would get stage fright again, but here they turned up and showed both sides to their game.
If the first half showed the Fulham somewhere near their best -- passing, probing, prowling with intent -- the second showed that they can mix it too. Winners invariably can, even though the headlines are generally made by artistic impression.
In fact, Fulham gave Grealish, Villa's waifish and influential playmaker, a hard time from the start, and when Odoi took him out unceremoniously six minutes before half-time, it was a reminder that Jokanovic has instilled the kind of steely edge he possessed as a player. Fredericks' stamp on the same player was even naughtier, and by the time Odoi raked through Grealish again, this time receiving his marching orders, it was clear that nobody was in any mood for compromises.
They saw the victory out amid some ferocious late pressure -- Kevin McDonald even missing two second-half chances to make the game safe -- and it felt like the right outcome for anyone concerned that the top flight is becoming bogged down by staid, unambitious mid-table sides. Fulham will look to take anyone on next season, and have a future superstar in Sessegnon.
It is astonishing to think that the wide man only turned 18 eight days ago. He contributed 16 goals to their campaign but his assist here, showing the kind of precision so many of his age lack, was more decisive than any of them and showed that he is at home on the highest stage. Fulham will hope to retain him for at least one top-flight season before the biggest clubs come calling, and will also hope to strike a permanent deal with Newcastle for Aleksandar Mitrovic, who was relatively quiet here.
But for now they will celebrate a job done well and, on the whole, in some style.
3. Bruce, Villa must prepare to rebuild
This was presumably not the plan Villa owner Tony Xia had when he took over in 2016. Back then, Xia claimed they would be "the top club in Europe with the highest number of fans all over the world" within five years. He has three to go, but that eventuality seems some way off. Villa face a third season in the Championship and, almost certainly, a rebuild that will test Steve Bruce's managerial abilities to the limit.
Villa's most obvious weakness was exposed, and it cost them dearly. In the build-up to the game, Jokanovic had been unusually explicit about Fulham's intention to set about centre-backs James Chester and John Terry and "make them tired." Terry is 36; Chester is 29 but hardly the most mobile, and the idea was to pitch a young, mobile front three right up against them and see whether they could cope.
The answer became apparent soon enough: Sessegnon's rapid dart into the danger area and slide-rule ball for Cairney rendered them statuesque and highlighted the wider problems in this Villa side.
They were simply too slow, too lumpen and lacking movement in comparison to Fulham, and by the time they cut loose, they had a deficit to chase. A solid, experienced spine was designed to frustrate Fulham before striking them on the counter through Grealish, Albert Adomah and Lewis Grabban. The plan failed in a sterile first-half performance, and although they were much more proactive after the break, they fell short of producing an equaliser.
Now Bruce -- who, it must be said, has done a heroic job of steering Villa this far during a desperately sad year in which both of his parents passed away -- will have to assess the way forward. The likes of Terry, Mile Jedinak and Alan Hutton are reaching the end of their shelf lives, while impressive loanee goalkeeper Johnstone will return to Manchester United and somebody in the top flight will surely take a chance on Grealish's old-fashioned creative gifts.
Villa are surely too big of a club to stay in the second tier for much longer, but they stand at a crossroads now.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.