How will Fulham cope in the Premier League? Did they ride their luck with key decisions? And what next for Jack Grealish and John Terry? We analyse the key talking points from a pulsating Sky Bet Championship play-off final.
Fulham made it back to the big time after beating Aston Villa – but what were the main talking points from the match?
Tom Cairney’s first-half strike was all that separated the teams, as Slavisa Jokanovic’s easy-on-the-eye side shone in the sunshine at Wembley.
Here, we look at the key issues from the game…
‘The Fulham way’
We are not dealing with an ordinary Sky Bet Championship play-off final winner here.
The standard that Fulham bring to the party is above the usual winner produced by the famous knock-out format. This is a team that finished the season with a bulky 88 points in their back pocket. Of the 19 teams that have previously finished on 88 points or more since the Championship rebrand in 2004/05, 18 of those were promoted automatically. That identifies the levels Fulham have hit the season.
They’ve achieved it with a stylish swagger, too. Jokanovic’s men scored the most goals from open play in the Championship this season (66) and the third-fewest goals from set-pieces (9). Players like Ryan Sessegnon, who played a part in all three of Fulham’s goals in the play-offs, are given licence to express themselves.
The test now is to whether they can stay true to their possession-based game up another level? They should take significant hope from the fact this season was the third time in Premier League history that all three promoted sides have survived. However, Brighton, Newcastle and Huddersfield have all approached the challenge with a defensive mindset, spearheaded by organisation and clinical finishing.
Jokanovic seems keen to stick to his principles – but did urge his board to show “ambition” in order for them to compete at the top level.
“We believe we can play this way,” he said.
“We can dominate against some teams, but we must be realistic.”
Slavisa Jokanovic believed Fulham's promotion to the Premier League was a culmination of a great season long campaign. Red card debate
You need big moments and big decisions to go your way in the play-offs. Fulham know this first-hand.
Jokanovic was quick to turn his mind back 12 months when asked about key refereeing decisions arguably going their way at Wembley against Villa. In their semi-final defeat against Reading, Fulham defender Tomas Kalas was penalised for a debatable handball, which handed the Royals a spot in the final.
Aston Villa felt that same grievance here.
Steve Bruce was frustrated with the level of officiating during their play-off final against Fulham and believed Ryan Fredericks should have been sent off for a stamp on Jack Grealish.
Ryan Fredericks was lucky to avoid a red card after appearing to stamp on Grealish after a clash on the touchline. The Fulham defender hacked down the Aston Villa man, before leaving his studs on the 22-year-old as he lay on the ground.
Sky Sports pundit and former Villa favourite Lee Hendrie was incensed: “The more it’s slowed down, the more it’s a straight red.”
And Steve Bruce wasn’t much happier in the press conference.
“There were big decisions that went against us too,” he said.
“[Fredericks] for me should have had a red card early on, it was right in front of the referee and the fourth official. No one wants to see a spectacle ruined but when it’s deliberate as that he deserves one.”
Fulham match winner Tom Cairney describes the feeling of scoring the winning goal in the Championship play-off final against Aston Villa Time up for Terry?
This summer will be one for contemplation for the Villa skipper. His one-year contract is now up at the club and the option of an automatic year extension is dead in the water as they didn’t achieve promotion. Quite whether the former Chelsea star has another year left in his legs after such a relentless campaign of Sky Bet Championship football is very much up for debate.
“John’s future will depend on him I think,” said Bruce.
“There will be discussions over the next few weeks and it will be with him what he wants to do. He [had an option] if we’d gone up, but obviously, we haven’t got that now.”
Terry has featured 26 times for Villa this season – performing well in parts but carried in others by centre-back partner James Chester.
Terry is obviously no spring chicken anymore, to the extent that Fulham’s sensation Ryan Sessegnon was just two days old when Terry was an unused substitute at Wembley in the 2000 FA Cup final.
He looked every bit of his 37-years-old against the sprightly young legs of this energetic Fulham side.
The brilliant Cairney spotted the weakness of Terry’s lack of pace for the winning goal, bursting into space in behind the former England captain. Another misplaced header just before half-time after his positioning let him down almost allowed Sessegnon to score but a weaker header let Terry off the hook.
Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship Play-off final between Aston Villa and Fulham What next for the boy wonder?
There was a feeling that this stage was made the ever-improving Grealish – and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The midfielder drove his team forward at every opportunity, almost single-handedly at times – even Bruce admitted afterwards that Grealish’s team-mates could have done more.
He had six shots on goal, including a Ricky Villa-esque run that would have gone down in Wembley history if his shot had hit the back of the net. Added to that, he completed three key passes and was fouled nine times – one of which drew the second yellow card for Denis Odoi and another from Fredericks that sparked the red card debate.
His performance didn’t merit what he endured at the full-time whistle. When Anthony Taylor ended the game with the final blow, Grealish fell to the floor. He was disconsolate, not even able to turn to his adoring public at Wembley. This hurt the local lad more than most.
But what next for the boy wonder? Leicester have been reportedly linked with a move and other Premier League clubs will be following suit if this showing is anything to go by. Bruce didn’t sound confident of staving off top-flight history.
He said: “There will obviously be speculation over Jack. I’d like him to stay and I think another year with us would do him the world of good. We’d love to give him a Premier League platform but he’s playing regular football here. We’ll have to see what happens.”