It has been a six-month surge to glory, a charge from the obscurity of 17th in the Championship to the limelight of the Premier League that was completed by their captain. Tom Cairney scored a goal that is worth £155 million (Dh758m) to Fulham, taking them back to the top flight after a four-year absence and condemning Aston Villa to a third consecutive campaign in the second tier.
It was a reward for the fluent football Fulham have played since a slow start to the season and for a manager, in Slavisa Jokanovic, who will belatedly get to manage in the Premier League, three years after he took Watford up.
But the consequences for Villa could also be considerable. They will be forced to cut costs now. Their exile from the elite could be prolonged. The 36th anniversary of the day they won the European Cup proved an unhappy one. Ryan Sessegnon has only been alive for half of that time but, eight days after turning 18, the Fulham prodigy provided another indication of why he seems destined for the top. He started the season at left-back, ends it with 16 goals, the majority delivered from the left wing, and illustrated his ability when he wandered infield to set up the sole goal.
He guided a pass through the Villa defence, catching John Terry flat-footed, and into the path of Cairney. The midfielder is another of Fulham’s phalanx of gifted left-footers, as he showed by steering his shot past Sam Johnstone. Cairney had been coveted by West Ham United in January. Fulham’s refusal to sell was justified by his contribution.
It was Fulham’s first notable chance, but a sign pressure paid off. They had dominated possession. It could have brought a bigger lead, but James Chester made a fine block to thwart Aleksandar Mitrovic.
But the action was not confined to the penalty areas. A game of two Ryans should have brought three red cards. Mistake compounded mistake in referee Anthony Taylor’s display, which amounted to an advertisement for VAR.
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Fulham should have been reduced to 10 men within the first half hour as Ryan Fredericks escaped unpunished for a stamp on Jack Grealish. Villa manager Steve Bruce had a perfect view and was understandably aggrieved.
Grealish’s frustration was reflected in a shocking challenge on Cairney that also merited a red card. Eventually, Dennis Odoi, already booked for fouling Grealish, was dismissed for a studs-high challenge on the midfielder. It was an indication that Fulham kept resorting to the illegal to halt Grealish.
Grealish, though, was ubiquitous. He has been rejuvenated under Bruce and the lifelong Villa fan was irrepressible. Villa’s best chances fell his way, but he blazed over after Fulham were caught out by Robert Snodgrass’ clever free kick and then his header from Albert Adomah’s cross was too high. His radar was better after a mesmeric dribble but Marcus Bettinelli saved his shot.
It formed part of an onslaught as slow starters played with much more urgency in the second half. Fulham had opportunities on the break, with Stefan Johansen lofting a shot over the bar and Mitrovic also unable to add the decisive second, but were often camped around their own box.
Substitute Oliver Norwood made a brilliant block. Tomas Kalas came on to bolster a defence deprived of Odoi. Fulham held on. Their prize is huge.