Fulham were forced to abandon the flowing style of football that we have come to expect from them this season and instead, had to grind a 1-0 win against Aston Villa in the play-off to pave their way to Premier League football next season.
The southwest Londoners had up until their last game in the Championship proper, enjoyed a remarkable 23 game unbeaten run. Who would have thought that The Whites could out-perform Premiership winners Manchester City, but they did when they beat Sunderland 2-1 to record the longest unbeaten run of games in English professional football this season.
It was just such a great shame that their run had to come to an end in their last match of the season proper, against Birmingham City. It was simply that Fulham choked under pressure. Had they extended their unbeaten run by beating the Brummies, they would have gained automatic promotion into the Premiership.
But, the occasion proved too much for them, and they tumbled to a shock 3-1 defeat. Birmingham’s desire to avoid relegation, and Fulham’s nerves under the pressure of gaining automatic promotion, won out on the day.
Faced with having to take part in the playoffs to make their dream of promotion back into the Premiership come true, they first had to deal with the fact that their previous play-offs record was as bad as it could be. When they went down 1-0 to Derby in the first leg of the play-off semi, it looked like their poor record had returned to haunt them again.
However, they rallied themselves for the second leg which they won 2-0, giving them a 2-1 aggregate win. The rest is history. The Cottagers had to play Aston Villa next, and as we now know, they ended up winning by the closest of margins – one goal to nil.
When the Whites took the lead in the 23rd minute, it began to look like they had put their awful playoff record behind them. The goal was set up by Fulham’s wonder-kid, the just turned 18-year-old, Ryan Sessegnon. He supplied a telling pass that split Villa’s Alan Hutton and John Terry, for Fulham’s captain, Tom Cairney, to latch on to and steer the ball past Aston Villas’ keeper, Sam Johnstone, from just 10-yards out.
But it was in the second half that things began to look bad for the Cottagers when Denis Odoi was red-carded. It signalled a change in the Lilywhites who switched into “do or die” mode, forsaking the pretty-pretty passing game that they have become renowned for, and instead reverting to a downright gritty, gritty grind it out mode.
For their part, on the day the Claret and Blues lacked the skill and ability to break down Fulham’s staunch reserve, and it is the Whites who will grace the Premiership once again since their relegation four years ago.