By Morgan Phillips
Not since the Fall of the Roman Empire has London witnessed so many white-clad citizens hugging and kissing!
After Fulham’s triumph over Derby I tried not to speculate about the play-off final but just look forward to the occasion.
For me as for many other Whites fans it was the first visit to ‘Fulham’s other stadium’ since 1975. The Piccadilly/Jubilee/Metropolitan journey went smoothly though on the third lap we were serenaded by Villa fans, their voices cracking with exhaustion. They had obviously peaked too early.
Inside the stadium we were frisked by the good-humoured security team. ‘That was meant to be ticklish’, commented my searcher in mock disappointment. Then we took to the escalators, which reminded me of the celestial ones in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’.
Fortunately these stopped when we reached the roof. A splendid view of the pitch greeted us though Billy the Badger and others at ground level looked a bit like Subbuteo figures. My fellow spectators did not seem inclined to stand throughout the match. That would have been both exhausting and vertiginous.
The Villa fans on the train had mocked our club’s fondness for clappers so I was pleased to see the familiar piece of cardboard awaiting me on the seat. There was also a white flag, perhaps not the best choice for an approaching conflict. As I already had a pair of £10 binoculars, a bag of crisps and a carton of juice, I needed more hands.
Tom Cairney won the toss for Fulham, and Aleksandar Mitrovic set the match in motion. During a cautious opening period James Chester’s foul on the Serb was perhaps the most notable incident. We did not need the scoreboard statistics to know that Fulham was dominating the play but that neither side was threatening to score.
The Whites did have two shaky moments – a slipshod clearance by Marcus Bettinelli and an injudicious shove by Tim Ream just inside the penalty area. Both defenders went on to give outstanding performances. Fulham’s most impressive early move resulted in Abou Kamara lobbing just over the bar.
The 23rd minute proved decisive. Ryan Sessegnon’s pass split the Villa defence and an incredibly calm Tom Cairney slipped the ball home. It was, as commentator Micky Gray observed, ’an outstanding goal from an outstanding football team this season’.
Fulham’s first ever goal at Wembley. How fitting that the club captain and arch-achiever should be the scorer.
The smoke bombs were a daft idea though, briefly cloaking the far end of the pitch.
Manager Slavisa Jokanovic had cheekily suggested that John Terry would make a vital mistake under pressure and this almost happened when the defender gave Ryan Sessegon a free, if difficult, opportunity to head a second. That would probably have sealed the victory.
On the other hand Fulham were fortunate that referee Anthony Taylor did not observe Ryan Fredericks’s apparent stamp on Jack Grealish. The same Villa player was also fouled by Denis Odoi, who did receive a yellow card.
Jokanovic’s first half strategy had worked. He needed only to urge Stefan Johansen, Fredericks and especially the yellow-carded Odoi to avoid making further rash challenges. In the Villa dressing room manager Steve Bruce must have been calling for greater effort from his underperforming team. His demand was answered in the second half, which proved much closer. Both Grealish and Mitrovic had early chances to score.
Grealish, the target of repeated fouls, looked the player most likely to rescue Villa, but this was not his day and he was booked for a fearsome lunge at Tom Cairney. One bizarre incident saw Kamara twice felled in the area. As with Tim Ream’s earlier push the referee saw nothing worthy of a penalty.
Mr Taylor was clearly hoping to keep 22 players on the pitch but Denis Odoi made that impossible with an undisciplined kick. The Belgian had helped Fulham reach this final but his second yellow card obliged ten men to protect the single goal lead for more than twenty minutes.
Jokanovic made three changes, and the team played so well that Villa were visibly wilting. Not even the five additional minutes allotted by the officials gave Fulham’s players or their ecstatic supporters much reason for concern.
The final whistle produced unforgettable hi-jinks on the pitch; it was the fans who seemed more exhausted. As we shuffled back to the station I heard someone with a Liverpool accent jeering our placid demeanour.
Perhaps we were still trying to absorb the triumphant end to the campaign. Anyway what is wrong with quiet satisfaction? If the Liverpudlian (was he at the wrong match?) is still in any doubt let me tell him that this season has turned into one of the best ever in my 70 years of watching Fulham, and the players, management and owners have achieved something really special.
Look out, Everton. We’re coming for you.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and unless specifically stated are not necessarily those of Hammersmith & Fulham Council.
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