Last weekend, Fulham secured promotion to the Premier League with a gritty 1-0 victory over Aston Villa in the EFL Championship Play-off Final, demonstrating that a youthful team with guts and flair can overcome the weathered and battle-hardened old guard.
Fulham’s win at Wembley on Saturday was a deserved one, and I don’t say that simply because I favour the blue side of the Second City…
In a match perhaps more reminiscent of an attritional, sluggish naval battle than the sweeping eloquence of a cavalry charge, Fulham snatched the trophy with a moment that only they could have mustered up.
Ryan Sessegnon, a young man who time and time again this season has belied his age with a deftness of touch and calmness of head usually reserved for the experienced shoulder, produced a delicate, threaded through pass that required only a caress from Tom Cairney to send it past a hapless Sam Johnstone into the bottom corner of the Villa net.
It was a snapshot of superior quality, a still-frame that pretty much put the game beyond Steve Bruce’s men as soon as his side’s net rippled—that webbed cascade resulting from Cairney’s goal sent vibrations around the home of football, saying unequivocally ‘we are the better football team’.
The rest of the game was typifying. Villa tried and tried to gain a foothold, but their mismatch of washed-up Premier League talent with a smattering of individual promise was no match for Fulham’s endemic class.
The final whistle signalled that Bruce’s brand of old-hat reliance is an out-dated ideal—’you can’t win anything with seniors’.
Undoubtedly I, and many fans of the current attacking football zeitgeist, am delighted with this result. Fulham have yet again been mesmerising this season, netting 79 times in the domestic campaign and conceding 46, a statistic more than indicative of their gun-ho attitude.
Slavisa Jokanovic has instilled blunderbuss football as the way forward at Craven Cottage and, boy, has it worked.
Aston Villa, on the other hand, have been dogged, and nothing more. Bruce’s collection of top division has-beens—the Terrys, Whelans and Huttons of this world—was designed to just about get them over the line, nothing more.
Except, of course, they managed to fall over before getting to said line.
How wonderful it is, then, that an exciting side has made its way up the ladder.
Goal-getters from the get-go
With Fulham’s promotion, fans of the English top flight can look forward to some no-holds-barred, all-action and screw the rest football a la Blackpool under Ian Holloway, next season.
Yet there’s every reason that this will keep them up come May 2019, and—dare I say it—it’s a philosophy that could take them to even giddier heights.
On the other side of the coin, Villa smacked more of the sort of side who’ve indolently slouched towards top division relegation this year.
Swansea are the ostensible exception, having historically gestured at champagne football during their years in the Prem, but they came unstuck, as many teams do, due to poor recruitment—signings over recent years have done far more to upset their footballing identity than perpetuate it.
Stoke, still plodding along with Crouch upfront, played a brand of football that no-one would want to watch. The only possible way that they managed to fill the bet365 stadium must have been on a day on which there were enough punters who, like me, wanted to settle a bet (haha?) about how many pins Shaqiri could knock over if he was hurled down an aisle at a bowling alley.
West Brom, who I feel perhaps less sympathetic for than even Stoke, fired one negative-minded red-faced manager in Tony Pulis, only to replace him with another one in Alan Pardew. Incredulous doesn’t quite cover it for many West Brom fans, and there’s absolutely no reason that the Baggies’ upper management should be pointing fingers at anyone but themselves.
Aside from an on-the-pitch siege mentality—let’s just dig in until this all blows over, and head home with a well-fought 0-0 pocketed—these sides all failed to produce a decent goalscorer.
For Swansea, Tammy Abraham started the season well, but a brief burst at the outset frankly isn’t good enough—their top scorer in all competitions was Jordan Ayew with 11 goals.
For Stoke, Shaqiri netted eight domestic goals.
For West Brom, Jay Rodriguez managed 11.
To stay up these days, you need a twenty-goal-a-season striker. A Mikael Forssell, a Christian Benteke at Villa (don’t look now) or a Wilfried Bony in his first Swansea spell (don’t look now).
Fortunately for Fulham, they might be cultivating one. Mitrovic scored 12 goals in just 18 appearances since joining the Whites on loan in January, and his hold-up play went a long way to ensuring success for the Londoners.
His Premier League record is certainly less than sparkling, but we often see that a bit of momentum can kickstart a career, and the form of Burnley’s forward men this term has undoubtedly demonstrated that strikers can still make the step up between divisions.
But it’s gonna take money…
…a whole lotta spending money.
Transfer policy is perhaps the most important checkbox for any promoted side to tick if it wants to keep its head above water, and it’s certainly a large reason that this year’s relegation aficionados got things so drastically wrong.
Really, it all boils down to one simple principle: don’t do things like signing Kevin Wimmer for £18m. Got it? Good. Let’s move on.
In all seriousness, though, Fulham would do well to take a leaf out of Wolves’s book. A big wallet means nothing if the person responsible for it uses it poorly. The acquisition of players like Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota were nothing short of inspired this season and, if rumours are true and Andre Silva is indeed destined for Molineux, their policy should continue to work—they’d also be taking my advice from section two, which is a bonus for any sports journalist…
If it seems that I’m angry it’s because I am. I’m tired of watching sides at the bottom of the table play negatively simply to get results to just about stay up.
In recent years, the Championship has been far more exciting than the Premier League, precisely because of teams like Fulham.
I’m over the moon that they’ve been promoted because it might just mean that we get some magic back in the Prem. The same goes for Wolves too. Both teams have the potential to compete and are better teams who have maintained a Premier League record for a number of years—personally, I’m relishing watching them attempt to bowl over Southampton or Everton, and I can’t wait for them to have a real go at Old Trafford and Anfield.
The Premier League is unique because it offers the chance for any team to beat anyone. With Fulham, and with Wolves too (they’ve snuck into this piece, but who cares, come here you big lugs), there’s the chance not only that they can beat any team, but that they can beat any team well.
Oh and, in case you were wondering, there is indeed a reason that I haven’t cast Cardiff in this same light, and by now it should really be obvious.
I’ll see you all in six months when Warnock is sacked and replaced with Allardyce—you heard it here first.