Scott Parker hared down the touchline, his tie flinging every which way, as Fulham’s substitutes conga-ed down the stands to join the celebrations after Joe Bryan’s second goal sealed an immediate return to the Premier League. But in truth Bryan’s exquisitely taken first strike, approaching half-time in extra time, was the match-winner. In some ways it was audacious, in others incredible, but whatever it was, it was the goal that set them on their way.
It came towards the end of a marathon, and sometimes excruciating, contest but after almost 105 minutes of action, Bryan’s invention pulled apart west-London neighbours separated by four miles of the Thames. It is a moment Bryan and Fulham will want to relive in the coming weeks but a goal David Raya, the Brentford goalkeeper, would rather never see again. Not that he can afford to wallow in it, with the new season only five weeks away.
Raya was caught cold by Bryan’s craft, fooled from more than 35 yards, with Bryan raising his right hand as if to indicate to his swarm of teammates to attack the 18-yard box. But Bryan had other ideas and his quick thinking saw him deliciously bend the ball into the corner of the net with the goal gaping. The flight of the free-kick bounced inside the six-yard box and cannoned in. His second was equally sweet, calmly slotting underneath Raya after a neat give-and-go with the substitute Aleksandar Mitrovic, who moonlighted as a cheerleader until being introduced on the brink of extra time.
The Brentford captain, Pontus Jansson, stood hands on hips, forlornly watching the celebrations unfold before trudging down the tunnel, head bowed. Tom Cairney lifted the winners’ trophy aloft before helping give Parker the bumps. This was not a bad way to cap his first full season in management. Christian Nørgaard could not bear to look, instead poking a ball around the 18-yard box as Fulham turned up the volume, buoyed by floorfiller anthems, serenading their talisman, Mitrovic, in a huddle. “Mitro’s on fire,” they roared.
For Brentford, this was a galling defeat at the end of an extraordinary season – their last at Griffin Park – but, ultimately, they fluffed their lines on the biggest stage, their enthralling forwards and high-octane style absent. Ollie Watkins stung the palms of Marek Rodak but the Fulham goalkeeper was not truly troubled, with Raya the busier throughout. But, perhaps understandably given the magnitude of the prize on offer, victory worth £130m to Fulham. It was hardly the most colourful encounter in an eerily quiet arena, typified by the sound of Faryl Smith’s pre-recorded national anthem.
It was a tentative and painstaking game comprising few clear chances, until Bryan’s goal stirred Fulham to life and punctured Brentford’s belief of returning to the top flight for the first time in 73 years. Their miserable play-off record continues: they have failed to gain promotion in any of their nine play-off campaigns. Given the season started 367 days ago, it was no surprise both teams appeared jaded, with Brentford notably a shadow of their free-flowing and fearless selves.
Brentford survived a few hairy moments to take the game to extra time, with Raya smartly denying Josh Onomah, one of six players in the Fulham starting 11 with experience of playing in a play-off final. The captain, Cairney, scored the winner on Fulham’s previous visit to Wembley, when they prevailed against Aston Villa in this fixture in 2018.
Parker was reluctant to trumpet the importance of such nous but acknowledged it was a worthless tool in isolation. On the night Fulham’s knowhow seemed to make a difference as they controlled large spells, forcing Brentford to feed off scraps.
Fulham did not have it all their own way through and had Michael Hector to thank for another crucial intervention in the opening throes of a cagey encounter. The defender expertly glanced a dangerous Mathias Jensen cross out for a corner to prevent Bryan Mbeumo tapping in at the back post. Hector has made a habit of saving Fulham at the last, having made a preposterous goal-saving clearance at Cardiff en route to victory in the semi-final first leg.
They were also fortunate Harrison Reed escaped with only a yellow card despite a crude studs-showing challenge on Christian Nørgaard. It was a poor tackle, which surely would have resulted in a stronger punishment had VAR technology been in use as Thomas Frank, the Brentford manager, had advocated.
With three minutes of extra time remaining, Fulham all but extinguished Brentford’s hopes, with Bryan completing a wonderful give-and-go with Mitrovic, who arrived as a substitute at the end of normal time. Brentford did pull a goal back through Henrik Dalsgaard but it was Fulham who went berserk at the final whistle, with players wheeling in delirium, while Mitrovic was quick to console Raya.