Having barely slept the night before through nerves, I arrived at Wembley in a caffeinated adrenaline-fuelled haze. It’s 15:30 on a glorious Saturday afternoon (perhaps painted more glorious by the result in hindsight), and I’m already swept up into a crowd of fans brandishing flags and scarves, chants being started by supporters and then answered by the opposing fans as loud as possible. Walking along the approach to the stadium, the fans gradually split in two distinct streams of white (Fulham) and claret (Aston Villa), all crowned by the stadium’s iconic arch. Despite getting hit repeatedly by the flag being waved by the guy in front of me, the atmosphere is electric and the energy of fans is incredible.
With promotion being worth an estimated £160 million in revenue, and 85,000 expectant diehards waiting with baited breath, the stakes are extremely high. Until recently, both Fulham and Aston Villa were established Premier League clubs. Fulham had been playing Premier League football for 13 years before relegation in 2014. One of the founding members of the rebranded Premier League in 1992, Villa were relegated in 2016. Fans of both teams have the taste of top flight football lingering on their taste buds, and were craving more.
I was hoping that Fulham would repeat a bit of that magic that gave them the 23 unbeaten game-streak to reach third in the league, and Villa placed their trust in the experienced Steve Bruce who, having already guided clubs to promotion to the Premier League four times, was hoping to secure his fifth. Captain John Terry lead a much more experienced Villa side, whose average age was four years older than Fulham’s raw squad. Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli backed Fulham’s youth and energy. It was a prediction that, thankfully, proved true.
From kick-off Fulham applied steady pressure down at the Villa end, enjoying most of possession, until at 23 minutes, a Ryan Sessegnon through ball set Tom Cairney up for a spectacular left footed shot from the right side of the box. The ball found a home in the bottom left corner of the Villa goal to the jubilation of the Fulham supporters. So much so, that the person next to me forgot that they were holding a drink which ended up all over the surrounding fans.
Villa came back much stronger in the second half with a couple of attempts on goal immediately after the break. I watched with baited breath. The win I was craving looked less and less certain. Pressure only piled up when, at 70 minutes, Denis Odoi received a second yellow card leaving Fulham with ten men. Jokanović quickly reinforced the back line, but Villa re-launched their attack, and we were all perched on the edge of our seats. Despite five minutes of additional time – 25 agonising minutes of 10-men back-to-the-walls defending – Fulham managed to cling on and secure their place in the Premier League making the trip to London worthwhile.