Bryan’s brace propels Fulham into Premier League in 2-1 extra time Championship play-off victory
Championship play-off Final: Wembley Stadium
Brentford 1 Fulham 2 (after extra time)
Joe Bryan scored twice in extra time – both acts of supreme incisiveness - to return Fulham to the Premier League after just one year away.
For Brentford, who failed to find the brilliant form that took them to the very verge of the top flight for the first time in 73 years, there was only heartache.
The game looked as good as penalties-bound as the teams punched each other to a standstill. Then came the moment that changed the paths of these two clubs for the forseeable future.
The Whites won a free-kick some 40 yards out, and in a moment that will haunt David Raya as long as he lives, the Fulham left-back spotted the Bees keeper straying off his line in anticipation of a cross to the far post. By the time Raya realised Bryan was whipping the ball towards the vacated post, it was too late. He could not get back.
That moment of impudence changed everything as the first period of extra time drew to a close. But the rapier thrust of Bryan’s second in the 118th minute was even more devastating.
Showing a tirelessness that speaks volumes of his fitness, he got forward to exchange passes with extra-time sub Aleksandar Mitrovic before drilling smartly home.
They were his first and only goals this season apart from one he scored against Wigan back in September. Talk about good timing.
For the first time in three encounters with Brentford this season, Fulham had scored. And this was the moment to do it. It ensured they had won a play-off final at Wembley for the second time in three years.
A late header from Henrik Dalsgaard deep into injury time could not affect the outcome for Thomas Frank’s men, who simply could not muster the devil that has terrorised so many teams this season.
The contest’s dramatic finale rescued the occasion from being a forgettable affair. Both sides worked to cover every blade of grass, working like crazy for that yard of space that neither side was willing to give up without a fight.
It was tense. It was at times dreadful. But with so much riding on it, who could be remotely surprised.
Fulham had most of the ball and in skipper Tom Cairney, most of the guile. But puncturing a superbly organised Brentford defence was another matter.
This was a game of high-stakes chess played out to the echoing chamber that was a deserted Wembley Stadium. The £160m game with so much on it, you think it might have been an act of kindness to play this game behind closed doors, such was the almost unbearable tension.
Equally, however, Fulham had done their homework on the need to strangle counter-attacks at birth and to a man they chased back to harry their opponents.
Abou Kamara and Neeskens Kebano got through prodigious amounts of work tracking back as well as trying to push forward into advanced positions.
Subduing Brentford’s famed 59-goal BMW machine was always going to be a key feature of their night’s work. The game was past its second drinks break before Ollie Watkins had a proper sight of goal and his rising shot was comfortably turned over by Marek Rodak.
Said Benrahma – the man who makes the Bees really tick - was forced to drop deep in search of the ball and simply could not influence the game as we thought he might.
Josh Onomah looked imperious on this grand stage in the opening half and had two shots at goal to trouble Raya. At the other end, a Mathias Jensen chip caused panic but Michael Hector’s header took it away from danger.
Mitrovic was on the bench and the very fact he was unable to start told you all you needed to know about his battle to recover from the hamstring strain which kept him out of the play-off semi-finals against Cardiff City.
They have done well without him this season on the occasions he has been sidelined through injury and suspension but they missed their focal point. Yet he was to play a part in the end by laying on the second goal.
Scott Parker did not dare bring him on too early, waiting for the 90th minute to take the gamble on him. It was probably wise. And he was rewarded for his instincts. In this results business, his has been a truly excellent first season in management.
Kebano had recovered from a twinge from the tie against Cardiff to play his part and he hit the side-netting from a free-kick – Fulham staff were celebrating, thinking it was in - almost reprising the one he scored in south Wales.
But the game gradually seized up. The occasion strangling the life out of the game and condemning it, perhaps inevitably, to extra time.
Watkins went close to steering in a low cross from Sergi Canos as the extra 30 minutes began, but the game became more and more mired in fouls and yellow cards – five Fulham players went into ref Martin Atkinson’s notebook – two from the Bees.
We wondered if this seemingly moribund match had anything left to offer. Bryan gave us the answer.
So no Premier League football to grace Brentford’s new stadium next season. But they have lit up the season – especially post-lockdown. The hope is that they can keep their best players and try again next term, but for now they can only look on with envy at their winning neighbours.
Brentford: Raya – Dalsgaard, Jansson, Pinnock, Henry (Fosu 106) – Jensen (Dervisoglu 105), Norgaard, Dasilva (Canos 83) – Mbeumo (Marcondes 61), Watkins, Benrahma. Subs not used: Daniels, Valencia, Jeanvier, Zamburek, Roerslev
Fulham: Rodak – Odoi (Christie 110), Hector, Ream, Bryan – Kebano (Knockaert 81), Reed, Cairney, Onomah (Le Marchand 110), Kamara (Cavaleiro 105) – Reid (Mitrovic 90). Subs not used: Bettinelli, McDonald, Johansen, Le Marchand, Sessegnon.