Joe Bryan's moment of magic enough to book Fulham's Premier League return
Updated: Aug 4, 2020
It took a moment of individual brilliance to decide this 367-day long Championship campaign and book Fulham's place back in the Premier League.
Of course this game went to extra time -- in this never-ending stream of football and intermingling seasons -- and after 105 minutes of both teams cancelling each other out, it was the quick thinking of Fulham left-back Joe Bryan that broke open the Premier League treasure chest and left their local rivals Brentford staring at another season in England's second tier.
And then, for good measure, Bryan -- who had scored only once this term prior to Tuesday's game of riches at Wembley -- followed up his wonderful free kick with a second superbly-worked goal in the 117th minute as he ended this chess match of a game by smashing the board over Brentford's head. Brentford grabbed a late consolation, but by that time the Fulham bench and their other staff were already celebrating and looking forward to their spot back at the top table.
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Fulham boss Scott Parker said they had "deep wounds" that needed to heal after they were relegated from the Premier League in 2018-19. The club he inherited in February 2019 was one used to losing. Now they've regained that winning touch, but Parker knows the Championship playoff final win is only half the battle to getting Fulham back to the club they want to be. But they've got the platform now to build on.
Fulham managed this final win perfectly and the 2-1 scoreline was fair. They went against their expected style of containment and counter, and instead controlled possession, prodded and pressed and then waited for their opportunity. There'd been half-chances aplenty in the regular 90 minutes -- it was only in the first minute of extra time that the first clear-cut opportunity presented itself, to Brentford's Ollie Watkins -- and it took the narrowest glimpse of opportunity for Bryan to finally swing the game Fulham's favour.
"I'm not the hero," Bryan said afterward. Try telling that to the Fulham fans inevitably spilling out of west London pubs singing his name.
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Fulham had practised the set piece all week -- noting Brentford goalkeeper David Raya strays off his line at free kicks. So as Bryan eyed up his teammates from 38 metres out just slightly out on the left, looking as if he were going to cross to target man Aleksandar Mitrovic, he remembered what his father taught him when they were playing in the park: Never tell the opposition what you're thinking with your eyes. Bryan then drilled the ball into the near post and past a flailing Raya. In the eerily quiet Wembley, the shouts of delight and surprise broke the night sky and then the 26-year-old added another for good measure.
Ripping up tactical responsibility and positional sense, Bryan surged forward, exchanged a one-two with substitute Mitrovic, fit only for the bench, and gave Parker's side an unassailable two-goal buffer.
The game had the choice of two scripts: the one we wanted to see would have seen chance after chance, both goals taking a peppering and sporadic shout of glee reverberating around an empty Wembley. It needed the teams to find their own tempo in a game void of atmosphere. Brentford had their much-admired front three of Said Benrahma, Bryan Mbeumo and Watkins; Fulham had their own fire power. Surely there'd be goals.
But then there was the other script. The one where in this endless season, the game went against expectation and hope. The risk was, due to the understandable magnitude of the match, fatigue and how close the two teams were in the regular season (Brentford finished in third, Fulham fourth, due to a single goal differential) that they'd spend the match sparring, and cancel each other out.
The game took on the second narrative: attritional football, pressing, counter-pressing, error and running down blind alleys with quality chances at a premium. So amid the suffocating, claustrophobia of a place in the world's richest league on offer -- something both managers had asked their players to ignore through the week, "it's just another game" they'd have said (it's not) -- it needed a moment of quick-thinking and individual brilliance and it was Brentford who blinked first.