Bryan’s special puts Fulham and Parker back among the elite
The desperate battle for the last place in the Premier League in the year that Covid threatened to destroy the game, and it all came down to a glorious, trick free-kick from Joe Bryan that went in one way while everyone bar the Fulham full-back was looking in the other direction.
There were two extra-time goals from Bryan that launched Fulham back into the Premier League at the expense of Brentford, here to disrupt the Championship but just one win short of the promised land. Spoiler alert: this was a terrible game but it came alive when Bryan deceived the Brentford goalkeeper David Raya and possibly everyone else in Wembley bar his manager with a disguised free-kick that crept in at the near post in extra time of the play-off final.
A great moment for Bryan who added a second at the end of the game – he had scored only one all season before this – just before Brentford’s Henrik Dalsgaard scored when it was all too late. This was a triumph for Scott Parker, the young Fulham manager who led England as captain at Wembley in 2012 and has always seemed destined to be a coach. Now he finds himself catapulted into the big league.
Afterwards, there was a determination from the Fulham manager not to allow the emotion to carry him away as his players collectively lost it with champagne and trophy. Ever since he juggled a football as the child prodigy on the McDonalds advert there has been something very serious about Parker when it came to football, and really – what a career. As a player and as a manager he has been an overachiever and although he was in situ when Fulham were relegated a year earlier, now he has earned his place.
There will be no glorious end to the 73-year top-flight absence of Fulham’s west London rivals, Brentford, who must say goodbye to Griffin Park next season and move into their new home without a place in the Premier League.
Brentford came so close but they were undone by some remarkable quick thinking by Bryan.
It had, all told, been a dreadful game when at the end of the first period of extra time, Bryan sized up a free-kick in the left channel at about 40 yards out. His body shape and the pattern of the players lining up on the edge of the box suggested another cross – and that was, at least, what Raya expected. Instead, Bryan aimed for Raya’s right post and bent his left-foot shot inside it just before the goalkeeper could rush across.
Bryan would later say that it had all been practised and that Parker had earlier called him over to tell him that Raya was too far off his line. Bryan’s second goal came after a breakaway and an exchange with Aleksandar Mitrovic, Fulham’s bigearning, Championship top-goalsBy coring striker who had started the game on the bench. The Serb came on at the end of the regulation 90 minutes, still not fully recovered from a hamstring injury.
Bryan’s second meant that the best of the west had been decided – the two sides from west London locked together in an exhausting Championship play-off final that may be remembered for little else other than the full-back’s first goal. The great threat that has been posed by Brentford this season, especially from Ollie Watkins and
Said Benrahma, never materialised. This inventive, breakout Championship side who had come out of lockdown at an electrifying pace did not play to their potential.
On both sides, there were few chances and two managers who were unwilling to take many risks in the game that was worth as much as £160 million for Brentford and just £30million less for Fulham.
It had been a long season, 368 days since the gruelling Championship had first begun, and it showed in everything these two sides did. Both played a solid midfield base and directed attacks wide. Michael Hector and Tim Ream were strong in the centre of the Fulham defence. As for Brentford, Thomas Frank’s team – the Championship’s top goalscorers – looked sluggish and after the stronger start found themselves under pressure.
The only notable moment of the first half was a wild challenge by the Fulham midfielder Harrison Reed just before the half-hour. The 25-year-old on loan from Southampton undoubtedly caught the Dane Christian Norgaard on the ankle and there was a strong case to be made that the force was excessive. Without recourse to a video assistant, there a suggestion that referee Martin Atkinson decided to play this one safe and reached for yellow instead of red.
Bryan Mbeumo did not go much past the hour until he was replaced. Bobby Decordova-Reid had one fleeting chance from a Neeskens Kebano cross that came from Fulham’s best move of the first half. Later, Watkins would have a powerful hit saved by the Fulham goalkeeper, Marek Rodak.
There was an unwillingness from either side to commit players forward and even the introduction of Mitrovic was a straight swap for Decordova-Reid. The quality of the Wembley pitch also seemed to have an effect on the standard of the action and there was not much that was typical of the average Championship game when risks are taken and mistakes made.
For Fulham there was a strong bench and Parker called upon another play-off veteran, Anthony Knockaert, in the closing stages of the 90 minutes. They went on to extra time with everything at stake. Then came Bryan’s free-kick, the game’s one true moment of creativity, and his second to seal the win. The header from Dalsgaard came too late and Brentford could not turn it around – their ninth play-off campaign, none of which have yielded a promotion.
Perfect planning: Fulham go ahead (above and left) through Joe Bryan’s 40-yard free-kick after the full-back had been urged by manager Scott Parker (far left) to catch David Raya off his line; the pair celebrate together (right)