It seemed like the sort of game that would suit Brentford. Yet Fulham found those marginal gains to earn a Premier League place.
Thomas Frank didn’t exactly duel with the media during his Sunday press conference, but he did clash with the culture. He answered all the usual questions about pressure, history and the occasion, from all the same people, all chasing the same headline. He met them with pragmatic answers, though, and bloodless responses to how his Brentford might cope at Wembley.
Yes, there would be nerves, he admitted, but the mission was simple enough.
“Focus on your task. Focus on your job as a player. Focus on what you can do something about and then in the first ten minutes, make sure you run, fight and communicate.”
The more sensible someone sounds, the more ridiculous football can sometimes make them look. Simple as Brentford’s task was, they didn’t come close to completing it. They didn’t run, fight or communicate, and while this was never a match of any great quality, Fulham were still better than them in every department.
The game’s prelude had pivoted around a false dichotomy and an unflattering comparison. Fulham aren’t Brentford’s binary twin. They’re not Proper Football Man FC to these Moneyball Athletics, even if their recent recruiting history suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, with Scott Parker in the other technical area with his immaculate hair and credentials, and his perfect football accent, that was very much this final’s dynamic.
It would be Frank’s calm versus Parker’s bulging neck muscles. Substance against bluster. Everything that really matters facing the arcane qualities that the traditionalists cling to fearfully.
And in the first half, it was all the things which weren’t supposed to matter that seemed especially important. Fulham were quick into the game. They were more urgent with the ball and hassled a few early mistakes from a jittery defence. But for a couple of sharp saves from David Raya, they would probably have taken an early lead and would definitely have deserved to.
It was interesting, because an empty, echoing Wembley should have suited Brentford. They should be the ones who want the controlled environment. Again, that’s the clumsy narrative at work. But the lack of outside interference, the sterile conditions – according to the Big Data cliché, that should have been ideal. Conversely, without any wind in their sails, Fulham should have just drifted aimlessly, waiting to be holed by that Benrahma-Watkins-Mbeumo trident.
But it was nothing like that. Truthfully, while Fulham pressed very well for the first hour, and battled to recover possession throughout, their energy didn’t last and without Aleksandar Mitrovic, who wouldn’t lumber on until stoppage time, they lacked the attacking focus to make their better possession count.
What Brentford lacked, who knows. They were a shadow of the side who had ripped Swansea apart and their game was littered with all sorts of inaccuracies. They were all heavy touches, muffed clearances and palpable tension, the very worst of what they had been again Barnsley and Stoke.
And together, that created something awful: For the final 30 minutes, the Championship play-off final reverted to type. It became a desperate, dour struggle – a crawl towards the cash. This fixture has been dreadful for decades now; in fact, the more crystallised its identity as ‘football’s richest game’ becomes, the worse the spectacle seems to get.
Anyone seen Clive Mendonca? Fabian De Freitas? Paul Bodin? Not for about twenty years.
We did get Joe Bryan, though, and a wickedly disguised free-kick which flummoxed Raya and produced the goal which took Fulham back to the Premier League. It was the night’s critical irony: Brentford with their loud, celebrated set-piece focus; Fulham with the set-piece goal.
And – ultimately – Fulham with the promotion. Bryan would score again, combining smartly with Mitrovic before running in on Raya, and Henrik Dalsgaard headed in a consolation as the season ticked towards midnight, but this seemed to be written – it felt inevitable that Fulham, who nobody talked about, and Parker, who everyone underestimates and dismisses, would find their own 1% against the club of marginal gains.
Was it that simple? No. Parker is smart and diligent. In person, he’s an impressive and charismatic man. But so much of football is about optics and angles, that it was hard not to see this as another night when the game was just in a very contrary mood.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter