Brentford’s quest to reach the Premier League ended at Wembley Stadium as they were beaten by Fulham in the Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Final. Joe Bryan scored two goals for Fulham in extra time to give them the win and a place in the top flight. Henrik Dalsgaard headed in late on for Brentford, but it wasn’t enough, and The Bees will remain in the Sky Bet Championship.
The game was ultimately settled by a brilliant piece of opportunism. Bryan scored a free kick from almost 40 yards, drilling it in to the near post from the inside left channel when everyone was waiting for a cross. He scored a second on the counterattack for The Whites and that was enough to get them over the line.
It was a game that was always likely to be settled by a mistake, a piece of genius or a stroke of luck. Fulham started well but the game was pretty even throughout and Ollie Watkins came closest to a winner in the first 90 minutes, with a shot that was tipped over the bar. The Bees looked like they may be taking command in extra time, but Fulham got the goals, and their place in the top tier.
Brentford had a couple of early attempts – Dalsgaard saw a shot blocked from a half cleared free kick and Bryan Mbeumo curled another set piece in to a defensive wall – but Fulham would have been happier with their start. They got their front four players very high up the pitch when they didn’t have the ball. They were content to be patient when they had the ball and looked to be dangerous when they didn’t have it, winning it in Brentford territory.
Everything Fulham did in the opening part of the contest went through their central midfield trio. Josh Onomah played just in front of Harrison Read and Tom Cairney and the three of them had command of the first 20 minutes. They were able to bring wide players in to the game and they had chances to be ahead inside the first quarter.
David Raya got down well to save a low Onomah shot inside the first five minutes and the same Fulham player had another effort blocked soon after when Dennis Odoi got away on the right and delivered a cross. When Cairney picked a delightful pass, Onomah found space inside the penalty area and let fly with a shot that Raya got down well to save. Pontus Jansson had the next touch and almost put it in to his own net before the ball was scrambled away.
Brentford couldn’t get their midfield players in to the game in the opening exchanges. Fulham’s work out of possession meant The Bees were forced to play in their own half and they almost gave away a goal with some sloppy play. After a series of passes that became increasingly desperate, Dalsgaard drilled a ball back at Raya that he couldn’t clear, Bobby Decordova-Reid intercepted but none of Fulham’s front players could convert the chance, with Josh Dasilva getting back to make an important tackle.
Fulham definitely had the better of the first 20 minutes, but they did not get themselves ahead and the rest of the half was more even, with Brentford having some good chances of their own. There was also a flashpoint just before the half hour when Reed stretched in to a tackle with Christian Nørgaard and put his studs over the top of the Brentford man’s ankle at full tilt. Referee Martin Atkinson decided, perhaps leniently, that it was only a yellow card offence when a red would not have surprised many watchers.
Mbeumo had a header saved for The Bees and then looked set to finish a Mathias Jensen cross before Michael Hector nodded it, crucially, out of his path. Another looping header from Mbeumo was saved later in the half as Brentford tried to find the crucial final ball. The Bees were starting to take control of possession and territory as half time approached, but they were unable to create the key chance to get themselves ahead.
Odoi had a shot blocked late in a half that Fulham would have been happier with, but which ended all square. And they could have taken the lead early in the second half when Neeskens Kebano curled a free kick in to the side netting from 22 yards. But the game was becoming increasingly cagey and nervy as it headed towards the hour mark. Both teams were mostly playing in their own territory, chances were fewer and further between the motto appeared to be safety first.
Saïd Benrahma weaved in to the penalty area before seeing a shot blocked and when Watkins picked up a loose pass, neither Dasilva nor Mbeumo could get a shot away. Hector headed a corner wide at the other end and Decordova-Reid shot wide after getting on to a Kebano cross. Reed also shot over the bar for Fulham as the game entered the final 15 minutes without a goal.
Brentford were, however, getting closer. Substitute Emiliano Marcondes smashed a free kick over the bar before a nice pass from Nørgaard enabled Jensen to find Watkins in space, he let fly with a shot that Marek Rodák had to palm over. Dalsgaard shot over later in the half and there was a sight of goal for Onomah when he lofted an effort from 22 yards with the ball bouncing and watched it fly over Raya’s net. But neither team really came that close to a winner in the 90 minutes and the game headed in to extra time.
Both teams made changes in the later stages of the second half but defences remaining on top. Marcondes and Sergi Canós gave The Bees a bit of impetus while Fulham introduced Aleksander Mitrović, who ended the regular season as the top scorer in the Sky Bet Championship. There were lots of tired players as the extra time period began and the game started to open up as it was getting more difficult to close down the spaces when the ball was moved quickly.
Brentford had the first chance of extra time when Marcondes and Canós linked on the right, but Watkins could not convert the cross at the near post. Raya then saved from Aboubakar Kamara and punched away when Anthony Knockaert headed down a Bryan cross. Brentford also went close when Benrahma released Henry on the left, the cross came in, but Jensen’s shot was blocked.
With the game getting stretched, more free kicks were awarded and cautions were handed out, and it was from a set piece that the goal came. Nørgaard was penalised in the Brentford right back area and, after a delay when Mitrović was shown a yellow card after an altercation with Marcondes, Bryan stepped up. Everyone anticipated a cross and Raya moved in to position for it but Bryan caught him up, whipping it inside the near post to give Fulham the lead.
Brentford had to chase the game and introduced Halil Dervişoğlu and Tariqe Fosu as they went on the attack. Marcondes lashed wide from distance and there was a great chance when Nørgaard was freed on the right but could not find Watkins with the final pass. Ethan Pinnock then had a shot saved as The Bees pushed on. But Fulham then caught them cold. Rodák whacked the ball down the pitch and it was worked to Bryan, he exchanged passes with Mitrović before slotting past Raya to score what proved to the winning goal.
Brentford refused to give in and pushed on, despite having almost no time to score two goals. Dalsgaard headed wide before Benrahma lashed over. Fulham could have sealed it when they broke away but Knockaert’s pass to Ivan Cavaleiro was poor and Raya saved at the feet of the Fulham man. Brentford then went straight down the other end, Canós crossed, Nørgaard headed back and Dalsgaard nodded in.
The goal came more than three minutes in to stoppage time and gave only limited hope to The Bees. They barely had time to win the ball back from kick-off before Mr Atkinson blew the final whistle. He ended the game, ended the season and ended Brentford’s hopes of promotion to the Premier League for at least one more year.
Brentford: Raya; Dalsgaard, Jansson, Pinnock, Henry (sub Fosu 105 mins); Jensen (sub Dervişoğlu 105 mins), Nørgaard, Dasilva (sub Canós 83 mins); Mbeumo (sub Marcondes 60 mins), Watkins, Benrahma
Subs (not used): Daniels, Roerslev, Jeanvier, Valencia, Žambůrek
Bookings: Jensen (88 mins) (fourth of season), Nørgaard (103 mins) (11th of season)
Fulham: Rodák; Odoi (sub Christie 110 mins), Hector, Ream, Bryan; Reed, Cairney; Kebano (sub Knockaert 81 mins), Onomah (sub Le Marchand 110 mins), Decordova-Reid (sub Mitrović 90 mins); Kamara (sub Cavaleiro 105 mins)
Subs (not used): Bettinelli, McDonald, Johansen, Sessegnon
Bookings: Reed (29 mins), Cairney (67 mins), Hector (98 mins), Knockaert (102 mins), Mitrović (104 mins), Cavaleiro (120 mins), Rodák (120 mins)