Fulham hit the Premier League promotion jackpot as Tom Cairney fired his 10-man team to a 1-0 win over Aston Villa in the Championship play-off final on Saturday.
Cairney struck with a cool finish in the first half at Wembley to earn Fulham a top-flight place worth an estimated £160 million ($213 million) windfall.
Slavisa Jokanovic’s side played the last 20 minutes with 10 men after defender Denis Odoi was sent off for a studs-up lunge on Jack Grealish.
But they defended heroically to end the club’s four-year exile from the Premier League.
Fulham’s financial windfall from increased revenue could rise to £280 million if they go on to survive for one season among the elite.
Yet even their American billionaire owner Shadid Khan knows it is the prestige of playing Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool next season that matters far more than the extra cash in his bulging bank account.
It was an unforgettable evening for Fulham, who were making their first appearance at Wembley since losing the 1975 FA Cup final against West Ham.
And Khan was celebrating from the stands of what could soon be his personal property as he negotiates a deal to buy the iconic stadium from the Football Association.
There was only misery for Villa as they missed out on promotion on the 36th anniversary of the club’s famous European Cup final victory over Bayern Munich.
Villa, owned by Chinese businessman Tony Xia, paid the price for a limp first half and are faced with a third successive season outside the Premier League, a stark reality given a reduction in the parachute payments could lead to the sale of their stars.
Villa had received a good luck message from Hollywood actor Tom Hanks, a long-distance fan of the team, while Prince William, another celebrity supporter, was cheering on his team from a private box at Wembley.
No manager has won more promotions to the Premier League than the four amassed by Villa’s Steve Bruce, whose team included former Chelsea captain John Terry.
But although Fulham had an average age of three years younger than Villa, there was no sign of stage-fright from Jokanovic’s team.
– Adventurous Fulham –
Dominating possession for long periods, Fulham were the more adventurous side.
Jokanovic had vowed to take advantage of Villa’s veterans, labelling them “an old and tired team, they are going to show some weaknesses”.
Villa failed to heed that warning and Fulham fulfilled their manager’s prediction as they took the lead in the 23rd minute.
Fulham winger Ryan Sessegnon has caught the eye of Premier League clubs during a dazzling campaign and the 18-year-old sensation was the catalyst for his team’s opener.
Coming in from the left flank to steal possession in midfield, Sessegnon showed maturity beyond his tender age as he looked up and slipped a pin-point pass to Cairney.
The Scotland midfielder had timed his run perfectly, leaving Villa’s defenders trailing in his wake as he slotted a cool left-footed finish into the far corner of Sam Johnstone’s net.
With emotions still running high after Cairney’s goal, Fulham got lucky when defender Ryan Fredericks avoided a red card after appearing to deliberately stamp on Grealish.
Sessegnon wasted a chance to double Fulham’s lead when he headed straight at Johnstone, while Grealish squandered Villa’s only decent first-half opportunity with a wild shot high over the bar.
Grealish fluffed his lines again early in the second half, heading over from a good position.
Villa were finally clicking into gear and Grealish embarked on a dazzling run through the Cottagers defence, but Fulham keeper Marcus Bettinelli was equal to his shot.
Fulham defender Odoi was dismissed when his reckless foul on Grealish earned a second yellow card in the 70th minute.
But Villa lacked the cutting edge to take advantage and Jokanovic’s men were soon celebrating their return to the big time.