And so, ultimately, it all came down to this. A full year of toil; 120 minutes of grim application, in many cases a lifetime of longing. A free-kick in a seemingly innocuous position on the left wing. A defence maintaining an audaciously high line, a goalkeeper anxiously patrolling the space behind it and a left-back who spied an irresistible opportunity to write himself into folklore.
That, ultimately, was all it took to send Fulham back to the Premier League and leave Brentford in the Championship for another season. On one level, it felt unspeakably senseless for something this important to be settled by something this silly. But then again, here we all were, watching a terrible game at an empty Wembley Stadium in August, with fake crowd noise being piped over the airwaves and a socially-distanced national anthem at the start. Perhaps, on reflection, the ship had already sailed on that score.
Joy unconfined for Fulham, of course, and perhaps a little salty defiance too, after being cast as the makeweights in this final. And yet, even if they were the more assured team on the night, right down to Joe Bryan’s premeditated slice of opportunism, you’d be hard pushed to describe them as deserving winners: a term which implies a semblance of logic, of rational process, above all of proportionality. And really, very little about this fixture has ever really been proportional, from its ridiculous importance to the way people talk about it.
The Championship play-off final is often described – with football’s characteristic vulgarity – in terms of its pecuniary reward. “The richest game in football”. “The £170m game”. As if the money were in a glass box suspended above the pitch, like in a TV game show. As if, as the full-time whistle blew, the winners would be showered in a typhoon of flying banknotes and embraced by a beaming Davina McCall. As if the ultimate objective of football were three seasons of guaranteed parachute payments.
It’s a cool story, but the real motif of this fixture is status. About where you are and where you need to be. As good as the Championship is as a competition, as a dream factory, as an entertainment product in its own right, it’s the pinnacle of nothing. Being in the Championship is a bit like being the leader of the opposition: if it’s all you’ve achieved, then on some elemental level you’ve fallen short of expectations.
For young players like Josh Dasilva, released by Arsenal two years ago, it was about fulfilling the promise that first opened the doors to this world. For those like Bryan who have toppled from the pedestal, it’s about proving to the sport, but mostly to yourself, that you can still pass muster at the highest level. Nine of Fulham’s starting XI had previous Premier League experience. Brentford’s entire squad had a grand total of two appearances.
And so perhaps a good way of thinking about this taut, undulating game was as pure hunger against pure desperation, the doomed idealism of Thomas Frank’s Brentford against the cussed and ultimately triumphant pragmatism of Scott Parker’s Fulham.
Fulham may not have won too many points for artistic merit this season but here we discovered why. With Aleksandar Mitrovic unable to start because of a hamstring problem, they looked secure without ever looking like they knew how they were going to break Brentford down. The full-backs largely pulled their punches. The midfield sat tight and narrow, seeking to recycle possession rather than risk losing it. Centre-halves Tim Ream and Michael Hector exchanged more passes than anyone on the pitch. It was a bespoke system for a bespoke game.
Brentford, on the other hand, have a philosophy. They have a “way”. They have combinations, overloads, transitions, a meticulously drilled attacking game that somehow still feels fresh and full of personality.
They have a hip manager in Frank who whips out a miniature tactics board during the drinks breaks, which seems to disproportionately aggravate a certain kind of person, who will instantly start spuming at the mouth at the sheer metropolitan pretension of it all. I mean, what does he think this is, football?
And yet, as Bryan finally buried Brentford’s hopes with his second goal deep into injury time, you could see the lack of comprehension on the faces of their players and staff. What good is a process in a game when only the result matters? What good is a philosophy in a sport where everything can turn on a freak goal from a set piece? How do you take pride in a season that has ended so crushingly?
But then, this has always been the irresistible caprice of football, a low-scoring game that for all your plans and strategems can never entirely be bent to your will. Fulham’s triumph was to turn it into a battle of errors and individual flourish. As the whistle blew, there was no glass box, no banknotes, no Davina McCall. Just a winner and a loser, and a pitiless line between them.