Footballing heroes often come from the most unlikely places: from Eder winning the 2016 Euros for Portugal, Bobby Zamora promoting QPR to the Premier League in 2014, or Pulisic’s hamstring winning Arsenal their 14th FA Cup. The players who step up for big games are rarely the ones you expect. Last week in the oft remarked ‘most expensive game in football’ your average Joe Bryan stepped up to the plate. The solid, albeit unspectacular, right-back saved the day for Fulham with a fine brace in added time to send Fulham back into the Premier League at the expense of their local rivals Brentford.
Going into the game, Brentford were heavily touted as favourites. Thomas Frank, a man who looks more like an art-house film director than a football manager, had transformed Brentford into the most entertaining side in the League since his appointment as Head Coach in October 2018. Led by the ‘BMW’ front line of Benrahma, Mbeumo, and Watkins, who managed 59 goals between them this campaign, this free-flowing, goal-laden brand of football turned Brentford into the team to beat. Coupled with excellent post-lockdown form, they found themselves at the cusp of automatic promotion only to be robbed by Barnsley. Despite having to take the long road to promotion, Brentford were confident. Attacking midfielder Emiliano Marcondes went as far as to suggest that Fulham feared them.
While Fulham had already lost to Brentford twice this season and lacked the flair of Frank’s men, there was good reason to have faith that they would be able to spoil the party. Having won the play-offs two seasons prior, much of the squad had winning-experience and had been on a 7-game unbeaten streak. Scott’s ‘Parkerball,’ though questioned by a large contingent of fans, was securing results and allowed Fulham to control and dictate the pace of games with the lion share of possession. Though slow– Fulham have had the least fast breaks of any team in the Championship this season- this ability to control games put them in a strong position to get a result at Wembley.
The game itself was cagey and at times, a badly tempered affair. The two sides were very evenly matched for the first 90 minutes: a couple of shots from Fulham’s Josh Onomah in the first half and a solid second-half response from Brentford’s Watkins demanded a save from Rodak. This deadlock was settled in extra time. As fans prayed for a saviour, fearing a penalty shootout, Joe Bryan provided the goods. After 105 minutes Fulham were 1-0 up, Bryan’s outlandish 40-yarder free-kick the cause. Raucous celebrations followed, and only minutes later, the right-back was at it again with a neat 1-2 with returning talisman Mitrovic guaranteeing Fulham’s return. The Bees were able to salvage a consolation goal at the death; however, it was too little, too late. As the final whistle blew, two things were certain: Fulham’s return to the Premier League and Joe Bryan’s new-found club status as the unlikely hero.