Championship play-off final 2018 opponents Aston Villa and Fulham have a lot in common.
Both spent most of this century in the Premier League, both suffered relegation since 2014 and their paths back to the top tier both lead to Wembley Stadium for the richest game in world football.
However, for all that similarity, they’ve attacked their promotion mission in completely contrasting ways.
Aston Villa hired a veteran manager who recruited veteran players, trusting experience and pedigree to keep their exile brief. Fulham, with the benefit or detriment of two extra years in the Championship, have rebuilt with a younger coach and a less established squad.
The more effective model will be revealed in the Championship play-off final 2018, with the odds demonstrating more faith in the latter approach. The Cottagers are 4/6 to win promotion, with Aston Villa available to back at 11/10.
The prize for winning is estimated at £170 million. It means the price of failure is every bit as expensive. While one club’s methodology will receive the ultimate vindication, the losers face the prospect of ripping it up and starting again.
In Villa’s case, it’s more about the individuals: their ageing staff may miss their last invitation back to the big time. In Fulham’s, it’s about the unit: the men who’ve impressed over the last two years will still get their shot at stepping up, they’ll just leave Craven Cottage behind.
The Aston Villa oldies
Perhaps because chairman Tony Xia arrived at Villa Park in 2016 as an English football newcomer, he made adding experience an immediate priority.
His first pick as manager was Roberto Di Matteo, who took West Brom up in 2009/10. The Italian’s signings included former promotion winners Tommy Elphick, James Chester and Mile Jedinak, plus second-tier scoring sensation Ross McCormack.
Di Matteo wasn’t a success, so Xia doubled down on experience. Enter Steve Bruce, a man promoted in his previous four full campaigns at Championship level.
His winter spending was a bit broader, possibly due to the limitations of the January market, but last summer’s investment was a more exaggerated version of 2016’s strategy.
The average age of the four permanent additions – John Terry, Christopher Samba, Ahmed Elmohamady and Glenn Whelan – was 33. Their CVs contained four English promotions. Headline loan capture Robert Snodgrass, then 29, brought two more to the party.
The plan: build a squad around players who’ve delivered previously and trust winning mentalities and composure to outweigh youthful exuberance. It’s not the best long-term approach, yet if it’s enough to get them up and keep them up, they’ll address the heavier work from a more powerful position.
Is it working? Not spectacularly, with fourth place below most pre-season estimates. That will be forgotten if they win at Wembley Stadium though on an occasion when Bruce, Terry and co’s years of victories in high-pressure one-off matches should theoretically count most.
If not, seven of their 10 outfield first-leg starters against Middlesbrough were in their 30s, so performances can only deteriorate. They’ll have to either persevere with fading assets or phase them out.
Three of the last six Championship play-off final runners-up finished the next season in the bottom half, and Villa would face a more turbulent summer than those.
The Fulham phenoms
How have Fulham’s methods differed? Having not felt the benefit of experience under Martin Jol or Felix Magath, they favoured freshness in appointing Kit Symons and then Slavisa Jokanovic.
The Serbian is no novice, coaching for eight years across six teams in six countries before heading to west London in 2015. However, he’d spent less than a year of that in England – compared to Bruce’s near two decades – and hasn’t sampled one of Europe’s elite leagues.
The Cottagers invested in potential and hunger rather than the proven track records on display at Villa Park, and they’ve behaved similarly on the playing side.
Whereas Villa’s outfield players in their semi-final first leg had an average age of 30, Fulham’s was 26 and they only fielded one 30-year-old – centre back Tim Ream.
Defeat in the Championship play-off final 2018 carries different implications for them. While Villa’s squad will start to regress, theirs will improve as they’re yet to peak. It’s just that after two top-six finishes and with countless Premier League suitors, they’ll have outgrown the Championship and will be ready to move.
These guys in particular are destined for the Premier League this year regardless of whether their club win the Championship play-off final 2018:
Sessegnon playing in the Premier League next season appears a statistical certainty. He was named Championship Player of the Year. The last nine recipients of that award were in the top flight in the following campaign whether their team made it or not.
The 18-year-old has scored 16 and set up seven in the league, changing role from left back to winger to harness his productivity. The transfer rumour magnet will command the biggest fee of all their talents, with Manchester United and Tottenham among the alleged suitors.
Fulham are blessed with two flying Ryans out wide, with Fredericks’ performances at right back earning him a place in the Championship Team of the Year too alongside his namesake.
The Spurs academy product does both sides of his job well, contributing seven assists while also boasting 11 clean sheets in his final 19 regular season outings.
At 25, he needs to enjoy his prime years in the Premier League and, with his contract about to expire, Arsenal and West Ham are reportedly ready to pounce.
Like Sessegnon, the Cottagers captain has marked himself as too good for the Championship by getting in successive Team of the Years.
The Scotland international is 27 too so, even more than Fredericks, he can’t afford to let loyalty deny him his first taste of Premier League football in over eight years. Newcastle and West Ham will supposedly offer him that opportunity if his current employers can’t.
The other departure Fulham may endure if they don’t win the Championship play-off final 2018 is that of their coach.
Sure, there’d be a question mark over him if he comes this close to taking them up twice without delivering, and there won’t be many immediate vacancies for him to apply for.
But having achieved the feat at Watford and won titles in two other nations, his name will always be mentioned when a bottom-half Premier League job arises.
If his side lose at Wembley Stadium, the 49-year-old may prefer a few months off until something catches his eye, rather than risking his reputation dealing with the aftermath.