LONDON (Reuters) - Fulham and Aston Villa clash in the English Championship playoff final at Wembley Stadium on Saturday knowing either unrestrained joy and financial riches or crushing heartache await.
No other game in world club football has quite as much riding on the outcome as the winner-takes-all clash to decide who will be the 20th club in next season’s Premier League.
Wolverhampton Wanderers and Cardiff City claimed the automatic promotion places from the second tier — Cardiff pipped Fulham to second place after the London club suffered a 3-1 defeat by Birmingham City on the final day of the regular season.
It left Slavisa Jokanovic’s side two points behind Cardiff and quite how costly that defeat, their first in the Championship since December, will be will only become apparent after the final whistle on Saturday.
The winning team will guarantee themselves a minimum windfall of 160 million pounds ($215.4 million) — their share of the Premier League’s eye-watering broadcasting rights deal.
That does not even reflect the increase in merchandising, potential sponsorship deals and inevitable spike in social media followers, so the real prize is almost immeasurable.
Yet despite all the talk of the world’s “richest game” it will boil down to a match between two proud old clubs trying to get themselves back to where they believe they belong.
“When I arrived here two-and-a-half years ago we were fighting relegation, so I believe we’ve made great steps to have the opportunity to bring this club back and be a promoted team,” Serbian Jokanovic told the club’s website.
“We have an important chance in front of us, and we expect we are going to find our best performance, follow our style, be confident, and cross this important line.”
While a free-flowing Fulham side featuring teenage prodigy Ryan Sessegnon and prolific Serbia striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, on loan from Newcastle United, are slight favourites, Villa are managed by Steve Bruce who holds the joint record for taking sides into the top-flight from the second tier.
He did it with Hull City in 2012-13 and 2015-16 and Birmingham City in 2001-02 and 2006-07 — two of those promotions via the drama of the playoffs.
Cardiff’s Neil Warnock is the only manager to match him.
Fulham will also be wary of the presence of former Chelsea skipper John Terry in the Villa back four.
Having won every honour in club football, Terry’s ability to handle the big occasion and the calming influence he will have on his team mates could be crucial.
Villa lost their ever-present Premier League status in 2016 after years of stagnation, but have been turned around by Bruce who, despite his vast experience, says Saturday’s showpiece will be a nerve-jangling affair.
“I won’t sit here and say that I’m not going to feel some butterflies on the day but, like everything in life, if you’ve already experienced something then you know how to handle it better,” he told Sky Sports.
“Hopefully we can put a smile back on the faces of Aston Villa fans for a change because for five or six year it’s been pretty desperate at times. Let’s hope it’s our turn again.”
Villa’s only doubt for the final is Egyptian winger Ahmed Elmohamady who suffered a hamstring injury in the semi-final against Middlesbrough. Fulham will be at full strength.
Both clubs have sold out their 38,000 ticket allocation.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge