View From The Press Box

Thursday 24 May 2018 17:25

The Sun’s Football League Reporter Tom Barclay has seen plenty of Fulham and Aston Villa this season, so we caught up with him to get his take on Saturday’s huge fixture.

How appealing is Fulham versus Aston Villa as a Play-Off Final?

Very, but then I thought that about Reading v Huddersfield last year and it turned out to be the dullest match I watched all season! It won’t take much for this game to beat that one but it has the potential to be one of the most intriguing Play-Off Finals in recent years. Fulham are the great entertainers of the division, playing some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen in the second tier of English football. Villa are more what I would label a traditional Championship side in that they are robust, hard to beat, and occasionally easy on the eye. But they have all the experience both on the pitch with John Terry and Co, as well as in the dugout with Steve ‘Four Promotions’ Bruce.

Considering in recent years the home side always wins this fixture, it should be an interesting one at Wembley?

If Fulham play to their potential, they should be too strong for Villa even with all their know-how. But a lot can be said for having been there and done it. Bruce and many of his players, like Robert Snodgrass, can proudly say they have. But you cannot say the same for Slaviša Jokanović and the majority of his team.

Do you think the size of the pitch will play a factor at all?

I suppose an expansive pitch will be a benefit to Fulham with their pace out wide in the boy wonder Ryan Sessegnon, Ryan Fredericks, and whoever gets the nod at right wing. But then you can say the same thing about Villa with fleet-footed Albert Adomah. Perhaps the biggest area of concern for Villa will be John Terry’s lack of speed being exposed, although he was never that quick and has played at Wembley so many times it is virtually the former England captain’s second home!

You’ve watched a lot of Fulham – how would you analyse our season?

Second half great, first half not so great. You can almost hear Jokanović saying those exact words. The camp did not seem particularly happy before Christmas and the Manager made his feelings public about the transfer policy a few times. But some significant changes internally have had a massive impact on the upturn in the team, with January’s recruitment pivotal. I sometimes am accused of a Fulham bias from other fans (particularly Preston ones for some reason) which I refute completely. The reason I speak positively about Jokanović’s side is simply because they are great to watch and I don’t think anyone can argue on that front.

Who have been our key performers in your opinion?

Sessegnon is the headline grabber and rightly so - although Wolves’ Ruben Neves should have won Championship Player of the Year. That is only because the Portuguese midfielder is the best player ever to play in the Championship and should not take anything away from the phenomenon that is Sessegnon. To think he has only just turned 18 and has played over 70 league games already is astonishing. Depressing too, as it makes us all wonder what we’ve done with our lives no matter what age you are! But of course Little Sess, as he’s known in the dressing room, is not the only star player. This is no one-man team. I could go through most of the squad but for starters Aleksandar Mitrović, Kevin McDonald, Tim Ream, Tom Cairney, Ryan Fredericks and Matt Targett have all been outstanding. And yes, I realise I have pretty much just named the whole squad.

How much of Villa have you seen?

A lot. In my role I cover the whole of the EFL, but it is mostly Championship matches that I attend (it is more interviews and news stories from Leagues One and Two). The majority of those are for the teams fighting for promotion, though I have been to every ground in the second tier now. I’ve probably seen Villa live about 10-15 times this season and while I think they are a solid side, it is very rare I walk away from watching them and think, ‘Wow, they really impressed me.’ At home they often labour to victories where doing the bare minimum gets them over the line. They hardly ever blow teams away, which Fulham are capable of. Having said that, they battered champions Wolves 4-1 - maybe if I had been at that game I would change my tune!

Which of their players will Fulham need to be particularly wary of?

Jack Grealish has been very, very good since coming back from that nasty kidney problem. He is starting to show the ability that had England fans (and optimistic Irish ones for a while) so excited a few years ago. Although a caveat to that is it is still only the Championship. We will have to see him do it in the big league before we’re truly convinced. But the 22-year-old has matured into their go-to guy and has benefited enormously from playing alongside experienced Terry. The one thing I really like about Grealish is he often attempts the difficult pass. Cairney is a terrific player but I would like to see him go for the thread-the-needle balls more often, like Grealish. After that, Lewis Grabban has been a solid signing, Adomah has chipped in with loads of goals while Alan Hutton had Adama Traore in his pocket for both Semi-Final legs which is no mean feat.

Have you covered many matches at Wembley before?

Yes, a fair few. This will be my fourth year of covering all three Play-Off finals, while I also regularly cover the Checkatrade Final and have done a handful of England games too. It is a fabulous day out but even better when it is jam-packed full of fans in full voice (hint hint).

What sort of match are you expecting?

Well, as I said earlier, I thought last year’s Final would be decent fare and it was rubbish so I’m not so sure now! The first 20 minutes are usually pretty nervy as players get used to their surroundings and that might well be the case for Fulham more than Villa, given the contrast in experience. I hope there will be some goals because the last three years the Championship Final has only had three. With all their firepower, Fulham will be gutted if they come off the hallowed turf without scoring.

Where do you think the game will be won or lost?

If Villa grab an early goal, that could be crucial. Villa have the organisation, experience and coolness at the back to defend a one-goal lead to the end. But Sessegnon in particular will have nothing to fear. He is so clinical, as we saw against Derby, that I fancy him to step up to the plate. He was made to play on the biggest stage and as an England fan I am disappointed he is not on the plane to Russia.

What score prediction are you going for?

2-1, Fulham. Slaviša Jokanović’s side are simply a better team than Villa when they play like they can.

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