Fulham booked their place back in the Premier League after much-vaunted English teenager Ryan Sessegnon set up the winning goal in a thrilling play-off final at Wembley.
Sessegnon, 18, produced a sublime pass for Tom Cairney to score midway through the first half and was enough for the Londoners despite the dismissal of Denis Odio after 70 minutes.
But while flamboyant owner Shad Khan celebrated a return to the top flight four years after relegation, Villa’s most famous supporter, the Duke of Cambridge, was left devastated behind his shades.
Captain Tom Cairney got the crucial goal at Wembley that fires Fulham back to the Premier League for the 2018-19 season
The Fulham skipper was mobbed by his overjoyed team-mates after they put Villa under threat during a blistering encounter
Cairney was well picked out by Ryan Sessegnon with a perfectly weighted through ball and he took his time to slot home
But Fulham’s afternoon took a sour turn when the hero of the semi-finals, Denis Odoi, was shown a red card for a rash foul
The defender caught Grealish with a high boot and was swiftly shown his second yellow of the game to leave Fulham with 10
The Midlands club will also feel they didn’t get the rub of the green from referee Anthony Taylor who seemed to miss a first-half stamp by Ryan Fredericks on the outstanding Jack Grealish.
Grealish was never far from the action, repeatedly kicked by Fulham defenders, and denied one of Wembley’s great goals by Marcus Bettinelli. He was also booked himself when he slid in recklessly on Cairney out of frustration.
Fulham, whose only previous visit to Wembley had been as beaten finalists in the 1975 FA Cup Final, dominated the first half as Villa’s older players including 37-year-old John Terry struggled in the heat.
James Chester was booked for kicking Aleksandr Mitrovic and Conor Hourihane painfully caught Cairney on the toe. Fulham also dished out rough treatment on the Villa danger-man Grealish.
Villa looked at their most threatening when Jack Grealish got the ball as he drove fearlessly at the Fulham defensive line
He took aim from longe range before a weaving run past five players saw his effort saved which had him frustrated
With his eyes closed, Grealish was close to finding an equaliser when he nipped in front of Marcus Bettinelli for a header
Aston Villa (4-1-4-1): Johnstone; Elmohamady (Kodjia 77), Chester, Terry, Hutton; Jedinak (Onomah 77); Snodgrass, Hourihane (Hogan 82), Grealish, Adomah; Grabban
Subs not used: Bunn, Bree, Whelan, Bjarnason
Booked: Chester, Grealish, Jedinak, Hutton
Fulham (4-3-3): Bettinelli; Fredericks (Christie 83), Odoi, Ream, Targett; Cairney, McDonald, Johansen (Norwood 72); Kamara (Kalas 77), Sessegnon, Mitrovic
Subs not used: Button, Ayite, Piazon, Fonte
Booked: Odoi, Kamara
Sent off: Odoi
Goals: Cairney (23)
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Bruce had won four previous promotions to the Premier League and two Villa players, Robert Snodgrass and Ahmed Elmohamady, were part of his Hull side that won the play-off final 1-0 against Shefffield Wednesday two years ago.
This time however, it was Bruce’s side who fell behind after 23 minutes. England under=21 international Sessegnon had been wide on the left in a 4-3-3 but it’s when he cut infield that he caused maximum damage.
He was allowed to turn as he stood centrally ten yards outside the Villa box and produced a sublime pass that took four defenders out the game and allowed Cairney a clear run on goal.
The Scotland midfielder had enough time to look up at goalkeeper Sam Johnstone before picking his spot low in the left-hand corner.
With Villa behind, the onus was on their main creator Grealish to conjure up some magic. Fulham knew it too and Fredericks was looked lucky to get away with a stamp on the young midfieler right in front of the dug-outs.
As Grealish fell following a tangle, the Fulham right-back allowed his momentum to continue and came down hard on Grealish’s right leg. The Villa player screamed in agony and Bruce appealed voiceferoulsy but referee Anthony Taylor took no action.
Replays suggested Fredericks could have stopped himself landing on Grealish and Fulham could count themselves fortunate at the absence of VAR.
Fulham were left incensed that Grealish remained on the pitch after he flew into a challenge with studs dangerously raised
Fulham boss Slavisa Jokanovic showed off his best moves as he looked to get his tactical message across to his players
Steve Bruce was exasperated as his side struggled to cope with Fulham’s intensity during a closely-fought first half
Villa were then sinners when Alan Hutton scraped his studs down the back of the calf of Aboubakar Kamara. Sessegnon then proved he is human by missing a great headed opportunity to make it 2-0 after Terry’s errant clearance had fallen nicely to him eight yards from goal.
The billionaire Khan has tabled an £800million bid for Wembley Stadium and his interest won’t have dampened given the way his team settled on the hallowed turf as he watched intently.
However The Cottagers did get a let off approaching half-time when Odoi was booked for fouling Grealish in a dangerous area. Snodgrass cleverly dinked a free-kick over the wall into Grealish’s path but Odoi redeemed himself by running across to challenge and hurrying the England under-21 international to fire over with a half-volley.
As the temperatures dropped and shadows lengthened, Villa’s energy levels rose after the interval and their second big opening again fell to Grealish.
Albert Adomah, previously anonymous, sent a wicked curved cross from the left in no-man’s land between Bettinelli and his defenders.
Ryan Sessegnon showed great composure and desire as he used his youthful energy to breeze through the Villa midfield
Lewis Grabban had little service leading the line for Villa as he was well marshalled by Fulham’s American defender Tim Ream
Two two captains – Cairney and John Terry – had their game faces on as referee Anthony Taylor did the coin flip before kick-off
Grealish got into the right area but was unable to ckeep his header down from six yards producing lots of anguished oohs and aahs from the claret-and-blue section of the Royal Box.
At least, Villa were going for it for the first time. Centre-forward Lewis Grabban got his first real sniff of goal after 57 minutes when played in by Grealish, but took too many touches and failed to get his shot away.
Grealish then tried to do it on his own, brilliantly slaloming his way past three defenders in a tight area. Had he beaten Bettinelli with his final shot, it would have been one of Wembley’s great goals but the ‘keeper just managed to spread himself wide enough to block, Kevin McDonald’s last-ditch challenge having taken some of the pace off the ball.
The Villa star was then incensed as his bouncing shot on the edge of the box struck Odoi on the hand but was ruled accidental by referee Anthony Taylor.
Frustrated beond belief, Grealish then slid in recklessly and studs up on Cairney. He was mightily fortunate to get away with a yellow card rather than red as Aleksandr Mitrovic and other Fulham players rushed over the remonstrate.
Duke of Cambridge and Villa fan Prince William was in attendance to watch his side aim to return to the Premier League
A wry smile from Fulham owner Shahid Khan – who looks set to wrap up a deal to buy Wembley – as he also watched on
Villa owner Tony Xia looked much more sombre in the stands than Khan as he watched promotion hopes go up in smoke
There was no way Mr Taylor could afford to give Fulham a penalty given Villa’s grievances and so it proved as Kamara was upended by Hutton and Mile Jedinak in the same move.
Sessegnon set up McDonald to put the game to bed but he blazed over and Fulham were left facing a nervy final 20 minutes when Odoi was dismissed for one foul too many on Grealish.
Bruce quickly sent on fresh attackers Josh Onomah and Jonathan Kodjia to take advantage. Kodjia was presented with a chance within seconds but failed to connect properly inside the box. Bruce responded by throwing on a third attacking substitute, Scott Hogan for a final throw of the dice.
Their last chance came when Grealish burst into the box and fell as he tussled with Matt Targett. Referee Mr Taylor waved the appeal away and moments later Fulham players were in a joyous heap, celebrating in front of their ecstatic fans.
For Bruce, who has lost both his parents this year, defeat will be kept in perspective. But from a football point of view, it will still hurt.