It was a memorable evening for the entirety of the white side of west London as the hosts summoned up a display fitting of their formidable form season-long, but particularly so for Aleksandar Mitrovic who reached the unprecedented milestone of 40 Championship goals, 10 better than the previous record held jointly by Glenn Murray (2012/13) and Ivan Toney (2020/21).
The Serbian's two goals both came in the first-half, either side of a clever finish from teenager Fabio Carvalho as Preston proved powerless to resist the sheer, remarkably quality of their Premier League-bound opposition.
The result sees Marco Silva's Fulham remain at the summit of the Championship table, with promotion secured and just seven more points to win in order for them to guarantee the second-tier title. Preston, meanwhile, remain 15th.
Story of the game
Preston were here to spoil the party, and momentum favoured them in the early stages. A neat one-two between Daniel Johnson and Aston Villa loanee Cameron Archer set the latter through on goal but, instead of shooting, he opted to square it for partner Ched Evans. Caught off-guard a little, the 33-year old nonetheless managed to get his shot away, forcing a good save from Marek Rodak.
Moments later, a corner for the visitors worked its way to midfielder Ben Whiteman who let fly from the edge of the box — deflecting off Tom Cairney, the shot proved more troublesome for Rodak than it initially seemed, but the Slovakian keeper was up to the task once again.
They'd weathered a somewhat unexpected early storm from Preston, but Fulham soon took the initiative and showed their clinical edge to take the lead on the 10-minute mark. Left-back Joe Bryan drifted in from the flank before playing a perfectly weighted ball though to Mitrovic behind the North End back-line who, unsurprisingly, made no mistake with a composed finish past Daniel Iversen to score his 39th league goal of the season.
The Serbian's goalscoring numbers had already entered uncharted territory, but he was now just one more ripple of the net from making a sheer mockery of those who had set records before him.
With 20 on the clock, a nasty coming-together between Cairney and Ali McCann resulted in the pair receiving a couple of minutes of medical attention in the centre circle, however fortunately both emerged unscathed and were able to carry on.
It could quite easily have been two for Fulham when Carvalho was teed up 20 yards out by a sumptuous flick from Mitrovic, however the teenager failed to direct his resultant effort on target, dragging it some way wide of the far post.
Bizarrely, Preston manager Ryan Lowe made his first alteration just 25 minutes in when Sean Maguire replaced Evans up front — whether or not that was due to injury or for tactical considerations was unclear, but his side certainly weren't doing all that badly against this season's most formidable Championship force.
Harry Wilson had scarcely been involved thus far, but he nearly registered his 15th assist of the campaign when an intelligently floated corner met the hardly domineering head of Harrison Reed running from deep to the edge of the box — the midfielder summoned up a fairly good header, but it wasn't enough to trouble Iversen.
Before long, it was two. Mitrovic was involved again, rising up to flick a header on to Neeskens Kebano on the left flank who then fed Carvalho in the box, with the aid of a fortunate deflection off Liam Lindsay. The 19-year old then produced a sumptuous volleyed dink past Iversen to double his side's advantage and send Fulham well on their way to securing their Premier League status tonight.
Complacency can often be a killer but, realistically, Fulham now had most of their two feet in the Premier League, and there was therefore just one more feat left to be achieved tonight.
Fulham were so in-form here that even Mitrovic's landmark 40th goal was scored before the break. It came courtesy of superb work from Wilson down the right channel, charging forwards and supplying the 27-year old in the box who took one touch to steady himself before slotting past Iversen.
Any pre-math trepidation had now most certainly dissipated — barring an almighty collapse, Fulham were now in the Premier League, while Mitrovic and reached his well-merited milestone. It had been a brilliant evening's work for the hosts thus far and, best of all for them, there were still 45 minutes of it go.
Much like in the first-half, Preston actually started the brighter of the two, with a whipped cross from Aaron Hughes landing own the head of Maguire just moments after the restart, but the Irish international fired high and wide of Rodak's goal.
The visitors then went forward again, working the ball to Archer who wriggled free to get his shot away from 15 yards — his curling effort drew a superb fingertip save from Rodak, tipping it onto the woodwork and away from danger.
In the next phase of play, it should have been four for Fulham and a hat-trick for Mitrovic when the Serbian pounced on a loose pass from substitute Bambo Diaby to go one-on-one with Iversen, but his strike lacked conviction and the Dane used his left leg to divert the ball onto the crossbar and behind for a corner.
Soon enough, Iversen was called into action again after giving the ball away cheaply with a poor kick out from his box. Fulham worked the space for Carvalho to take aim, but the shot-stopper was up to the challenge and also showed good reflexes to pat away Mitrovic's follow-up.
The next 10 minutes or so were exhibition stuff from Fulham, looking every bit a Premier League side in possession, however they failed to unlock Preston and to test Iversen in goal. Their defence had very little to do until Reed gave away a free-kick 20 yards out, from which Whiteman wasn't too far from hitting the target.
The hosts' next effort at goal arrived with an audacious arcing effort from Neco Williams, round 35 yards out and left of the box — Iversen didn't seem too concerned by it but it ultimately rippled the roof of the net, about a metre from clattering in off the crossbar.
With just under 15 minutes remaining, Mitrovic was withdrawn with Rodrigo Muniz entering the pitch, receiving a standing ovation from the Craven Cottage crowd. Even without his goals this season Fulham would still have been among the leading goalscorer in the division, but his output has doubtless been the key factor transforming the Whites from a good Championship side into a formidable one.
Truthfully, the match petered out a little — Preston no longer have anything to play for and Fulham had attained all they had sought to tonight. However, any slight sluggishness in the closing stages on the pitch was in stark contrast to the atmosphere generated from the stands; as the home faithful repeatedly put it, "now you're gonna believe us: the Whites are going up!"
Takeaways from the match
Premier League status secured — Fulham's attention turns to the title and beyond
Following their relegation last season, Fulham are now straight back in the big time, bouncing back to the top-flight at the first time of asking on a second successive occasion following their promotion in 2019/20. And with Mitrovic also hitting 40 for the season, the Whites well and truly achieved everything they had set out to this evening.
But now would not be the time to rest on their laurels, as there is still the significant matter of the Championship title to settle. Fulham still need seven points to mathematically guarantee their first second-tier trophy since 2000/01, though that threshold would drop to just one point should they beat 2nd-placed AFC Bournemouth on Saturday.
It's not just the title they'll have to worry about, though. Fulham have been relegated in each of their last and, although reaching the Premier League has brought such to the white side of west London this season, it may all feel pretty futile should they drop straight back to the second-tier again. That's what they must guard against — with Marco Silva at the helm and Mitrovic up front, top-flight survival is now the aim.
Preston powerless to resist after early profligacy
It's tempting to wonder whether or not this match would have played out any differently had either of Preston's two early chances, through Evans and Whiteman, hit the back of the net. Truthfully, probably not — but such a thought is indicative of how little the visitors feared their formidable hosts tonight.
In the end, quality told. Players such as Mitrovic and Carvalho are a class apart from those possessed by Preston and, as such, Lowe's side can have few reservations about the defeat, nor about its margin, to a side which will now certainly play in the division above them next season.
Perhaps the manager will be disappointed with certain aspects of his side's defensive performance as all three goals were surrendered rather cheaply, but that is part and parcel of how Fulham suffocate and unravel back-lines in this division. It is likely a relief to many Championship sides that they won't be here next year.
Fulham: Rodak; Williams, Tosin, Ream, Bryan; Reed (Seri 70'), Cairney; Wilson, Carvalho (Decordova-Reid 75'), Kebano; Mitrovic (Muniz 77').
Unused subs: Gazzaniga, Hector, Robinson, Chalobah.
Preston North End: Iversen; van den Berg, Lindsay, Hughes; Potts (Sinclair 69'), McCann, Whiteman, Earl (Diaby 46'); Johnson, Evans (Maguire 25'), Archer.
Unused subs: Hudson, Rafferty, Huntington, Cunningham.
Referee: Leigh Doughty
Following victory here, Fulham travel to season-long rivals competitive rivals AFC Bournemouth on Saturday in the hope of taking a step closer to securing the Championship title.
Preston, meanwhile, return to their home of Deepdale on the Monday night as they host fellow Lancastrians Blackburn Rovers.