In the end, Fulham went with a whimper. For all Scott Parker’s fighting talk, the writing has been on the wall at Craven Cottage for a while. You could argue that one of the division’s youngest managers had done very well to leave the Whites with a fighting chance of survival after Fulham’s horrendous start to the season, but a team that had scrapped impressively to give themselves a glimmer of a great escape collapsed alarmingly when presented with opportunities to pile pressure on relegation rivals.
Against a streetwise Burnley side, tonight’s defeat was a microcosm of a mediocre season. There was – as usual – plenty of possession and patient probing but precious little in the way of penetration or decent service for Aleskandar Mitrovic to attack. The Serbian has been badly under utilised during this campaign – with fitness, confidence and Covid all having a part to play in that – but Parker’s reversion to a safety-first approach in order to stay in games rather than win them has left Fulham facing groundhog day repeatedly in the final weeks of this campaign.
The last rites were painful but administered efficiently. Sean Dyche’s gameplan was expertly executed and such was the gulf in class in the final third – that you couldn’t quibble with the Clarets holding a two-goal lead by half time courtesy of strikes from Ashley Westwood and New Zealand striker Chris Wood. Fulham began reasonably brightly, with an alert piece of defending from James Tarkowski preventing Ademola Lookman from stealing an early goal, and Ivan Cavaleiro bringing Nick Pope into action at his near post – but the Clarets quickly imposed themselves on proceedings.
Fulham’s margin for error had evaporated in recent weeks and you could sense the nerves amongst their backline as Burnley gradually got numbers forward. There was a lucky escape when a Wood diving header rebounded wide off Tosin Adarabioyo, who couldn’t have known much about his inadvertent clearance. Anxiety levels grew higher as the lively Matej Vydra skated away from Joachim Andersen, reached the byline and pulled back a cross for Westwood, who rolled home the opener from close range.
That devastating blow caused Fulham’s fragile confidence to crater. It was nearly two almost immediately when the home side casually donated possession back to Burnley and Vydra almost fired in from the left angle of the box. But Dyche’s charges didn’t have to wait long to double their lead. Fulham were once again far too charitable inside their own half, affording Josh Brownhill plenty of time and space to pick out Wood, who lashed home from just outside the box. There was never likely to be any way back from that.
The routine victory solidifies Burnley’s only safety, which had never been serious doubt after Dyche arrested an alarming start with his usual brand of organisation and desire. Fulham went for broke after the interval as Parker threw on Josh Maja to join Mitrovic in attack, but there was no way through a stubborn Clarets back line. The Serbian striker probably had Fulham’s best chances – heading a corner straight at England goalkeeper Nick Pope and flicking another one into the side netting before Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa thumped the woodwork – but it was the visitors who looked more likely to round off the scoring. Only an excellent Alphonse Areola save prevented Jay Rodriguez from adding a third late on.
Attention will swiftly turn to whether Fulham can bounce back from the disappointment of a third relegation in seven seasons and be challenging in the Championship again in August. There will have to be questions about the club’s hierarchy, with the position of director of football Tony Khan sure to be in the spotlight, as well as Fulham’s long-term plan. Whether the future also includes Parker, linked to the Tottenham job in recent weeks, will be one of the first matters to be resolved as a significant summer rebuild approaches. This feels like another missed opportunity for the Whites to establish themselves again at English football’s top table – but, in truth, the damage was done months ago.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Areola; Tete (Maja 54), Robinson, Andersen, Adarabioyo (Loftus-Cheek 74); Lemina, Anguissa; Cavaleiro, Decordova-Reid (Onomah 66), Lookman; Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Hector, Ream, Bryan, Aina, Carvalho.
BOOKED: Anguissa, Lemina.
BURNLEY (4-4-2): Pope; Lowton, Taylor, Mee, Tarkowski; Brownhill, Westwood, Cork, McNeill; Vydra (Rodriguez 67), Wood (Barnes 86). Subs (not used): Peacock-Farrell, Pieters, Bardsley, Dunne, Norris, Stephens, Gudmundsson.
GOALS: Westwood (35), Wood (44).
REFEREE: David Coote.