Fulham’s race is run and, even though they have seen fine margins go against them in recent weeks, there was no hard luck story to tell this time. In truth there was little of the devastation seen at the end of recent last-minute heartbreaks, either: once a superior Burnley had scored twice before half-time to make sure of their own Premier League status it was clear, from the stands and quite possibly on the pitch, that there was no way back and Scott Parker’s players knew they were going down long before David Coote’s whistle ended the ordeal.
In the end Fulham contrived the great escape bid that never quite was, seeming favoured for survival after winning at Anfield in March but amassing a single point from the subsequent seven games. They are tidy, bright and well structured but almost completely toothless too, ultimately offering little to stir the blood even though two or three of their squad should have a fair shot at playing top-level football somewhere next season. A draw here would have ensured they retained a faint pulse; victory might have left Burnley facing late-season flutters of their own, but neither outcome would have been deserved.
“I’m hurt, I’m gutted and the players are,” said Parker, who had asked his players for a big response to adversity but ultimately saw them freeze. “Everyone at the football club has tried everything possible to stay in this division.”
It is hardly a fantastic advert for the Premier League that the relegation battle is over with three games left and nor does it look good that two of last season’s promoted sides will be moving downwards while at least a couple of the demoted teams from 2019-20 are guaranteed to return in August. Fulham, West Brom and Sheffield United have ultimately been found badly wanting; this was, for most of the night, virtually a carbon copy of numerous games in which all three have been brutally exposed.
“It probably summed up our year really,” Parker said. “Very good sometimes between the boxes but just falling short at both ends. The facts are we’ve fallen a little bit short in our quality.”
Burnley soaked up half an hour of earnest, but largely unthreatening, pressure before pouncing during a sustained spell of direct, aggressive attacking. Chris Wood had just come close with two headers when Matt Lowton aimed a diagonal ball towards Matej Vydra out on the left. Vydra checked outside Joachim Andersen, one of six loanees who will depart Fulham this month, and cut back sharply from the byline. Alphonse Areola got an outstretched finger on to his centre but Ashley Westwood, arriving from midfield, readjusted his feet to squeeze home his second goal in three games.
It was a hammer blow and visibly rocked Fulham, who almost conceded again when Vydra lashed wide. Burnley kept coming and, with Parker desperate to get his side in to regroup, sealed their fate. Wood was slightly fortunate to see the ball ricochet off him to Josh Brownhill but took his colleague’s return pass and gave Areola no chance with an emphatic, thumping half-volley from 18 yards. He has now scored 25 top-flight goals over the past two seasons and there may be no more underrated centre-forward in the division.
Fulham pressed, more in hope than expectation, after the interval but the glimmer of an exit route came and went when André-Franck Zambo Anguissa shuddered the bar. Aleksandar Mitrovic had been selected to start but could not muster a warrior’s performance and the biggest remaining talking point came at the other end, where Areola should have been dismissed after clearly handballing outside the box.
It was academic, as were most of Fulham’s efforts over the season, and Parker was left to ponder their future quest for “sustainability”. He meant an end to bobbing up and down: given Burnley now await a sixth straight campaign among the elite he could usefully ask his opposite number for tips.
“A well delivered performance on a very awkward night,” said Sean Dyche. He described this season as “my most challenging as a manager at the club” and suggested that if he committed it to writing “you’d probably put it in the fiction section”. Fulham, though, are left to leaf through a ream of hard facts.