Another goal from Joe Willock and a late strike from Fabian Schar handed us a 2-0 win at Fulham on the final day of 2020/21 – a result that sees us end the season in 12th after results elsewhere all went our way.
Willock opened the scoring 23 minutes in after another brilliant driving run ended in a cool bottom-corner finish – a goal that equals Shearer’s record of seven goals on the spin – and Schar then converted from the spot five minutes from time.
The centre-back’s strike not only made sure of all three points, but also saw us leapfrog Wolves (previously 12th) on goal difference and move one more place up the Premier League table – a late swing that gains us a few million extra in merit payments.
It was a little like the Sheffield United game in that we didn’t play well, sat back after taking the lead and couldn’t have had too many complaints had we ended up drawing, however we took our chances unlike the home side, put bodies on the line at the back and benefited from the oppositions lack of cutting edge.
I honestly thought we were gone after that 3-0 defeat at Brighton just eight weeks ago, yet we’ve won five of our last eight games since, shot up to 12th and showed a refreshing blend of grit, togetherness and quality to end the season in style.
It’s not a finish that will see fans dancing in the street or daring to dream next season, but it’s most definitely one that sees Steve Bruce and the players deserve real credit. The joint 4th best finish of the Mike Ashley era – a stat that says more about the lack of ambition during the NUFC owners’ tenure than anything else.
Mr. Ashley was in the stands at Craven Cottage today, too. Hopefully it’s the last game of his 14-year reign and, if not, a match that reminded him how vital it is that we re-sign Joe Willock this summer!
Bruce made one change for this one, bringing in Sean Longstaff for the injured Joelinton – a move which saw Almiron push further up the pitch.
Krafth kept his place, despite Schar being back from a ban, and both Saint-Maximin and Dubravka started after overcoming knocks in our 1-0 win over Sheffield United in midweek.
The first half was fairly open in patches and placed at a decent tempo, however poor final ball was letting both sides down in the opening 15 minutes.
Saint-Maximin had our first big opening and fired his shot just wide, while Lookman did similar at the other end with a weak strike that didn’t test Dubravka.
We were lacking a focal points up top in Wilson and Joelinton’s absence, but that and the lack of quality in the final third soon evaporated and we took the lead. No striker? No problem, as that man Joe Willock popped up again with yet another goal.
I say ‘popped up’, yet this was anything but a late run into the box and finish close range finish, with him driving with the ball from his own half and smashing a loose ball into the bottom left corner!
Watch the goal below, with this his SEVENTH goal in his last seven games – meaning he’s now equalled a club record set by none other than Alan Shearer. His ridiculous form might end up working against us at this rate, but if there’s any chance of signing him on a permanent deal this summer we must take it – even if it means splashing 90% of our summer budget on the 21-year-old.
After that, there wasn’t much to report on for the remainder of the first 45 minutes, with the typically wasteful Fulham failing to register a single shot on target in the opening half.
As for us, Almiron had one decent effort saved by Rodek and Murphy a few bursts forward that came to nothing. There was the odd passage of decent football, however we were a two-man band in attack relying on ASM’s dribbling or Almiron’s pace in behind to make something happen from nowhere.
Nevertheless, we looked like a side committed to pick up a result that could see us finish as high as 12th if results went our way, with Dummett and Fernandez often being first to any inviting balls into the box and us throwing bodies on the line to keep Dubravka’s clean sheet intact.
Half time and we went in 1-0 up and sat in 13th as things stood, with teams above us at the start of the day like Palace, Southampton and Wolves all losing at the break.
After almost 60% of the ball in the first 45, Scott Parker’s side upped that to 70% in the second half and upped the tempo immediately.
Cavaleiro had a huge opportunity to make it 1-1 on the 55-minute mark but blazed over for one of the worst misses you’ll see all season in a moment that summed up Fulham’s struggles at Craven Cottage all season.
Saint-Maximin made way just after the hour mark for Dwight Gayle; and the striker had a huge chance to make it 2-0 just a few minutes after his introduction.
Ritchie swung in a brilliant cross and Gayle rose highest at the back post. It looked harder to miss, yet he couldn’t keep his header down. There’s been talk of a new three-year deal for the 30-year-old, but surely that’s only to protect his value so we can get a fee for him this summer? Let’s face it, he’s not worth keeping now he struggles to stay fit and rarely looks like scoring at this level.
Fulham continued to huff and puff and looked the better side in possession as we looked to protect our lead rather than put the game to bed, yet it never felt like the home side were about to score.
Five minutes on the clock and we were then awarded a chance to make it 2-0 from the spot, with Ritchie tripped by Tete after cutting inside the full-back in the box. VAR had a look, the decision stood and a surprise man stepped up to take it in Fabian Schar.
The Swiss star stepped up and cooly rolled the ball past Rodek to make sure of all three points with 88 minutes on the clock.
Not only did it seal the win, it meant that we’d just moved up to 12th in the table on goal difference should our scoreline stay the same and Wolves stay 1-2 down to Man Utd (we were level on points and level on goal difference but we’d scored more).
The full-time whistle went at Fulham and the Wolves score stayed the same, seeing us finish the season in 12th place – making us the best of the rest in that group of struggling bottom half sides.
Heres’ the final Premier League table and all 10 final day results, with it quite incredible that we finish two places behind Everton and one behind Villa – two sides who were still gunning for Europe just a few weeks ago!
Well played lads and well done for proving us wrong over the run in, Steve! He may not be the answer moving forward, but credit where credit’s due – we’ve not only stated up but ended the season impressively, setting the standard moving forward into 2021/22.
Now, let’s make use of that extra £10m-or-so earned from our 12th place finish and put it towards a permanent deal for Joe Willock!