It took a second glance to check that Martin Jol was not one of those holding the banner asking Clint Dempsey to "Make my day, please stay", as Fulham marked their final home game with a deserved lap of honour.
The Texan had underlined his value with the 23rd goal of a prolific season to set Fulham on the way to a victory that carried them to eighth in the Premier League. Dempsey's superb free-kick was the first of three excellent goals which enlivened a better-than-average end-of-season match. His 12th-minute 25-yarder was followed by a 34th-minute bolt from Phil Bardsley that was immediately cancelled out by Mousa Dembélé's drive. There ended the scoring, though only because both goalkeepers made fine saves.
"I'm very pleased at the way we played, but we should have scored more goals," said Jol. But the Fulham manager was content. "Given the games we played in Europe [14, in a campaign that began in June] this is probably the club's best ever league campaign."
There was a time when a fixture such as this, with neither side chasing a place in Europe nor concerned about relegation, would have been an opportunity to give the youngsters a run-out. But there is around £800,000-a-place Premier League merit money at stake these days and both managers fielded strong teams.
Fulham are patient in possession, happy to play five-yard passes back and forth while the fluid forward players interchange to create an opening. Danny Murphy is the conductor, a Scouse Andrea Pirlo, knitting the play and seeking the decisive pass. For long periods Sunderland sat off him, allowing the former England midfielder to do much as he wanted. Ahead of him flitted Dempsey, Dembélé, Damien Duff and Mahamadou Diarra, who was given licence to push on.
It was from a free-kick awarded when an early Diarra surge was halted by Lee Cattermole that Dempsey scored the opening goal. Though Mark Schwarzer had to deny Stéphane Sessègnon soon after it was still a surprise when Sunderland levelled, Jack Colback and Ji Dong-won setting up Bardsley for a 25-yard flier. The riposte was swift, Dembélé's 20-yard shot deflecting in off Michael Turner.
"Within 10 seconds of the kick-off they nullified our goal," said an irate Martin O'Neill. "We should have done better."
Fulham ought to have then made the game safe but Colback headed Dempsey's shot off the line and Simon Mignolet made excellent saves from Stephen Kelly, Duff and Dembélé.
O'Neill brought on Fraizer Campbell moving John O'Shea to centre-half, and Craig Gardner to right-back. Within three minutes this shaped up to be a master-stroke. Gardner, from the right-back position, launched the ball forward, another substitute, Nicklas Bendtner, nodded it down and Campbell ran off Brede Hangeland to... shank his shot well wide.
"Scoring goals is difficult, but not that difficult," said O'Neill. With a match against Manchester United to come Sunderland are likely to end the season safe, but in the bottom half of the table. It is not what they aspired to in August, but is a huge improvement on the situation O'Neill inherited at Christmas. "I'm glad we are not playing under the pressure some of the teams below us are," said O'Neill. "We've a great game to finish, then we can look forward to pre-season," added the manager, who plans to 'freshen' his squad in the summer. For Jol the focus will be on keeping hold of the players he has, especially Dempsey.
Fulham: SCHWARZER 8/10; KELLY 7; HUGHES 8; HANGELAND 6; J RIISE 7; DUFF 7; DIARRA 7; MURPHY 8; DEMBELE 8; DEMPSEY 8; POGREBNYAK 6
Sunderland: MIGNOLET 8; BARDSLEY 7; KILGALLON 6; TURNER 6; O'SHEA 6; McCLEAN 5; CATTERMOLE 6; COLBACK 6; GARDNER 6; SESSEGNON 6; JI 5
Scorers. Fulham: Dempsey 12, Dembélé 35. Sunderland: Bardsley 34
Substitutes: Fulham Frei (Pogrebnyak, 81), Baird (Murphy, 84). Sunderland Bendtner 5 (Ji, 60), Campbell (Kilgallon, 71).
Man of the match Dempsey. Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Fulham 55% Sunderland 45%.
Attempts on target: Fulham 15 Sunderland 7.
Referee M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
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