Watford 1,Burnley 2: Chris Boden's verdict on a special afternoon at Vicarage Road
It was a change fans wanted to see made well before the end of Sean Dyche’s reign.
In his third spell at the club, Jack Cork has been one of the first names on the teamsheet, making 30-plus appearances for three-successive seasons until he missed the first half of the last campaign with an ankle injury.
However, this season, his appearances have been more fleeting, with Ashley Westwood and Josh Brownhill largely preferred in the centre of midfield.
But his return to the side in February coincided with what was then Burnley’s best week of the campaign, beating Brighton and Spurs before picking up a point at Crystal Palace.
In for Westwood, who had Covid, Cork was then jettisoned by Dyche for the former Aston Villa midfielder when he was available after the protocols.
It felt then that Dyche was too eager to replace one of his former lieutenants, and he would only start once again under the long-serving boss, when he went with three central midfielders against champions Manchester City.
One of the first things interim boss Mike Jackson did was recall Cork for his first game in charge at West Ham, and the former Chelsea youngster has since emphasised his importance to the side, with his composure and elegance on the ball, his will to win, and, at old club Watford, rolling back the years by timing his run into the box to perfection to head home a superb Charlie Taylor cross for the equaliser.
Much like father Alan, famed for his aerial prowess, that was, remarkably, Jack’s eighth headed finish of his 11 goals for the Clarets.
Cork’s last eight starts for Burnley have now reaped five wins, two draws and that defeat to City.
While Dyche had many fantastic attributes, which brought him and the club great success over the best part of a decade, his stubborn reluctance to use Cork this season was baffling, and, ultimately, one of the factors which led to him losing his job.
Dyche stuck with Westwood, who he wanted to “put the ball at risk”, playing it forward early and often, despite Westwood’s own ability to use the ball better, honed at Crewe and Villa, where he was likened by Tim Sherwood to Michael Carrick.
Brownhill also got the nod for his ability to break up play and get about the pitch.
Invariably, both looked better with Cork alongside them, however.
And whoever is making the decisions come the end of the season, chairman Alan Pace, Jackson or potentially a new man at the helm, one of the most significant pieces of business they could do is make sure the option to tie Cork up for an extra season is taken.
A class act on and off the field, it made little sense to marginalise him when Burnley needed him most.
Despite the frustration of being left out for much of the season, when talking after the game about what has been the difference in Burnley’s form under Jackson, he wasn’t going to snipe about Dyche: “We’ve got a good shape, we work from the shape and everyone has worked hard.
“The previous manager was amazing and great for us, it’s hard to say someone is doing something better, because he was great for us and I can’t say a bad word about him.
“Sometimes it’s just that change, it was the shock of him losing the job and how low the club was feeling at the time.
“It looked quite bleak, and we went ‘look, we have nothing to lose, the manager has gone, we’ve had a few injuries, let’s just stick in it’.”
One thing Dyche’s side had was that strong jaw, which took some blows this season, but has re-emerged.
They needed it at West Ham, when the hosts were pushing for a winner and Nick Pope stood up to be counted, and when they weren’t at their best against Wolves, they dug in and found a way to win.
At Watford, they were second best in the first half, struggling with the hosts’ physicality, pace and power.
But they stayed in the game, at 1-0 down, after Juraj Kucka forced an own goal with an unfortunate ricochet off the otherwise immaculate James Tarkowski.
In the second half, Watford either ran out of steam or allowed Burnley the ball, thinking they would hit them on the break.
The Clarets probed patiently, looking to use the space down either flank, getting the full backs in advanced positions.
It looked like it wasn’t going to be their day when substitute Ashley Barnes, who caused mayhem, upsetting and disrupting the Watford centre backs, forced a tremendous save from Ben Foster, who touched his header onto the underside of the bar.
With seven minutes remaining, however, Taylor got down the left, had a look in the box and decided to drive forward, before whipping in a glorious ball for Cork, who, like with so many of his rare, but memorable goals for the club, broke late into the box to get his head onto it and finish.
The magnificent away support sensed it - there was only one winner now.
And after Tarkowski got his head to a Dwight McNeil free kick, and Barnes wrestled for possession, Matej Vydra teed up Brownhill to stroke the ball beyond Foster’s left hand, to spark delirious celebrations on and off the pitch, akin to Scott Arfield’s winner at Blackburn in 2015.
There was a time this season when the threat of relegation was compounded by the possibility of that lot down the road leapfrogging the Clarets.
However, with Rovers blowing their hopes, and the turnaround under Jackson, Burnley could yet end the season still ruling the roost in East Lancashire.