Eyes On The Prize
Whenever I consider Burnley’s prospects, I rarely manage more than a ‘half-empty’ response. In fact, it’s more likely to be ‘What bloody glass?’ Alice Walker suggested: “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.” Except I do live in expectation – usually of the worst kind. However, that gloomy perspective makes some weird sense given that the worst often happens unexpectedly, so by readily envisaging the catastrophic, fate just might be suckered into dealing a better hand.
I came to football in the late fifties amid bitter family fragmentation. With relegation thrice staining my early support, the game became a metaphor for personal failure. Despite enjoying many subsequent successes that default position remains although I am strangely susceptible to occasional episodes of hope. This was the case on Saturday 12th March when Ben Mee’s thumping header stifled Huddersfield’s fleeting chance of recovery. It was Burnley’s sixth League win on the bounce, and their fourteenth match unbeaten, following the Boxing Day debacle at a drenched KC Stadium.
Andre Gray’s blistering shots at Bolton and Fulham had snatched victories in games we had been losing while his penalty goal had been enough to defeat Blackburn Rovers – the first home victory over our bitter local rivals in 38 years.
As a result of their 3-1 win at Huddersfield, Burnley’s lead at the top of the Division was increased to seven points although Middlesbrough, their closest competitor, had two games in hand. But with Boro’ then losing wretchedly at relegation-bound Charlton, amid apparent turmoil in their ranks, things were looking decidedly rosy. It was reported that Boro’ boss, Aitor Karanka, had walked out. I stupidly chuckled at the gloom to be found on their fans’ website. Schadenfreude is such a rash pleasure.
The payback duly arrived one week later. Driving home on the Friday evening, with Middlesbrough and other promotion rivals, Hull, apparently locked in a pleasing 0-0 stalemate, ‘laughing boy’ Nugent suddenly stole the points for Boro’ with a last gasp header. Nugent had served us well during our first tilt at the Premier League in 2009-10, but he, like his new team-mate, Jordan Rhodes, has an irksome habit of scoring against us. His scoffing amusement never fails to rile me.
Next day, Burnley failed to subdue a rugged Wolves side at Turf Moor, conceding a late equaliser from a corner. And while Wolves’ centre back Batth was burying his bullet header, Anthony Kay of MK Dons was fluffing a penalty, allowing visiting Brighton to escape with three points and lift themselves into second spot, four points behind us and one point ahead of Middlesbrough. Our next game at Brighton seemed rather important.
Sean Dyche seemed to be handling the pressure of intense, high stakes football better than his Boro’ counterpart. But even he cited Turf Moor nervousness as an inhibiting factor in the drawn game with Wolves, a surprising admission, perhaps, given his insistence that his players focus only on the work in hand. I knew what he meant, though, for I had found myself watching Burnley games in an increasingly hunched posture, stomach as taut as a drum skin, chin edgily cupped and brow deeply furrowed as if embroiled in a tight game of chess. My increasingly knotted neck and shoulder muscles ached for hours afterwards. Although Burnley’s win percentage remained impressively high, most of their victories were ground out with the narrowest of margins. On the rare occasions when my focus momentarily strayed from the fraught action, I found grim faces all around me, expressions etched with anxiety, fingers tautly gripping whatever was at hand.
Inside the heaving Amex Stadium the temperature soared, the early morning nip dispelled by the sun’s gathering strength in Falmer’s protective bowl. The stakes had been heightened by Middlesbrough’s 3-2 win at QPR on the night before. Irritatingly, QPR had been denied a potentially match-saving goal by an erring assistant referee. More troubling, the Middlesbrough players were once more fully behind their head coach, Karanka, following chairman, Steve Gibson’s decisive intervention.
Roared on by almost 30,000 fans, Brighton flew at Burnley, forcing them onto the back foot with the intensity of their pressing game, their crisp passing, dazzling movement and scurrying speed along the flanks. Led by our battling midfielder, Joey Barton, who snorted retaliatory fire, besieged Burnley just about held their own for the first half hour before Lowton’s inadvertent deflection allowed Dale Stephens the space to squeeze in a header at the back post. Being mindful I was the guest of a former school friend, a long-standing Brighton fan, I politely applauded both of the Seagulls’ first half goals, albeit with a lugubriously clenched jaw. I even sat on my hands as Gray rifled home a loose ball, briefly restoring parity.
We remained under the cosh at the start of the second half, too, with Knockaert at the heart of Brighton’s incessant assaults. As a result of his bamboozling trickery Brighton had regained the lead on the stroke of half-time. With twenty minutes remaining, Dyche replaced the industrious but largely shackled Arfield with Matt Taylor, subsequently substituting bewildered central midfielder, David Jones, with a pugnacious Dean Marney. With Brighton looking to protect their priceless lead, Burnley probed the home defences more, helped also by the introduction of bustling ex-‘Seagulls’ striker, Ashley Barnes, on his return from a cruciate injury. With Burnley’s corner count rising, Taylor’s whipped crosses proved increasingly dangerous to a side that had conceded twenty-six per cent of its goals from set plays. With only a few minutes remaining, Clarets’ centre-back, Michael Keane met one of these with his forehead, surely finding goal before the ball was hacked away, only for the referee to rule otherwise. All around me there were murmurs of relief as the TV replay apparently confirmed that the ball had indeed crossed the line, just as the incensed Burnley players had claimed. I seethed silently.
Then deep into added time, Taylor took a further left-wing corner kick. Once again his outwardly curving cross fizzed high into the Brighton box, and once again Keane got in front of his markers, this time to plant an unstoppable header past the statuesque Stockdale. As the net bulged I leapt to my feet, repeatedly punching my left palm and bellowing “YESSSSSS!! YESSSSS!! YOU BLOODY BEAUTY!!” So consumed was I with this roar of defiance, I barely recognised the Burnley players, fifty yards to my left, cavorting with our leaping fans behind the goal. The ferocity of that roar sent sparkling stars shooting across my vision before realisation struck. This was an unpardonable indiscretion. I had behaved like a deranged escapee, an oaf. In a situation such as this, you have two choices – either brazen it out or humbly apologise. I opted for the former. Turning to confront the resentful faces around me, I met the eye of the most bullish of these and chirped: “Fair do’s eh? Makes up for the goal that was wrongfully chalked off.” To which he sullenly replied: “It wasn’t a goal”. Undeterred, I insisted: “You know better than that. You heard what had been said on Sky.” He looked away. Having regained my composure. I apologised to my friend and to the woman on the other side of me. Her magnanimity shamed me. She said with a reassuring smile: “We can’t stop ourselves, can we? I couldn’t when we won at Liverpool, years ago, even though surrounded by hostile Scousers.” I wished her and her team well before leaving.
Brighton’s impressive manager, Chris Hughton concluded: “Burnley have a physicality up front and they can mix up their game, but we could have put the match miles out of sight. I never saw it as a must-win game but I was delighted with the performance against a top, top team. No-one can accuse us of not trying to win.”
Whereas Sean Dyche exclaimed: “I will only imagine that the technology will drip-feed into the Championship. There is so much at stake in the division and this is a great example. That has got to be given as a goal. When it is that obvious, it has to be officiated properly. It wasn’t luck that we got the equaliser – we got it by design. We were in the ascendancy and Brighton were playing counter-attacking football in the last 30 minutes.”
The key fact was that Burnley remained four points ahead of Brighton, both clubs having played 39 games, if only three ahead of recovering Middlesbrough who still had a game in hand. But with Cardiff ‘keeper, David Marshall, denying Burnley brilliantly, in the midweek home fixture, the Bluebirds came away with a deserved point. Indeed, had they not been frustrated by the underside of the crossbar, late in the game, the Welsh play-off chasers might have escaped with all three. For on that same evening Middlesbrough beat Huddersfield and Brighton won at St. Andrews, although languishing Hull had been thrashed 4-0 at Derby to leave them eight points adrift of Burnley. Our lead at the top had been shaved to just one point.
Not even Arfield’s fine first minute goal against Leeds on the following Saturday did a lot to quell the nerves as the visitors took command of much of the remaining play. Thankfully, their strapping Kiwi centre-forward, Chris Wood, missing two sitters. Meanwhile Middlesbrough also achieved a 1-0 home victory over plucky Preston. It was then ‘as you were’ after Brighton secured a late winner at Nottingham Forest, in Monday’s televised game, having survived considerable second half pressure.
A day later, Middlesbrough overtook Burnley, having frustratingly beaten a stuttering Reading team with a scrambled effort deep in stoppage time. These late goals were hurting Burnley badly, and yet when the final figures were revealed, it was Burnley who benefitted more from late strikes than either Boro’ or Brighton, having scored more and conceded less goals after the 85th minute. It was surely a fitting testament to the Clarets’ relentless pursuit of victory and ‘never-say-die’ determination.
Sleep became very fitful during this period. As much as I berated myself for my one-eyed obsession, recognising that close friends and relatives were currently facing serious illnesses, I seemed unable to stop my endless calculations of potential point tallies. The bald fact seemed to be that Burnley needed to win at least four of their five remaining games to go up. As if any further proof was required, Brighton then hammered Fulham 5-0 on Friday 15th April to lift themselves above Burnley.
I not only shunned the Birmingham game, I refused to seek any updates from my wife’s smart phone – mine is proudly of the dumber kind. I would not even turn on the car radio until the result was certain. The problem about being plied with updates is that news of a narrow lead leaves me perpetually anxious, painfully aware of what might be lost, while if we are behind I find myself frantically flicking back and forth between the BBC text updates and the match statistics, yearning for any sign of recovery. Besides my wife and I were meant to be enjoying a special day out. I refused to have it spoilt by my compulsive tendencies. I only wanted to hear the score once it became a result, when I no longer needed to fret or seek superstitious comforts. The car clock signalled 4-55pm. But I couldn’t be sure that the game had ended. I was certain that the result would not be good, as solitary magpies flew across the road ahead. Eventually, my wife had enough of this and after secretly consulting her I-phone, announced: “They’ve won!” With that the griping tension hissed out of me with the force of a cataclysmic fart. Not even Middlesbrough’s belated recovery at Bolton could dispel my glee. Burnley were back in second place.
I arrived early for the Middlesbrough game, strolling around the nearby parkland. Across the valley, the imposing mass of Pendle Hill presided splendidly over the surrounding moorland, showcased by the setting sun. It is easy to understand the enthusiasm of former Burnley hero, Harry Potts, for this place. “It’s just like Switzerland!” he had excitedly exclaimed.
But my new-found calm evaporated once inside the raucous cauldron that was Turf Moor, especially after Middlesbrough began menacingly, playing swiftly through the lines with faultless technique, displaying both speed of thought and movement. The Burnley defenders strove hard to contain them and were indebted once again to their sturdy crossbar as Adomah’s fierce volley narrowly failed to find goal. Meanwhile Burnley’s counter attacks seemed more laboured, held up by the feisty midfield industry of Leadbitter and Clayton, in front of Boro’s commanding defenders, Nsue, Gibson, Friend and the outstanding Ayala.
Although Burnley had greater possession during the second half, Jordan Rhodes did what he has done countless times before and poached a vital goal. With only twenty minutes remaining, he nipped in between our centre backs to convert Ayala’s flicked header from Downing’s precise free kick. The Boro’ fans were exultant breaking into endless renditions of “You are my Boro” (to the tune of ‘You are my Sunshine’). But Burnley refused to be subdued. Both Boyd and substitute Taylor went close as did Barnes who replaced neutralised Andre Gray. Then with only three minutes of stoppage time remaining, a left wing corner created a frenzied melee in the Boro’ box allowing Michael Keane to shank a close range equaliser. Three and a half sides of Turf Moor shuddered with the roar of unconfined relief, joy and bravado. The Burnley boys piled on top of one another in feverish celebration of their deserved reprieve. The Middlesbrough players slumped, some holding their head in their hands, their fans abruptly silenced. A potentially decisive five-point lead had been snatched from their grasp.
Middlesbrough’s manager could barely conceal his bitterness, sniping: “If you look at the games where we scored against Reading and Bolton, we try to always play football. It’s my decision, my style and I am really proud of all of them. When we lose, we lose with our style; when we win, we win with our style.” It was apparent that this was code for “We were mugged here”. As Sky pundit, Ian Holloway, put it: “Burnley have a strong jaw”, a description that Dyche has readily appropriated. The point won here was crucial. It kept Middlesbrough within range while preventing Brighton from stealing ahead after their 4-0 win over QPR.
The calculation became simple. If we won our three remaining games we would go up, potentially as Champions, whatever Middlesbrough or Brighton achieved, given that they were due to play one another at the Riverside in the final game of the season. My nocturnal agonising over various points permutations was no longer required, no more pounding headaches. If we won at Preston on the following Friday evening, we would be back on top, placing increasing pressure on both of our rivals. And that’s exactly what happened.
In truth the Preston win should have been more straightforward. Burnley dominated the first half after Joey Barton’s deflected free kick had given his side a 6th minute lead. But that’s not the way this Burnley side does its business. After narrowly failing to add to our score, we were made to suffer an agonising endgame as Preston pressed forward with greater vigour. I left the game with a tingling tremor. It was hardly what my stroke consultant had in mind when advising me on my future lifestyle. While Brighton duly despatched Charlton at the Valley, Middlesbrough failed to beat an ultra-dogged Ipswich who parked a gargantuan bus in front of their goal. I felt like snogging Mick McCarthy, the true ‘Bard of Barnsley’. Burnley were top again.
I watched the Birmingham v Middlesbrough game on TV on the ensuing Friday evening. It was a cracking, if downright draining game as the home side stole a priceless draw with two stunning strikes, although a wrongfully disallowed goal ultimately denied Karanka’s side victory. I spent the last fifteen minutes of the game watching Middlesbrough’s increasingly frantic assaults through shuttered fingers.
Afterwards Karanka commented: “I like to think [the disallowed goal] was a mistake but there have been a lot of mistakes against us this season and it is not the day to discuss that.” He had conveniently overlooked the assistant referee’s controversial intervention in ruling out QPR’s valid goal against them a few weeks before.
I staggered home utterly wasted. It was then when I decided I would not watch the Brighton v Derby game on TV which preceded our game with QPR. It was becoming too much to bear. Instead I repeated my previous 9-mile walk. While I did so I reflected further on why I should become so worked up by this promotion race. After all, as heretical as it may seem, I am not entirely sold on the attraction of Premier League football. What concerned me most was that the substantial resources which promotion bestows, then tantalisingly within reach, should not be lost, hopefully allowing the club to sustain its current high standard of football for years ahead, irrespective of the town’s troubling demographic and economic limitations. I suspect, too, that my obsession with my club’s fortunes also offered a convenient distraction from more pressing concerns, just as it had when I first came to football.
As I made my way towards Turf Moor a huge roar went up. It signified that Derby, like Birmingham, had frustrated a promotion rival, leaving Burnley with QPR to beat to attain automatic promotion. After a difficult first period in which QPR boldly took the game to us, Sam Vokes secured victory by deftly flicking in Jones’ whipped free kick with a stooping header. Curiously, I found I was more pleased than ecstatic at this promotion-winning goal. I wasn’t even troubled by a subsequent sweet drive that rattled the outside of our right-hand post. Perhaps I had finally learnt to believe.
But Burnley were not finished. They wanted the Championship title, too. That duly arrived in the final game at Charlton where our hosts put on a spirited first half display, exploiting some uncharacteristically sloppy defending. Nevertheless, Burnley led at the break thanks to Tom Heaton’s agility in our goal and Sam Vokes prodded conversion of Stephen Ward’s low cross. Vokes’ goal followed a mesmerising exchange of passes between Ward and Arfield. Dyche was not happy though. His half-time reproof was allegedly overheard by a Sky reporter. Suitably geed-up, Burnley established a three-goal lead within six minutes of the restart. George Boyd joyfully slammed home Stephen Ward’s cross headed into his path by Gray, before our prolific striker, recently chosen as the Championship Player of the Year, drove in his twenty-fifth of the season from an acute angle. Not even the Charlton fans’ protest against their club owner could arrest Burnley’s momentum. The title was seized with a four-point lead. Unfortunately, the Football League decided to take the Championship trophy to the Riverside, leaving the Burnley players with only an inflatable version to hold aloft which they did with good-natured irony.
Having won a highly competitive League with an unbeaten run of 23 games, also maintaining twenty clean sheets, it was clear that this great feat was achieved by more than a concoction of ‘lucky’, ‘bump and grind’ football. For this was a team triumph based upon phenomenal standards of fitness, inspired tactics, tight discipline and organisation, a terrific sense of squad togetherness, characterised by an unrelenting desire to succeed whatever the odds. The club’s goal-scoring charts underlined that togetherness. While Gray and Vokes contributed 38 of Burnley’s 72 League goals, the midfield chipped in with 21 and even the defence managed 10, including two crucial strikes by centre back Michael Keane.
It was only weeks after the event that I have felt sufficiently relaxed to truly enjoy this triumph. For times like these should always be cherished. After all, if you follow a club as modestly endowed as Burnley has been for most of its existence, these glorious moments are relatively rare and often ephemeral. I can now look back at the highlights of last season’s games without any anxiety about what might follow, no longer fearful that too much pleasure at a thumping victory might result in a reproving defeat in next week’s game. I am sleeping better, that’s for sure, helped not only by Burnley’s success, but more importantly by the improving health of some of those close to me. Long may both continue.
I no longer ruminate on the significance of solitary magpies, an utterly puerile superstition, I know. How Don Revie could have run a team as powerful as Leeds once were, while indulging this kind of nonsense simply beggars belief. Perhaps that’s why Leeds didn’t win as much silverware under his management as they should. Certainly Sean Dyche has no time for such providential paraphernalia which might impair the clarity, focus and strength of his team’s objectives and performance. He knows that a winning mentality rests upon his players’ overriding belief in their personal and collective capacity to determine a successful outcome, without reliance upon outside influences – superstitious or otherwise. It is the bedrock of his success.
I dare say that this interlude of peace might depart once the new season arrives. There again perhaps I have learnt how to be more philosophical. But if the game did not retain its capacity to lift us up so gloriously or cast us down so abjectly, it would surely become shorn of its enduring appeal. Isn’t that the point of white knuckle rides?
This article is taken from the book Champions by Dave Thomas to be published in August.Share this page :