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1718 burnley turf moor 03 1000x500We’ve not made it to the group stage of the Europa League. We were held to a 1-1 draw by Olympiacos in the second leg of the play off having lost the first leg 3-1.

It was a night of what ifs in a game that we dominated and probably should have won but all hope evaporated seven minutes from time when Olympiacos went in front on the night although at least we were able to draw level three minutes later through Matěj Vydra who was on as a substitute for his Burnley debut.

It was so disappointing because I really do think we are a much better side than Olympiacos but when their third goal went in from the penalty spot a week ago I did think that was the goal that would ultimately put us out. What I couldn’t have known was how well we would play in the second leg and it still takes some working out just how we didn’t get the goals to take us through.

It’s a night that has left me with real mixed emotions, gutted that we are out of the competition and I’m not going to get any more away trips into Europe, but delighted to see a performance that was much more like us than any I’ve seen previously this season.

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By Burnley standards it was a warm night as we made our way down to the Turf although the game was set to be played in temperatures considerably lower than we faced in Greece when, at times, it became almost unbearable just watching.

We used to turn up presuming it would be an unchanged team but things have changed at Burnley with this competition and we knew there would be personnel changes from the team that lost at Fulham although I’m not sure I quite expected as many as seven, and I suspect that would have been eight had Ben Gibson not been suspended.

Ben Mee, who played in Gibson’s place, Aaron Lennon, Ashley Westwood and Jeff Hendrick were the only survivors from our disastrous afternoon on the banks of the Thames while the intriguing name on the team sheet was that of Dwight McNeil. The 18-year-old had previously enjoyed one short cameo against Bournemouth in the Premier League and a substitute appearance just before the 90th minute in the Aberdeen second leg; now he was getting his first start.

There’s always a belief when chasing a two goal deficit that an early goal is needed but that’s not always the case. Having said that, we were close to testing their goalkeeper in the very first minute of the game on a night when we just simply dominated.

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McNeil’s first involvement saw him lose the ball which led to a counter attack from Olympiacos. It’s very much worth mentioning because he didn’t let it get to him and I don’t think I can remember another mistake, certainly not one of any note, in his 75 minutes on the pitch.

Where we might have thought he’d potentially hide away, it seemed to give him a real push and he was prominent throughout and he created our very best chance of the first half with a cross that Sam Vokes wasn’t able to head home.

Vokes headed another effort over the bar but it came to him so quickly and right on half time he went clear down the left and played the ball in for strike partner Ashley Barnes whose shot went inches wide.

It wasn’t one way traffic. They did have their chances and probably should have scored just before the Barnes effort, but when the half time whistle blew it was hard to fathom that we were still level on the night.

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“How have you not scored?” That was the message I received via text from a friend at half time, a non Burnley supporter who was watching at home on TV. That was how the first half was being viewed.

If anything we turned up the volume in the second half. Vokes might have done better with a couple of first half headers but a curling shot in the second half was all but perfection. The crowd were already rising to their feet to celebrate a goal only to see the ball come back off the post.

McNeil hit a stunning left footer that the goalkeeper saved, Hendrick and Barnes combined and should have done better and Lennon set up Barnes for another shot when he probably would have been better going alone.

With 25 minutes to go we replaced Barnes with Vydra and I’d certainly given nothing up at that point even though we still needed two goals. I still thought we could get them. So, from the support, did most of the people in the stands. Vydra himself twice went close, forcing one good save out of the goalkeeper and then firing over the bar.

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Ten more minutes and still no goals and Sean Dyche made his last two changes. The second of them saw the departure of McNeil who was visibly tiring. What an ovation he received as Turf Moor stood as one to applaud the youngster. This was not just an attempt at giving a young lad some support but a response to what had been a hugely impressive full debut for him.

But it wasn’t to be. With eight minutes remaining there was still, I thought, a chance, but a minute later that was all over when Olympiacos went in front on the night as Podence fired home. It was cruel, unbelievably cruel, but we were heading out of Europe.

To our credit we gave it a real go and three minutes later at least levelled on the night when Vydra poked the ball home from close range. Mee had headed a corner towards goal only to see it blocked, but Vydra was on hand to get it over the line.

We were never, realistically, going to get another two but we threw everything at them and there is absolutely no doubt that we deserved far more than we got on the night. But when the excellent referee Viktor Kassai blew the final whistle it signalled the end of our European campaign.

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It’s been brilliant. The trip to Aberdeen was fantastic, those who went to Istanbul told me how enjoyable it was and I loved Athens last week. Add to that, the atmosphere at the Turf for the three home games has at times been electric. What a shame we couldn’t have filled the ground to the rafters last night.

That’s it then. Something we waited 52 seasons for is over. If the wait for the next European adventure takes as long then I’m not going to be here to see it. I hope it doesn’t because I’ve got a thirst for it now and I want to get back there again.

As I made my way home last night I was totally deflated but there were so many positives. This was a team performance more like the Burnley we know. There were some outstanding individual performances, some from players who will surely now be in Dyche’s thoughts for Sunday, and then there was McNeil. I’m not advocating an immediate starting role for him in the Premier League but after that performance he must have been walking on air as he left the ground.

This was all, of course, our reward for last season’s achievements and what a prize it has proved to be. Let’s have more of it Sean.  Let’s give the domestic cups a real go if we can should we not be able to push up to seventh again.

Burnley in Europe – I’ve loved it.

The teams were;

Burnley: Tom Heaton, Phil Bardsley, Kevin Long, Ben Mee, Charlie Taylor, Aaron Lennon (Jack Cork 75), Ashley Westwood, Jeff Hendrick, Dwight McNeil (Chris Wood 75), Ashley Barnes (Matěj Vydra 65), Sam Vokes. Subs not used: Joe Hart, Matt Lowton, James Tarkowski, Stephen Ward.
Yellow Cards: Ashley Barnes, Ashley Westwood, Phil Bardsley, Ben Mee.

Olympiacos: Gianniotis, Elabdellaoui, Roderick, Vukovic, Tsimikas, Bouchalakis, Camara, Christodoulopoulos, Fortounis (Torosidis 87), Podence (Cisse 90), Guerrero (Hassan 71). Subs not used: Choutesiotis, Natcho, Fetfatzidis, Ansarifard.
Yellow Cards: Tsimikas, Gianniotis, Bouchalakis.

Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary).

Attendance: 15,234.

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