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Mourhino sent to the stands again… Primark is coming to Burnley… Ed Balls booted off Strictly and Honey G from X Factor… banana prices to go up, Brexit blamed… Kirk Douglas turns 100… we mourn for Chapacoense…

The evidence was emphatic; a more cast-iron penalty you will never see just about every paper said after the Manchester City game with Referee Marriner getting it hopelessly wrong.  And if as one or two suggested the sun was in the lineman’s eyes the irony was that here was the Premier League awash with more money than it knows what to do with, but couldn’t afford to supply linesmen with a cap.

‘Game but limited,’ wrote Jim White in the Telegraph about the general performance, but then what else when two key players went off injured within minutes of each other.

And the goals: ‘A comedy of errors for the first, and their second appeared to have been choreographed by the Keystone Cops.’

Beneath them the other teams clawed a little closer to Burnley’s 14 points so that Hull in the bottom three were just three points behind.

matthews-statueWhat a bizarre feeling it was back at the little school where I worked 20 years ago, except it wasn’t little any more with extensions and new classrooms and a re-modelled sports field and acres of new housing around it. The only thing left of me was the sign on one of the old walls: DOGS ARE NOT ALLOWED IN THE PLAYGROUND. Gone were the old lead factory and the relics of the pit heads. But, the terraced rows just across the road were still there including the one on the end where we had fun watching the firemen put out a fire one morning.

Builders had been in to the school and had left all their timber neatly stacked in the playground overnight. It was round about the time that Jimmy Mullen was buying striker after striker in order to find one that could score goals to keep them up. Anyway: this dad who lived in the end terrace was a bit of a rogue (in fact most of the village were) and helped himself to the timber that he then cut up and stacked in his back yard for his fire. I knew he’d nicked it, he knew I knew he’d nicked it, I knew he knew I knew…

The smoke and flames that billowed from his chimney were spectacular of course and ironically it was me that phoned for the fire brigade whilst laughing down the phone. Fireman Sam on the other end was a bit taken aback that I found it funny. Up roared two fire engines and we took two classes out to watch from the safety of the playground as his house narrowly escaped being burned to the ground.

“Everything alright,” I shouted down to him. “New wood was it?” To this day I’m pretty sure his reply was something unprintable.

We’d booked coach seats and tickets for Stoke, a mixed ground for Burnley in recent years. Memories were of bitterly cold, strong winds blowing straight into the away end and up yer trouser leg that brought tears to your eyes; a parking ticket one year and then another year when in drenching rain the away supporters were prevented from leaving by closed gates and goons and stewards in their yellow jackets until the home supporters had gone. This is what it must be like to be a sheep, we muttered. In fact we all stood there making sheep noises… baaa… baaa…

Stoke City has never seemed a welcoming place. Jimmy Mac was there for a spell after Bob Lord gave him the elbow and Jimmy tells the story that he never liked the red striped kit. He once went into the Border Bookshop in Todmorden on Halifax Road some years ago and up on a shelf was a copy of the Football Monthly picture of him in the Stoke shirt.

“It just doesn’t look like me in that shirt,” he told Victor the bookshop proprietor. Victor passed away some time ago but the shop is still there run by his wife Carole and there is as fine a selection of football books in that shop as you will find anywhere.

Jimmy Mac was at Stoke City for just three years helping them to promotion from the Second Division to the First. He was never truly happy there but one consolation was playing alongside Stanley Matthews.  The story goes that very young and green Ron Chopper Harris was giving Sir Stan a bit of a kicking in one game at Chelsea and Stoke wing half and very hard man Eddie Clamp, Stan’s unofficial minder, warned him to stop. Young Ron ignored him but learned to his cost what it felt like to receive retribution from a real master when Clamp went into him with such force the poor lad left the field on a stretcher and spoke in a very high voice for several days afterwards from his hospital bed.

Promotion meant that Mac actually played against Burnley losing the first game at Turf Moor 1-0 with a performance that was far removed from the dazzling Mac of old. Local reporter Keith McNee wrote that ‘his languid performance finally killed the lingering McIlroy legend’. He would play several more games for Stoke until January ’66 but that April game at Turf Moor was the beginning of the end. Training was becoming more and more difficult and for a period he trained alone in and around the Burnley area only travelling to Stoke just once a week.  His last game for Stoke City ironically was against Burnley on December 27th, 1965 when Stoke won 3-1.

After an indifferent start Hughes had got Stoke winning again. Such was Burnley’s dire away form that Sean D was hinting at changes. Tarkowski had laid a strong claim to inclusion in the next starting line-up.

“It’s another chance, another game, different build-up, mentality; we’ve got to re-think our mentality away from home and what we’re about, a re-think how we take on different shapes, different formats, and different personnel. I’m not pontificating but we have to change the whole feel of how we play sometimes. The definition of madness is always doing what you’ve always done and expecting a different outcome.”

And so to Stoke on the 3rd day of December; the tree was up, the lights were on, the baubles dangling, the first mince pie had gone down nicely with a morsel of cheese, and the first Christmas Dinner with chums in Birkenshaw. Down to Rodley we went for the switch on of the Christmas Lights and pie and peas. Black Friday had been and gone.

Two seasons ago Burnley won a pulsating game at Stoke taking a two-goal lead and then withstood everything bar the kitchen sink being thrown at them in order to hang on to the win as Stoke tossed, crossed, lobbed, threw ball after ball into the box for their six-footers to aim at. This time it was Stoke that triumphed.

Before the game, the coach arriving early, we’d wandered round the ground and found the Stanley Matthews statue. Actually there are three figures on the huge stone plinth all in a different pose. The old Wolves warhorse Eddie Clamp, a name that perfectly suited his unpitying style, ended up being a teammate of Matthews at Stoke. Clamp (allegedly a real comedian in-between mercilessly thundering into opposition ball-players) apparently described the statue when he saw it.

“Excellent,” he said, “Too high for dogs to piss on it, and too low for the seagulls to crap on it.”

The club shop had all the usual stuff, but not a book to be seen. “You’ve no books,” I said to somebody. “Ah we don’t read books in Stoke,” he said.

Once again Burnley made the opposition in an away game look like Barcelona, their early decent 10-minute spell soon quelled. The second half was better, more spirited, more determined, more dominant. But sadly there was never any time when you thought hey Burnley can pull this back. In the opposition box they were either luckless or toothless or Grant made fine saves.

Sean D had made changes as he hinted he would. Defour was dropped to the bench, a surprise to us all. Flanagan was in for Lowton. It was back to the old 4-4-2 with Gray but not Vokes up front, Vokes replaced by the more muscular and rustic Barnes. Marney was fit to play, Heaton was not. Gudmondsson, we were informed, would be out a while longer. Robinson in goal brings confidence, a fine keeper, and reflexes as sharp as ever. He had no chance with either of the two Stoke goals.

The first you could view in either of two ways. A cross came over after some slick and silky Stoke play (not words you would normally see in connection with Stoke), Mee diving headed the ball outwards but only glanced it. It went to Walters (who hadn’t scored since August according to one newspaper), who stuck a foot out instinctively and it flukily looped over Robinson. As jammy a goal you will not see. Version 2: slick play from Stoke, Mee miscues a brave header, Walters in an instant deftly and deliberately guides the ball over Robinson, a quite brilliant goal such was the speed of Walter’s reaction and instinct.

The second goal was the one that had our heads in our hands. Flanagan was by-passed by Arnautovic as if he wasn’t there, a spectator as the ball was whipped round him and crossed to the foot of the unmarked player who smacked it home first time with a great strike. Game over

We wondered if another real hiding was on the cards. Stoke were driving forwards, Burnley no match for their power and passing, flair and individual skills. Hughes was purring at this first 45 minutes afterwards. He saw them as a top ten side and they looked the part. What they had were players who could strut and turn on some style. Arnautovic, infuriating, preening, gesturing, posturing, was a class act. What they also had was a maddening urge to fall and clutch their knees or shins, rolling and writhing on the floor as if every bone was broken, at every opportunity.

There was a moment when Dyche was adamant a Stoke defender should have been red-carded. The second half and Gray had burst through but was clearly being held back. Even so he staggered onwards staying on his feet getting well into the penalty area until it was clear he would lose the ball. Clattenburg brought the play back and awarded the free kick from where the holding had begun. This was a red card offence said Dyche. A defender sent off at that point might well have changed the game in Burnley’s favour; another instance then of Burnley being on the wrong end of a referee decision to add to all the others. Needless to say the free kick came to nothing. There were claims for a possible penalty as early as the first minute when a defender reportedly threw an arm out to deflect a free kick.  “An unnatural position,” said Dyche of the arm.

On came the muscular Tarkowski and impressed. At last there was a match for some of the Stoke big guys. Boyd, ineffective throughout, was taken off and Burnley ended with three strikers as Vokes came on to join Barnes and Gray. Kightly arrived presumably to provide the crosses.  There weren’t many. Stoke’s shot total was 10, believe it or not Burnley’s was 14.  Stoke 4 corners but Burnley 9; this was no one-sided match. Burnley did enough to make us believe that Bournemouth, next up, could be beaten.

Bournemouth 3-1 down to Liverpool came back to win 4-3. A little bit of that belief kind of evaporated.

The Stoke game had begun with a minute’s silence in memory of those who perished on a hillside in Colombia. The air crash involving the Brazilian team Chapacoense from the small city of Chapeco with its 200,000 people touched us all; a small club in a Brazilian league that had risen to the top, in some ways in recent years, just like Burnley, beating sides from bigger cities with far bigger budgets.  ‘A fairytale rise,’ those that knew them called it and here they were filled with pride and joy on their way to a prestigious Final. Even the stadium was of a similar size to Turf Moor holding just over 22,000. Fans were filling it up to shed tears and say prayers within minutes.

In this crash, unlike the Munich tragedy that hit Manchester United so hard, a complete team was destroyed. The world is filled with tragedies. This was one of them and something like this puts many things into perspective. Some tragedies take place on an almost daily basis and fill our TV screens with such regularity that we grow almost immune to the impact, not because we are hard-hearted but because we are just too familiar with the repetition. But just sometimes something happens that makes us really share and feel the grief.  The Chapacoense plane crash was just such a one.

The bond between a team and its people and town is unique; and the grief we saw in and around the stadium as supporters filed in so emotionally, was the visible evidence of the connection that all football fans have with their chosen team and with each other right around the globe. So often we say oh it’s only a game when we lose, but this time it was a lot more than that. Over time, Turin and Manchester United rose again. All of us hoped that Chapocoense would do the same.

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