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Reflections on Burnley’s anti-football

There’s a few of us scribblers around writing Burnley stuff, from new kid on the block Andy Jones at the Athletic, to us elders knocking on a bit, Tony Scholes, Mike Smith, Tim Quelch and moi. I reached a personal millstone on Boxing Day, 75, but there’s still lead in the pencil. I say millstone deliberately.

When you get to this age of course it becomes rather more difficult to answer questions such as: who’s the best player you’ve seen (you’ve seen so many), where was the best game you’ve been to, who’s the ugliest footballer you ever saw, or what was the worst ever game. Except the one at Bournemouth maybe.

With Atletico Madrid disposing of the all-conquering Liverpool in the Champions League we saw them described as a Spanish Burnley, the Burnley of the Spanish League. Why don’t they play proper football Klopp moaned? Just how on earth could this have come about? How on earth could a Spanish side packed with so much skill and talent be compared to Burnley?

It was a while back but it is fresh in the memory, Bournemouth 0 Burnley 1, a game that inspired the immortal line; ‘this was game so ugly it should have been played in the dark.’ One of those great lines you wish you’d thought of yourself. A game played on a filthy, wet day, of swirling rain and near impossible conditions. Such things don’t help, but throw Burnley into the mix, currently the side that fans love to hate, and you have the perfect recipe for a groanfest.

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The airwaves afterwards in the Bournemouth area hummed with indignation and fury at what Burnley had to offer in a game of petulance, fouls and bookings. A game that could have seen two red cards, one for Barnes and one for Billing, from any another referee. Then there was the challenge on Fraser by our own Lord of Darkness, James Tarkowski. This was the header he won against Fraser, just 5’ 4”, when he clattered into the back of him and laid him out cold. Perfectly fair said the pundits, a fine, firm challenge. An act of calculated thuggery said the Bournemouth fans. Nowt wrong with it, we Burnley fans said, but no doubt relieved we weren’t on the receiving end. Just the kind of header that was standard in the 50s and 60s when centre halves were instructed to announce their presence, and let the opposing forwards know what to expect.

‘He didn’t even ask him how he was afterwards,’ said the Bournemouth skipper after the game. Aw didums.

A game by the way, that was statistically the worst ever Premier League game; a game that took the word anti-football to a new level, a word that is now firmly embedded in the Burnley lexicon. A word inspired by that great lump (not my word) we have up front, Ashley Barnes, the word ‘lumps’ being used by the other lump on the sofa that Sunday morning on SKY, Chris Wood, to describe the terrible twosome we have up front. Apparently the first question asked in any opponents dressing room these days is; are they playing one lump or two today?’

It has to be said that you know you’re doing something right when even one of the original Ugly Sisters, Andy Carroll, complains about you and the number of bruises that Burnley left on him and his mates. Carroll could write a thesis on elbows in football but here he was squealing and complaining as if he was some sort of innocent choir boy. The Newcastle game was another war of attrition, just like the other one when Carroll was sent off for using his elbows.

Bournemouth fans ranted and raved at the Burnley rough-house stuff, or at what they perceived as rough stuff. They ranted at the style of play, the lack of anything resembling football, demanding to know how Burnley fans managed to watch that every week. And in so doing, they weren’t the first, by a long chalk. It used to be Wimbledon that took the prize for being the team that other sides hated playing against. Now it is firmly Burnley. And are we not quite proud of that?

Is it not a badge of honour? Is it not a fine accolade? Is it not something to cherish? We are mean and ugly, and hard and gritty. We are Burnley, we are made of gristle and granite. We are not soft pushovers that wear gloves and snoods at Gawthorpe and certainly not on a matchday. We are Duncan Ferguson, Kevin Ball, Chopper Harris and Andy Lochhead all rolled into one. You don’t mess with the Clarets these days. We are the SAS of the Premier League. When Sean D says we find different ways of winning, does he mean we can either politely rough you up, or really, really rough you up?

Even supporters are tough and ‘ornery these days. We can hold the red-hot pies without flinching. Even 14 rows back in the Upper James Hargreaves we get soaked in the wind and rain, and we washed our hands in cold water for years until miraculously thanks to Coronavirus hot water appeared .  And I refuse to cover my knees with the rug that Mrs T takes. Proper ‘ard.

And boy how it worked against Newcastle and Bournemouth with two 1-0 wins, and both of them registering not one shot on target the whole game. Smash and grab it was at Bournemouth with the long haired one, Rodriguez, scoring in the 89th minute and Sean D congratulating himself on being a bit of a savant. ‘Enjoy your goal,’ he said to Jay R as he sent him on. Psychic or what?

Mrs T was having a Christmas drinks party that afternoon. I was pleased because I was invited as well; and then the score flashed up on 89 minutes that Burnley had scored, I nearly dropped my prawn vol au vents. I wish I could say that I was actually at Bournemouth. Like Wembley 2009, or Scunthorpe 2000, it will be one of those games when folks might say; were you at Bournemouth in 2019?

Some might say, and quite reasonably, that there were worse games in the old Fourth Division during the Wilderness Years or even in the Stan years when games at Grimsby or Barnsley were usually stinkers. But overall, taking into account the length of the journey, the atrocious weather, the soakings that people got walking from car parks to ground or afterwards in reverse, the dire fare on offer, the Bournemouth game is a real contender for the worst ever.

What counts against that number one slot is perhaps the fact that we won. It tempered the potential depression and dejection. But for me, what elevates it, is the feeling of pride in being such an ugly side these days, and getting the win. Bournemouth fans need a sharp reminder that they tend to lose most of their games these days so what good is it, trying to play like Barcelona? Perhaps as they slide down into the bottom three, or even relegation, they will think back, and wish they played a bit more like Burnley.

Boxing Day, my birthday, and so to Everton although the Thomas family watched it on Amazon.  We’ve done trips to Everton and enjoyed the view of the pillars right in front of us. Actually, four trips, counting the one in the 60s when we won 3-0 or 3-1 can’t remember exactly, and stood in a crowd of 78,000 one Christmas and all I could see was the back of hundreds of heads.

A very recent survey of how fans perceive other teams placed Burnley firmly at the bottom; Burnley the least popular side in the Premier League, the new Stoke City. Following recent displays, it’s hard not to be surprised. At Everton, defensively superb, but what was apparent was the paucity of style, flair, creativity, or general attractiveness on offer. Not as ugly as Bournemouth mind you. Take out Tarkowski, Mee and Pope and the cupboard was pretty bare. The mutterings of embryonic supporter discontent grew just a little more. Without the unfortunate McNeil error, Burnley might well have held on for the 0-0 and the cracks papered over again. But sadly, there was no pride in this display other than the defensive bloody-mindedness.

‘It’s not often I have a go at them but I am now and I’ve told them in the dressing room. The gloves are off. Let’s get on with it. They might feel like a Billy Big Time but we’ll see. The holiday period ended at quarter to five. We’ll be training right through because I’m going to put this right for the Burnley fans, because they deserve better than that. Those players are having a laugh. I’ve stuck up for them but they’re having a jolly. That’s not good enough and I’ve told them. Everything’s cancelled. There’ll be no time off until I get better performances than that. They’ve either eaten too much turkey or too much plum duff. I’ll sort it out good style now.’

No: that wasn’t SD. It was Stan Ternent, Boxing Day 2000 after a 1-0 defeat at Barnsley.

The criticism of Dyche and his ‘football’ was growing just a tad more on the websites, but other fans remained appreciative, supportive, respectful, whilst the Board became the bigger target for criticism, for their perceived parsimony. Dyche’s hands are tied, is the accepted mantra. The January window assumed a new significance; hoard the cash or let loose a little. But what are Mike Rigg and the Burnley recruitment team doing, folks asked. At Everton a centre-back was brought on for the final minutes to play up front. When was the last time we saw something like that? Vydra had apparently been given time off because he was a new father.

Maybe the best summary was this: ‘We ain’t pretty, we don’t offer much going forward, we grind out wins. That’s what we do best. It’s the way we play.’

Over the last year all the stats show improvement both offensively and defensively. If you want to change that to something more entertaining, then you must, like Simon Jordan, be careful what you wish for. The bottom line is, yes, it was very often hard to watch, but come away with a 1-0 win as in the godawful game at Bournemouth and we are all smiles. Stoke City tried to change from the pragmatic to the beautiful and look where they are now.

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Christmas Day, done, tick. Boxing Day birthday, done, tick. Mrs T bought me a new phone, determined to drag me into the 21st century. Manchester United the next game, kick off at daft o’ clock. Win and all would be forgiven. Lose and the response would be; well how do we compete with clubs like this? A win would have been as astonishing as Jeremy Corbyn being elevated to the Lords. As surprising as finding a Premier player in your front garden in a snowman suit after he crashed his Lamborghini.

We booted United around said Oliver Holt in one report. Rightly or wrongly it’s the image we now project. Man U players rolled around all afternoon. Some of them genuine others a bit diva ish. The first half was not pretty. Any class came from United. Had we held on for the 0-0 by half-time we would have applauded them and said defensive masterclass. But they didn’t. Efforts at being an attacking force were negligible. We were the Ugly Sisters to the Man U dancing girls. Wood and Barnes versus Rashford and Martial, food for thought.  Tarkowski through all this was immense.

Hendrick was so unlucky with two mighty shots; unlucky that we had football goal posts, not rugby posts. With rugby posts he would have scored valuable points as he nearly cleared the stand roof.

The second half was an improvement. But goals were hard to come by from Burnley back in those days. It seemed a long time since we put three past Watford. Dyche made changes and by the end Gudmundsson and Rodriguez were making a difference. McNeil became a force. But United added a late second in the kind of breakaway, so swift and piercing, that Burnley could only dream about.

The accepted mantra was at the back end of December that this had been a brilliant calendar year with improvements all round. But you can’t live on past achievements. This is a side that was, we thought, approaching its sell-by date and needed new blood. It might, we suspected, win a few more games probably 1-0 and survive again. Beat Villa and all would be on track. But lose, and the volume of grumbles would increase just a tad more.

Jim Holden in the Mirror summed it up. They, the Burnley fans, relish watching top-flight teams at Turf Moor, but will they eventually tire of efficient but relatively dull football?  The answer was yes, but then oh how things changed. The nadir was Aston Villa at Turf Moor. We groaned and grumbled and feared the worst. The prospects looked grim; the prognosis was gloomy. But here we are now, the blues banished, the claret prominent again.

Football; it’s a funny old game.

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