Burnley 3 - 3 Cardiff City

April 26th 2008-03-24

    I suppose we should be pleased.  As we drove from Leeds to Burnley for the final home game, I was doing a bit of pondering. I ponder a lot these days, it must be my age. At least there’s another season in the Championship when this one ends and we’ve been spared the tension and embarrassment that we had last season of a long winless run where relegation looked just briefly possible at one stage. In contrast to that this season we’ve had several moments when a top six place looked more than possible. Even at the beginning of April we were still in with a chance. That must be progress – of a sort. In too came Paul Fletcher, the prodigal son, from his stint at Coventry, selected as the man to guide the club to a ‘new dawn’ era of hotels, office blocks and apartments in the proposed new Stadiarena at the cricket field end. Didn’t Fletch once break Tommy Smith’s nose at Anfield, or at least re-arrange it – no mean feat I have to say. No one however, seems to be saying quite where the money is coming from for these grandiose ‘new dawn’ plans or if Fletch voluntarily ever went near Smith again.

     And quietly, CE Dave Edmundson left, unnoticed, leaving behind him the accomplishment of the refurbished Jimmy McIlroy area, no longer an empty void. He left so quietly in fact that did anyone even notice or know exactly when it was? 

          In truth it’s been a funny old season. Steve Cotterill departed, by mutual consent, we were told, but I’d hazard a guess that it was a sacking after his last excuse for a defeat – that players were being made nervous by plans for redevelopment. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that the promise of new swish dressing rooms and gleaming mirrors have ever caused a loss of form. Little has been heard of him since.

     In came Owen Coyle, replacing the austere, Cromwellian, safety-first style of his predecessor with something more cavalier, attractive and positive. Positive in the sense that his is a style geared to going for the win, rather than simply setting up shop to avoid the defeat. Defeats have nevertheless come recently over the last couple of months with monotonous regularity.

     A few quality early wins for the new man raised the bar and our hopes. But a comment from him not too long ago after the Preston game was illuminating when he revealed that on coming into the club he could see there were problems and “we have tried to paper over the cracks.” Maybe by that reference to wallpapering he is referring to two players coming in, Varga and Cole, both of an age where they can soon apply for bus passes and a winter heating allowance, and a young Arsenal lad, Randall, who has hardly featured. The lack of real quality signings in January turned out to be frustrating for all of us. In a league that was distinguished only by its lack of distinction, just a couple of younger, dynamic, aggressive, pacey players coming in might have got us that final sixth spot. But, with the club losing £4million a season now, a flurry of costly signings was hardly likely.

     Perhaps then those early stunning away wins for Mr Coyle delayed the inevitable; that is to say the realisation that this is indeed a squad of players, that when push comes to shove is neither good enough, nor young, powerful and hungry enough to really succeed. Too often we have been unable to compete with sides that are big, strong, muscular and athletic. And if any side comes along that can ally pace to that list of attributes, then we simply have no answer. We almost touch the top six, and then it tantalisingly fades away with another poor performance.

     A basic feature of these poor performances has been a propensity to commit mistakes; and not just little mistakes. The mistakes that our ageing players make so often have been of the pantomime variety. You could make a complete 50 minute Christmas video of our contributions just this season alone to the wonderful and whacky world of gaffs and goofs and today provided three more. I couldn’t even begin to remember them all, nor have I mentioned all the red cards and subsequent suspensions. 75 yellows and 8 reds was it after the PNE game? Even in an era when you can be yellow-carded for sneezing, that’s a pretty appalling statistic.

      What kind of team succeeds at this level? Occasionally a team comes along that plays delightful football and then survives at the higher level, Portsmouth years ago, and more recently Reading (or are they too coming back down?). But this season it seems to be the teams where the job description begins with “candidates less than 6’ tall and not built like an ape need not apply. The ability to be skilful and play pretty football is not essential’.

     So, the best teams in the Division this year haven’t necessarily played great football; they are the teams that have made fewest mistakes and ground out draws and wins in amongst the games they too have lost. At dear old Turf Moor, at one end we have seen glaring misses in front of goal that would have been nothing short of embarrassing in a pub game, and at the other we have seen two goalkeepers and an assortment of defenders gift the opposition goals with calamitous errors. No manager can legislate for this until summer comes and he can ship out the dross and reshape a team.

    Yet even so, despite all that, right until April we were in with a shout of that sixth spot place as it became reasonable to think that a record low number of points would secure it. And that’s the frustrating thing about this season. It really was there for the taking but in a game like the one at home to Sheffield United it was as if everyone knew but the players.

     As it is, hopes faded and drifted away. But how different it might have been if that clear penalty had been awarded in the opening minutes in the home game against PNE, or that soft penalty hadn’t been awarded away at Stoke. What about the clear penalty that wasn’t awarded as Akinbiyi burst through in the final moments against Colchester and had his shirt pulled so blatantly you could see it from outer space? All those points lost, and that’s not to mention all the open-goal misses we’ve seen.

     In the warm-up prior to today’s game I looked at the players and wondered which ones would still be there next season. I sat there thinking well I hope to goodness Owen Coyle has some names at his fingertips, maybe some Scottish connections, because this is a team that needs reshaping and rebuilding with more power and aggression. Elliot looks odds on to be player of the season again and has re-signed, and since the departure of the previous manager, Harley has been revitalised. But is he staying? McCann might well win the young player of the year award, but if we don’t bring in some younger players soon he’ll still be winning it when he’s 30. The goalkeeper situation is critical. Was it not the Radio 2BR commentator who said that selecting either keeper was akin to choosing which shin you prefer to be kicked on? But then I always think it’s unfair to pick on goalkeepers when the simplest of chances missed at the other end are just as costly.

     Prior to the Barnsley game a month ago, I looked and (as ‘new dawn’ season ticket renewals plopped through the letter box) saw that we had at that stage won just six out of twenty home games. And then we wonder, unless free tickets are given away, why attendance figures are so mediocre. Even though it’s only 40 miles from Leeds, on a bad day it can be a two hour drive in stop-start traffic; tip-toeing through the speed cameras, and driving over for an evening game is just purgatory. So, as I sat in the pouring rain waiting for that Barnsley game to start, six wins out of twenty I thought, is hardly magnetic, or the stuff to make me believe in ‘the new dawn’, or make me choose a weekend in London for the Palace game in preference to a Greek villa in the sun for a week. Glossy spin like ‘a new dawn’ won’t fool anyone in Burnley – the place famously named Grumpytown by Tommy Hutchison over 20 years ago.

     I sat groaning and grimacing during the Sheffield United game, (having read Mr Flood’s programme notes about the three C’s) genuinely thinking there must be better things to do than watch another tame, limp, wimpish defeat on a freezing Saturday afternoon when the hope of a top six place was finally extinguished. Perhaps the three W’s might have been more appropriate… weak, woeful and weedy. It was the P’s that were missing… pace, power, panache, pride, passion…

     I sent my vote for the DRUM. It was a secret ballot so my lips are sealed as to how I voted, but I did suggest that there should have been a third category yes as long as it’s not behind me. Sense prevailed and by a huge majority the drum was sent packing.

     Anyway, I looked forward to this, the concluding home game. The unexpected win at Southampton lifted the spirits just a little. Plus, I have to say that with all the recent criticism of heavy handed treatment of home supporters by the stewards (even telling us sorry no flasks leave it at reception) and with all of us liable to be asked to show our tickets, not once, but several times on the short journey to our seats, I was looking forward to observing that they are as useless as ever in stopping the surge of assorted numpties, imbeciles and coneheads onto the pitch after the final whistle of the final game. This annual spectacle of ineptitude is now an embarrassing tradition. Today though the tide of dimwits who ran on seemed to disappear as quickly as it arrived and the average age of these plonkers was probably only around 12.

       But 62 points in the bag, the highest total since the grand old days of Stan and I guess at the beginning of the season with SC in charge we’d have thought that rather good. But my abiding thought is still one of goals we’ve gifted and chances we’ve squandered and that just two more wins and maybe we’d have been in one helluva deciding game at Palace next week.

          However, there is a match report to write and today we played Cardiff City.  Out came Cardiff and I thought just how on earth have this lot reached an FA Cup Final? My opinion hadn’t changed as the game ended. And as for gifting goals to the opposition today was as good a day as any to witness the Burnley way of throwing away a two goal lead and then a 3 – 2 lead. We are so good at it you have to be impressed.

     3 – 3 the final score and what damned good value it was I have to say. This was a game with everything – except the win of course we deserved. It had a sleepy first period when some nice tippy tappy passing, some bouts of head tennis, an occasional burst through by a Burnley forward just about kept us awake, but only just. It gave me the chance to read the programme, admire the excellent free gift booklet and read Barnsey’s magazine. And then just when you thought this might be a dull 0 – 0 draw we scored when Alexander, from the inside left position after continuing his run, rifled home a crisp shot with the referee overruling the flagging linesman. Then, when we fashioned a superb second goal in the second half you might have been forgiven for thinking hey this game is comfortably won. Some lovely interplay, a final short ball across the six yard box and there was Cole to sweep the ball home.

     How wrong can you be as Burnley then gave a wonderful show of surrendering that lead as we first gifted them a penalty. Was it a careless trip, or from our distant end it looked like a gentle nudge with the shoulder. Whatever it was, it was Jordan and the penalty was given. Next up was a goal that was the result of the other full back’s poor defending or a too-clever-by-‘alf clearance from a deep Sinclair cross. Whatever it was, the ball was rocketed home before you could blink and for the seventeenth time in the game the words “bloody hell” escaped from my lips. Bit by bit the game was now livening up and Carlisle scored the third as the ball ping ponged around from Blake’s corner. Cue delirium, this must be it we thought, a nice win to end the home programme, only a few minutes left.

     You are joking of course. So far we’d had a soft penalty, then a defensive goof and now to complete the full range of gifts on offer at the Clarets Superstore we had an own goal to make the score 3 – 3 which is of course how it stayed. Silly me missed the next drama when I had to visit the restrooms and apparently there was a quick succession of three goal line clearances at the Cardiff end. If that’s wrong please blame Mrs T, it’s what she told me.

     And then as if all that wasn’t enough and just to show that even the most meaningless end of season game can provide real sparks and drama we had the COLE incident. I call it that because it will be discussed forever more I am sure as to exactly what happened and why. As Purse and Cole went in for the ball in what looked an x certificate clash with each looking as reckless as the other from our end, although TV the day after showed Cole to be entirely free of any blame, Cole emerged pointing to his leg, and Purse stayed down. Cole was livid. Purse got up to receive a red and walked off the field. Cole still livid picked up his leg and showed it to the ref and anyone else who was interested. Marching to the touchline the leg was examined by management and forensics and the next we saw was Cole legging it off the field alone and vanishing up his own tunnel. “Bloody hell” I said for the eighteenth time, he’s going in to grab his Purse. Seemingly this is exactly what half the Cardiff bench thought and like a posse of Keystone Cops set off in hot pursuit (spot the pun). At this point half the Burnley bench cottoned on to what seemed pretty obvious to all of us. Cole was dashing off to lamp Purse and the Cardiff lads were dashing off to lamp Cole so the Burnley lads were going to lamp the Cardiff lads. None of us in all our years of footie watching had ever seen owt like it. We listened hard for any sound that resembled a thud, biff, bam, whack, wallop or splat. We waited for the stand to collapse, as by now police and stewards were all haring up the tunnel after the whole lot of ‘em. By now the game had re started but none of us cared one jot. Slowly, the police came back, the stewards, the Cardiff subs and all the assorted characters who had chased in there.

     The game petered out. The players came back on with toddlers hoist on their shoulders - but no Cole, who incidentally was named man of the match for his neat, nifty, nimble display with his goal on the end of it.

     So what did happen? On Radio Lancashire, Coyle, our man at the scene, explained. Cole had shown the management team his leg. He had then been told to go in immediately so that the club doctor from the Bob Lord could examine it. Did anyone see the doctor following Cole? “That’s all it was,” said Coyle adding that the pursuit scenes were like something from the Benny Hill show. Perhaps one day Cole will add another chapter to his autobiography and tell the world what really happened? Supporters where we were sitting seemed to be in broad agreement; when Cole ran off the pitch to receive 10 stitches, it was the fastest anyone had seen him run all season.

     Did Cole, who in fact had a very good game, on radio afterwards, say he had indeed chased after “Muppet” Purse to deck him? It seems like he did, revealing that he wasn’t going to fib, he was furious, and he did go after him. “If I play two games next season I hope it is home and away to Cardiff.” (Andy give me a call, I’ll pay your train fare).

     Whatever: the COLE incident will go down in Turf Moor folklore on a par with Ade’s sending off after 3.5 seconds, in his Sunderland debut game, for a head butt (only bettered by Zinedine Zidane in the World Cup Final).

     My chum Richard who drove all the way from Truro for this final game might well have a different take on proceedings. But, his abiding memory was having meat, pie and chips in the 101 Club on the way to the ground. To his astonishment the pie arrived without crust. What lay there was this sort of flaccid lump of meat looking quite sorry for itself. How on earth can you have meat pie without crust he mused? All the old-boy regulars around him looked on with bewildered astonishment. He politely enquired where the crust might be. A little later the waitress lass arrived with a selection of broken bits of crust on a plate and asked him which bit he would like. “Sorry we’ve run out of pie with crust,” she explained and then with a pair of tongues put his selected piece on his plate. “Perhaps what you had was just a Burnley Meatball,” I suggested to him later.

     Gee what a day. Six goals, the Cole saga, a nice free book from the club, a first win at Huddersfield for the blessed Stan and a defeat for Man United. Plus, in time honoured fashion the opposition manager, Dave Jones, of course pointed the finger at our Andrew. “He needs to take a good look at himself.” Well he did didn’t he, he saw his leg, and then let everyone else have a look as well. 
     What a super afternoon, can’t wait for next season - and I haven’t said that for quite a while.

Dave Thomas April 26th 2008