A Weekend Away

The official line that it was difficult carrying out two roles was a cover-up. It seemed odd at the time, the departure was so sudden. When Brian Laws left Burnley, the players took cakes in; maybe the Villa players felt relief in just the same way.

No wonder they played so well. Those who had rowed with him must have felt transformed and indeed they played like a team that had just received an injection of vitality and spirit. It struck me before the game that this might be the effect. If they had worked under a cloud, it had been lifted, and now the sun was shining.

The rumour mill was on overtime. Southampton were allegedly preparing a bid for Danny Ings in January. If he goes there in the summer we can all pat ourselves on the back at fathoming out months ago football’s worst kept secret. Several sources had us down for Italian scoring galactico (with a small g) Giampaolo Pazzini. We are also in for Spanish defender Alberto Balsam and Irish ace Morphy Richards. Until now I always thought pazzini was Italian bread that you dipped in your olive oil at swanky supper evenings when you stand around eating nibbles and canapés, balancing a plate in one hand, a glass in the other and trying to eat stylishly and sound intelligent with people you’ve never met before.  Christmas is a popular time for these sophisticated soirees. So far, mercifully, we have just the one invite and Mrs T has sworn to disown me if I take a bag of books to sell.

Winter appeared for the Newcastle game with dropping temperatures and thermals the order of the day. The old horse-blanket overcoat made its first appearance of the season and warm gloves. By the end of the game cars were covered in frost. The game was hot and spicy. It was no classic but was never dull. Considering the way it went, a draw was the perfect result. Burnley bossed the first half and scored. Newcastle bossed the second and scored.

At half-time you’d have bet money that this would be a Burnley win. In a half with as much clog as culture, Newcastle were outrun, outfought and outplayed. They looked like a collection of Bash Street Kids and played like them, ragged, rough, and all over the place. Boyd’s goal was a corker from the edge of the box, no less than Burnley deserved. Newcastle, frankly, looked awfully bereft of anything resembling teamwork. It was hard not to think about all three points.

Just sometimes a manager will earn his money at half-time and Pardew did just that in the interval. He made changes and must have said a few strong words. From the off, when they returned, this was a different Newcastle with long spells of crisp passing and possession. In the tall, skinny and gangly Sammy Ameobi they had the best player on the pitch. A more unlikely looking footballer you could not wish to see. With his spindly, matchstick legs, bony elbows and knobbly knees, he ran Trippier ragged.

The Newcastle goal came quickly, sadly the result of horrendous defending, so uncharacteristic of what we have seen in most games this season. From that point on it was a case of hanging on and if there was a grumble it was the lack of changes out wide. Arfield and Boyd became less and less effective. Considering the impact Wallace had against Aston Villa we felt certain he would be brought on at some stage. He wasn’t. But: another unbeaten game to make a nice little run of four, and the point enabled Burnley to drag themselves out of the bottom three. QPR and a crunch game beckoned.

It was the Supporters' Club Weekend trip to London. Hopes were high that Burnley would get a point at least and there was no reason to suppose otherwise. What a disgrace of a ground Loftus Road is. How it passes Health and Safety requirements is a mystery. The ladies loos I am reliably informed were simply disgusting. The concourse was as good as impassable. Helpful stewards informed us that two supporters at previous games had fallen over the balcony edge. My knees are still recovering from being squashed into the seat space available.

What a shame there were no vibrating beds in the hotel to help us recover after the game that evening. It would have perked us up. The golden girls, regulars on all these trips, had been to one hotel recently in Lytham St Annes and Lynn had got into bed and then begun to feel the bed springing up and down with her in it. Sharing a room with Pam, suddenly Lynn was taken quite aback to feel the single bed vibrating rapidly. What the hell, she wondered, as she lay there feeling these startling tremors pulsating away, and her shaking up and down, not sure whether to decide this was worrying or quite exciting. Pam meanwhile, in the other single, was desperately trying to get the TV on with the remote. Why won’t it work, she exclaimed, getting more and more exasperated, pressing all the buttons in no particular order. As she bounced uncontrollably up and down, Lynn looked across and twigged straightaway.

‘That’s not the TV remote yer’ve got, that’s for the bloody bed vibrator.’

The game was alas the anti-climax of the weekend. Good vibrations were in short supply. The day before, we’d stopped at Banbury. Some people tick football grounds off their list of places to visit. Some people visit Real Ale pubs. Mrs T visits M&S stores up and down the land. We ticked Banbury off. We ticked off the one in the enormous Westfield Shopping Mall in Shepherd’s Bush on the Saturday morning. We found one in Windsor on the way home on Sunday and then one in Stratford; four in one weekend – not bad, a small consolation for a disappointing result. Another 300 to go and we get a voucher for an afternoon tea.

The hotel at Heathrow with its obvious airport links was filled with all nationalities and cabin crews and pilots. Tables of them were at breakfast on Saturday. One guy was clearly a captain. He took off his overcoat that was festooned with braid and epaulettes. Beneath that was his jacket festooned with braid and epaulettes. He took that off. Beneath that was his shirt festooned with braid and epaulettes. He peeled a banana and there were epaulettes round that as well. One uniformed guy came in who was clearly a navigator. He was carrying a map and muttering where the hell is Bogota?

If Burnley had gone in at half-time leading 2-0 it would have been a just reward for the first-half performance.  It was the once much maligned Rob Green who most certainly kept QPR in the game with one miracle save he certainly knew all about as he finger-tipped a Boyd screamer onto the post, and then another save from Arfield that he knew absolutely nothing about. Like so many other performances this season, Burnley forced all the play in the first half despite the atrocious performance of referee Jonathan Moss.

This was a referee in desperate need of his Guide Dog which we can only assume he had left at home. My father who had a glass eye would have done a better job and seen more of what was going on. My father, in fact, was a dab hand with the glass eye and sometimes used to take it out to get a closer look at things. His party trick was at meal times when he would take it out and hold it close to the chips and say: ‘by the ‘eck these look especially good tonight mother.’ Time and again in the first half we stood up in rage at this referee’s decisions, which for those of us close to the balcony edge was a fairly risky thing to do.

But like several Burnley displays this season, it all tailed off in the second half. QPR came out with a bit more whoomf and muscle and within five minutes had taken the lead, Fer, the scorer, might well have been red-carded earlier for a horrible foul. It was a horrible goal, the ball ricocheting from Mee’s foot as he slid in for the tackle and looping over Heaton. Teams whose luck is in score these sorts of goals. Teams whose luck is out concede them. Their second was scored inevitably by Austin positioned in the right place to make good use of some sloppy defending. Redknapp defended him when he was later sent off for a second yellow. But in truth this was a game when he was clearly psyched up, truculent and fractious. His first foul on Trippier when he nearly took his ankle off might well have seen an instant red. You sensed there was no love lost between him and Shackell as they pushed and shoved at corners.

By then it had all gone to pieces for Burnley who became more and more ragged and disappointingly ineffective against QPR’s ten men. What began so impressively petered out into a sort of tame nothingness. But even so, in that second 45 minutes Boyd could have scored but blazed over. Ings could have scored with a far post header from a great cross but missed. And the witless Moss ignored a certain penalty when Barnes was hauled to the ground.

All so frustrating then, thanks to inspired goalkeeping in the first half and missed chances in the second. Fed up, cold, crammed into the constricted space like sardines, we inched and shuffled our way out of the cold, decrepit concourse. This was a bad game to lose but another splendid hotel meal was some consolation rounded off by apple pie and custard just like granny used to make. I’d rather foolishly promised us all a bottle of fizzy in the evening had we won. Then I saw the prices starting at £54 a bottle. The Claret in me was miffed and long-faced ‘cos we didn’t win. The Yorkshireman in me was thankful we lost.

A smooth journey home with a stop at Windsor; the Royal Standard was flying high up. The Queen was at home. Some of us caught a glimpse of her as she drove back into the castle grounds from whence she had been. Perhaps like Mrs T she is an M&S devotee. It would have been nice to have presented her with a Buchan book but I’d just sold the last one in the bag. The state apartments were magnificent with huge decorated Christmas trees sparkling with lights.

The previous day I’d seen Santa in the Westfield Centre. The inner child in me was quite thrilled and Mrs T dutifully took pictures of us in the doorway of the expensive footwear shop. We chatted for quite a while. I can offer you 10% off he said looking at all the boots and shoes behind him. The magic spell of make-believe was destroyed in that commercial instant. It was clear he wasn’t the real Santa – the genuine Santa is the one that drives the Coca Cola lorry.  I told him I was from Yorkshire and he’d have to offer rather more than 10%.

Stratford was bedecked with more Christmas lights. A Christmas fair and numerous stalls were set out along the river bank. There was another enormous meal in the Pen and Parchment. The plates were bigger than hubcaps. It would be embarrassing for them if I listed the people who ate the lot. Every shop in the town was open and doing roaring business. Westfield, the day before, was heaving by the time we left with Christmas shoppers laden with bags. It was hard not to think ‘recession, what recession.’ One can only hope that George Osborne doesn’t think from this that we all have loadsa money and he thinks of new ways to take it off us.

MOTD and the press were kind to Burnley. Most if not all wondered how we had not got something from the game. Michael Calvin in the Independent was especially complimentary.

Burnley were by far the better side in the first half… They are a club that mirrors old-fashioned values and represents a small but perfectly formed football town. The players are routinely patronised as earnest and defiant in the face of assumptions of inferiority. But their qualities have real resonance.

‘This is a group which was written off an hour after getting promotion,’ reflected their manager Sean Dyche.’ But the perception is changing. We are not broken. We can take a knock and come back again.’

Calvin’s summary of Dyche was pitch-perfect.

‘Only a fool or a casual observer would judge Dyche by appearances. The gravelly voice, severe haircut and taut sergeant-major shoulders disguise a man enriched by adversity, both as a player and a manager. He is lucid but realistic, friendly rather than forbidding. He looks beyond the everyday dramas of the Premier League circus and focuses on the basics. The contrast with his opposite number Redknapp was marked. The QPR manager has the air of a tired old Vaudevillian, shivering in the wind of change. His patter remains word perfect but the body language speaks of world weariness. He was barely animated even when Rangers took a 51st minute lead.’

Despite the defeat, the bottom of the table is still condensed and Burnley are certainly not isolated or losing touch. And in the Cup there’s Tottenham to come. What a game that is in prospect. On the way home I couldn’t help pondering that I had met Santa, seen Joey Barton, eaten myself silly and glimpsed the Queen. If Carlsberg did weekends…