Twang there goes another nerve

The build-up to the game began early on Sky with live cameras at the ground, the possibility being that this would be the day of triumph. Lee Hoos was interviewed. Ground staff gave the pitch a final cut. Sky was relentless with their message that if Burnley won and Derby did not, then Burnley were up.  Supporters were interviewed in the club shop snapping up matchday shirts on offer at £10.

The cameras went into the Ladies Day Lounge. It was only 11.45 and Burnley’s beautiful were already on the champagne and cocktails. The cameras homed in on four of them.  These four girls were indeed stunning. Burnleh?  This could have been the red carpet area at the Hollywood Oscars.

‘So this is Ladies Day?’ asked the man from Sky clearly impressed by the flesh and flash on parade in front of him.

‘Ey we won’t be ladies by th’end of it,’ said one of them with an accent exceedingly rare.

I do love to be beside the seaside

A crowd of over 16,600 filed in; the biggest line of photographers seen for 50 years behind the ‘Boro goal waited for the defining pictures and player celebrations. All was set bar the carnival weather with a dull, grey, almost wintry sky, with fine rain swirling around in and under the stands. The minute’s silence in memory of the 96 at Hillsborough began well. And then the hordes from Middlesbrough defiled it with singing and chanting. It was shameful, embarrassing and a stain on their club. What you wished for was chastisement, a comprehensive Burnley win to put them in their place. But it was not to be.

Football is funny sometimes. Burnley had hardly given one of their best football performances at Barnsley but had come away with the 1-0 win. At Turf Moor against Middlesbrough they played marvellous football, dominated the game, hogged possession, piled up the shots on goal, yet lost this game 1-0. It was just one more instance of that basic football lesson that you don’t always get what you deserve. It was the most one-sided games seen at Turf Moor for years and Burnley gave as good a passing performance as there has been all season and once or twice had me thinking, hell this is Barcelona. For all but a fleeting 30 seconds you could not fault them but the ball just would not go in the ‘Boro net. 

Days later we still hadn’t forgotten how Kightly hit the bar, Ings volleyed wildly when he had time to think, there were several goalmouth scrambles, shots were blocked, Shackell had a header cleared off the line, Duff headed over, Wallace hit a screamer, Stanislas hit a screamer; in the second 45 minutes the shots and free kicks rained in but no-one could beat the inspired Greek goalkeeper who pulled off at least 5 finger-tip saves. Crosses and passes shaved the post, balls were played across the 6-yard box with no-one to meet them; the pressure was continuous. But still Boro’s single goal lead remained intact. The ball had been at one end for a Burnley corner and 30 seconds later it was in the Burnley net when ‘Boro picked up possession from a hoof-it-anywhere clearance and raced upfield and scored. In that second-half you could count on one hand the number of Middlesbrough forays into the Burnley half. The goal was the result of one of them. From that point on it was all Burnley with the shots, the corners, pressure and possession.

And: it was all Burnley with the penalty claims, all of them ignored by a blinkered referee. Commentator Phil Bird with the benefit of monitor replays counted 3 clear calls.  Manager Dyche identified two. The clearest of all was the one we were right in line with when Ings was blatantly hauled to the ground. He was incandescent. Dyche marched to the referee at the final whistle demanding to know how the referee had not seen any of them.

Derby had won and clawed back three of the 11-points lead.  The results had been the wrong way round. Dyche assured us and his players that there had been nothing wrong with the performance, save for the mistakes that led to the goal. It was, he said, difficult to speak because the officials had made such a difference to the outcome of the game.

‘The ref had spoken to players about not pulling shirts in the box but when it happens to Danny Ings, he doesn’t give it. I asked him, what was the point in speaking about it, if you are not going to give them? That’s nine penalties not given this season.’ But play like that again and some team would be turned over, he added.

Watching the Football League Show later in the evening served only to leave us wondering more than ever how Burnley hadn’t won. Dyche had worked a miracle, said Neil Warnock and now they had to limp over the line. And yet these things happen. That evening Barcelona versus Granada: Barcelona 81% of possession, 29 shots to 5, 13 corners to 1, and lost 1-0. Perhaps over there they were saying, hey if it can happen to Burnley it can happen to us.

In his programme notes Tony Livesey described the plight of Burnley folk; that being a supporter was the most stressful job in the world with every waking moment spent running through all the permutations that would take Burnley up. The P word in question was not promotion, but paranoia and pessimism. We could only hope that at Blackpool, there would be a Groundhog Day repeat of the scenario needed for the Burnley promotion party, a Burnley win and Derby to drop points. But Derby were playing mind-games suggesting that Burnley were having a wobble, that they were catchable and vulnerable. It had crossed our minds, too.

Of course people were nervous. Just like the previous game there was the possibility that Good Friday would seal promotion, something that seemed so unlikely, so improbable when the season began. The Daily Mail reported that players were fined £500 if they mentioned the P word. Absolute fabrication the club responded. On Clarets Mad one trembling poster said he was immobilised with nerves about the game.

‘How do you cope with a real crisis?’ asked another derisively.

‘Well I don’t know about you mate,’ responded another, ‘But I can’t concentrate on porn, let alone work.’

One permutation for a while had been that it would be at Blackpool where things would be settled. People were desperately searching for tickets. Many of those who had them were making a day of it, or even a weekend, since this was a Sky game with a 5.15 kick-off. There were even people going without tickets but who planned to watch on TV there and stay overnight. It was reckoned there were maybe 5,000 Burnley folk made the journey. The train journey from Burnley Rosegrove to Blackpool was a short one and was a reminder of the old days of Football Specials. The memories and reminiscences poured out, of broken windows, attacks by other supporters, of so many people squashed on, that people lay in the luggage racks overhead, and you could pull the safety cord and stop the train every half a mile or so.  

Sean Dyche was adamant: ‘Our focus has been clear all season, one game at a time. We look fit and well, we’re delivering performances. There’s a nice clarity to the way the team, is playing. We just look to take that into the next game. The ‘next game’ mantra is a real one. We believe in it. We look to deliver a performance on Friday and see what the outcome brings. Our focus has been clear, pushing the levels and pushing the boundaries.’

Oh I do love to be beside the seaside, goes the old song, and definitely after getting the result both team and supporters craved, the seaside was a nice place to be. Two moments of outstanding skill settled the game. Kightly cut in and bent the ball round Gilks from 20 yards to send the ball high into the top corner of the Blackpool goal. ‘A sublime finish,’ said Dyche. And then with just minutes to go Trippier made a breathtaking, balletic headed clearance from a strike that like Kightly’s was heading for the top corner; a clearance that defied both description and gravity. In truth it was Blackpool’s first shot on target. Other than these highlights there was much to forget other than the glorious weather and stunning blue sky. Nobody cared about the performance (just a different way of winning, said Dyche), three points and a suntan was all that mattered.

The Guardian described it as a regulation result in a campaign notable for relentless industry, clean sheets and sprinklings of magical moments. It was a fair summary. If the unbeaten home record had gone, the away record stood firm with no defeats in 11 games.  Nerves might have been settled far earlier if Kightly had scored within minutes of the start of the game when a poor back pass played him through. One on one with the goalkeeper with all of us screaming at him to go round the keeper, Gilks saved the shot with his feet.

Michael Kightly has Burnley dreaming, said the Independent. Dyche had built a side around ‘graft and camaraderie.’ But if folk thought this would be a straightforward game it wasn’t as Blackpool battled for their championship lives.

Any other drama came off the pitch. On 53 minutes came the threatened protest by Blackpool fans, fed up with the way they see their club run. Hundreds of tennis balls were thrown on; an expert said they were supposed to represent tangerines, in fact there might even have been a few tangerines mixed in. Blackpool players initially threw them back into the crowd until realising they were being thrown straight back at them again, providing a nice comedy moment, something sadly lacking at Bloomfield Road of late. And then there was a near punch-up between one of the Blackpool coaching staff and substitute Stephen Dobbie on the touchline, something to do with the substitution they were making being so slow. One report said that Dobbie was slapped on the face. Over the season Blackpool fans have seen their club fall from an early top end of the table position to near relegation. ‘They have some interesting times,’ said a wry Dyche with delightful understatement.

Michael Kightly sang the manager’s praises. ‘What he’s done is not far short of remarkable. It’s unbelievable. When I came in the boys said we were fourth favourites to go down. It’s a testament to the manager. He’s been different class but I knew that from my time at Watford.’

The last Championship manager to win the coveted Manager of the Year award was Steve Coppell at Reading in 2006. Kightly was adamant that Sean Dyche was a candidate for 2013/24.

The perfect evening did not materialise. Derby beat Doncaster to remain eight points behind, hanging on to Burnley’s coat tails. We watched that game on TV as well, all of us temporary Doncaster fans, the fish pie on a tray and a glass of grog in front of the TV nearly going all over the floor when Derby scored their first. And so it agonisingly dragged on with 86 points still not guaranteeing a second spot place. Cardiff in the previous season had been champions with 87. Hull had taken second spot with just 79. Burnley on 86 and we were still sweating.

Such is football; such is being a Burnley supporter. Derby had an easy home game against Barnsley ahead and Burnley at home to a more difficult Wigan. 8 points clear with just three games to go. Not even Nostradamus or Old Mother Shipton could have predicted this way back at the beginning of the season.