A Continuing Evolution

Last updated : 19 August 2006 By Richard Oldroyd
Alan Mahon - bedded in last season
It is a promising start by a side which is a good deal more familiar than those which have started recent seasons. It has become usual to refer the Burnley's 'new look side' at this time of year – but for the first time in several, that is no longer appropriate.

Indeed, new faces have been at a premium over the summer. With Alan Mahon and Andy Gray bedded in at the back end of the last campaign, there have only the Crewe duo, Foster and Jones, to welcome over the summer months. And with respect to them both, free transfer signings from relegated clubs rarely set the pulse racing.

That does not mean, though, that they aren't good players. Jones in particular has already shown his quality, with a debut which can only have reassured any doubters. Foster represents sound back up at the other end of the pitch, even if it is clear Steve Cotterill does not see him as an immediate member of the starting XI.

That in itself indicates that the squad has a reassuring depth this year, even if it remains light in a couple of positions. It is not a squad which looks set to run away with the league, but neither should it struggle at the bottom end.

With the arrival of Jones, and – we must hope – the continued development of McCann and Lafferty, the minimum expectation of a lower mid-table finish can be exceeded. The suspicion is that, gradually, Cotterill is getting his team how he wants it. Always a 4-4-2 man at heart, a team in a thoroughly modern image of that set-up is emerging.

It is based on two strong centre halves – and there are many to chose from at Turf Moor - screened by a holding midfield who is comfortable on the ball, and a second central midfielder charged with breaking up the play and occasionally venturing further forwards to support the attack. This midfield duo will be permed from McCann, James O'Connor and the restored Micah Hyde. They will be supported by Alan Mahon, a narrow left sided midfielder, given license to roam in midfield to provide an extra body and to pull the strings. In the process, he will leave space for the attack minded full back, John Harley, to exploit. On the other side, a more defensive full-back will cover for a more orthodox winger.

Ahead, Andy Gray will be the focal point of the attack, with Jones detailed to drop into a wide midfield position to help out when necessary, and to use his pace both the get in behind and to stretch teams down the flank. Ironically, this is probably the role that, 12 months ago, Cotterill envisaged Ade playing; he must reflect on what a fine partnership he could have formed with Gray, had one been bought to play alongside the other and not to replace him.

But such musings will always exist at a club like Burnley. No matter, it remains a good looking team, playing in the flexible adaptation of 4-4-2 made fashionable by sides such as Arsenal, which shuns the straight lines of its traditional conception and which can morph to a 4-5-1 when required.

Wayne Thomas - his partnership with Michael Duff is largely untried
There remain, though, questions to be answered. The first choice centre half pairing of Duff and Thomas is largely untried, and the feeling persists that two naturally right sided centre-backs with little poise on the ball may prove too similar. Thomas especially has something to prove, having been handed the captains armband on the back of a first season dogged both by injury and indifferent form. Nevertheless, his manager clearly has plenty of faith, and having emerged a leaner model this time round, Burnley fans may see the better side of an undoubted athlete – although whether Duff will be his long term partner remains to be seen.

Common opinion has it that the real weakness comes down the right hand side. The manager spent much of his summer searching for a right back, although Frank Sinclair may feel that, legs permitting, a couple of hundred appearances in that position for Chelsea have equipped him for the role. Ahead, Wade Elliot appears to be ahead of his two former Bournemouth teammates, Garreth O'Connor and John Spicer, for the right wing berth, but he has still to demonstrate the pace and ability to beat his man necessary if he is to be anything more than a stop-gap. Indeed, none of the Dean Court trio have made the step up yet, and the depth of the squad depends on them doing so now. John Spicer in particular has undoubted talent, but it was displayed too infrequently last season to be of true value.

In central midfield, James O'Connor must convince that, for all his energy and industry, he can impose himself upon proceedings. He will face stiff competition for his place from McCann and Hyde, who appear to be in possession of the shirts at the present, and yours truly would like to see those two given an extended run. Whilst neither possesses the energy O'Connor offers, both retain the ball better, and with McCann a natural in that holding role, Hyde can finally be liberated to play in the more advanced position in which he made a name for himself at Watford.

This of course pre-supposes that McCann continues to progress as everyone hopes, and is now ready to step into a regular starting berth. It would be wrong too expect too much, but the early signs are promising. Both he and Kyle Lafferty seem to have the faith of Steve Cotterill, and in many ways, the ability of these two lads to add a third genuine option both in central midfield – with Alan Mahon an alternative - and up front holds the key to our potential fortunes. Cotterill has already stated that Lafferty's emergence saved him from having to bring in another striker, and after opening his international account in the week, he will get the chance this weekend to prove that he is an able deputy for Gray.

Watching those two youngsters establish themselves as major players could prove one of the most enjoyable aspects in a campaign which is likely to end in solid respectability. The play-offs are unlikely; even with more depth to the squad, a couple of injuries to key players would cause major problems. Mahon is close to irreplaceable, and there is no obvious alternative to the fallible Harley at left-back. But I'll make one prediction: we will not struggle. And anyway, leave the future for now. Even if it is only August, we are second in the league. Let the moment last.