But no matter. With or without my presence, this is turning out to be a very special season indeed. With a squad ravaged by the consequences of a financial deficit, having lost our first four games miserably, we have bounced back to reach the quarter finals of the FA cup for the first time in twenty years, to reach the fifth round of the Worthington cup and give Manchester United a good game, and to enter March with league success not entirely out of the question.
Impressive though our last two seasons have been – consecutive seventh placed finishes are one hell of an achievement for a club with Burnley’s budget - this season has to top both of them, both because of the conditions under which success has come, and because of the standard of football that this team has, on occasions, provided.
For those of us who missed the glory days, the halcyon days of the sixties and the fleeting renaissance of the 1970’s, the campaign is providing a taste of what it must have been like when the richer, more glamorous city clubs came to town and regularly went away with nothing. This season, we have now beaten Tottenham and Fulham at the Turf, and drawn at Loftus Road, and Manchester United had to earn the right to ease off in the last fifteen minutes. Having shown the possibilities and the potential in the cups, we like what we see. Now we have to translate it into league success - we want it week in, week out, in the Premiership.
For the time being though, a bit of glory in the cup will do quite nicely thank you, particularly as it seems to be galvanizing our league form at present. The quarter final with Watford will sit quite happily with the bank manager, and the desire to play in an eminently winnable quarter final ought to concentrate minds and stimulate competition for places. Those out of the side at the minute may have quite a fight on their hands, since those in possession of the shirts show no sign of giving them up lightly.
Quite simply, the eleven who have started the past three games have become impossible to drop. Resilient and grimly determined in the first tie at Fulham, they added to that a touch of real incisiveness in attack last night which even had Andy Gray in the Sky commentary box impressed. Ian Moore was a revelation in the old-fashioned inside-right berth, cutting in from the flank to consistently exploit the space between full-back and centre half. Alan Moore, his confidence restored by a goal at Loftus Road, made a mockery of those who accuse him of laziness – quite simply, he is a player with fragile confidence who does not perform when he doesn’t believe in himself.
There were eight free transfers in the starting eleven, and another entered the field from the bench. But each one of them out performed their more illustrious opposite number in black and white.
One individual, though, stood out amongst the collection of cast offs who have performed wonders at Burnley, and stood head and shoulders above every other player on the pitch. Drissa Diallo was a man mountain at the back, winning challenge after challenge, header after header, and making timely interceptions whenever they were necessary. He has the quality which marks out very good players from the decent – the ability to read a game and remain unflappable no matter what is thrown at him. He even scored the goal which ended the contest, a header of tremendous power.
With the exception of Chelsea or Arsenal – one of whom must go out in the next round - there is no one left to fear in this season’s competition. We should beat Watford; we are a better team man for man than they are. That takes us to the semi-finals. On a given day, we could pull off an upset against Southampton or Leeds – assuming they overcome first division opposition in the shape of Sheffield United and Wolves – and that would take us to the final. Get there, and European qualification could well be assured. What is more, over 90 minutes, we could win the thing.
That might sound like I’m getting ahead of myself; I probably am. One thing that you get used to as a Burnley supporter is having hopes dashed just as you begin to believe in something – when I saw a recent thread on the message board about a new club anthem, I couldn’t help but think ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ (why do you build me up…just to let me down), might be as appropriate as any. But apart from the money, that is what this cup run is all about: daring to dream.
We probably won’t win the cup, or even reach the final. Several lower division clubs have reached the semi-finals in the past decade, but none have gone the extra step and reached the final since Sunderland over a decade ago. To go further than any of those other clubs, we would need to upset the odds massively. But this club has built a history upon doing that. Stan Ternent has built a career upon doing that. Cardiff in the play-offs and the cup final may be a long shot, but don’t write it off just yet.