Reborn Robbie drives Burnley's ambition

Last updated : 26 March 2009 By Richard Oldroyd
Robbie Blake
With a tendency to drift through games which frustrated almost as often as his skills shone, those doubts were inevitable. Time, though, has surely demonstrated them to be misplaced.

For two months now, Robbie Blake has dazzled. Not just for the wizardry of his feet, but also for an intense workrate which has not always been present before. He has not proved a match-winner on every occasion he has taken to the field - although he has done so on many more than his fair share - but he has rarely been outdone for sheer hard work.

And as a result, we may be witnessing the defining passage of Robbie Blake's career.

They say that the strength of a man's character is revealed by his reaction to adversity and Blake has shown himself to be made of the toughest stuff. When he appeared on TV to be interviewed in the aftermath of the League Cup semi-final with Tottenham Hotspur, his eyes were red-rimmed with emotion. Like Graham Alexander, he had just seen his best, possibly final, opportunity to grace a showpiece final snatched away from him.

After careers spent winning plaudits around the second tier of English Football, both Blake and Alexander deserved the chance to crown their careers against Manchester United at Wembley more than any other player who shared in that heartbreaking evening. Both men were outstanding that night, but it was Blake who seized the night by the throat and produced one of the finest individual performances that Turf Moor has hosted.

If they were lesser characters, they would have allowed the disappointment of that evening to dull their appetite for the remainder of this season. Yet Alexander has remained unflinchingly consistent at the heart of midfield, whilst Blake has set about producing the form of his life.

It is as though the two of them have unleashed all the frustrations of that defeat by Spurs and channelled it towards ending this season with the crowning glory of their respective careers.

Alexander remains undemonstrative, gently chiding those whose concentration wavers whilst winning his midfield battles without fanfare. By contrast, Blake has begun to wear his heart on his sleeve in an unaccustomed manner, urging team mates on and celebrating every goal for longer and with greater animation than ever before.

His own imperious form is not just the result of a rekindled ambition to ensure his career ends fulfilled. It is also the result of his move to the left flank - and importantly, his own acceptance that now, he is better suited to that role than to the pivotal central role he has always prized.

Graham Alexander
Even at his physical peak, Robbie Blake was a difficult forward to fit into a Championship side. His skill in dropping deep to receive the ball and his subsequent touch and vision demanded a strike partner who could not only lead the line alone but who could also capitalise on his through-balls; the sort of combination of pace, power and brain rarely found outside the Premier League.

Burnley never found that perfect foil in his first spell at Turf Moor - how could they, with such a paltry budget? - and when he returned to the club 18 months ago, shorn of half a yard of pace and wracked by a hesitancy borne of two lost seasons which belied the speed of his brain, he was harder still to accommodate. No longer could he find the space to escape a marker and inject speed and imagination into the attack: instead, he remained static, inviting pressure at his back, unable to escape unwanted attentions in the crowded central regions of the field.

Although he did not perform badly, he barely resembled the player who shone so brightly between 2002 and 2005 - yet he seemed reluctant to relinquish the centre ground.

It is perhaps the greatest triumph of Owen Coyle's man-management that he has convinced Blake that from a station wide on the left he can be every bit as influential as ever he was in a central role. Coyle does not do fulcrums; they lead to predictability. And the result has been a Robbie Blake who has been liberated by the fluidity of Owen Coyle's thinking. With playmaking duties amongst anyone prepared to seize responsibility, he has been free to carve out a niche as an old-fashioned inside left.

Championship right backs do not know what to make of him. When he stays wide and high up the pitch, he bewitches them with his mastery of the football before dropping a shoulder and leaving them on either outside or inside. But then he drifts: to the right, into the centre to prompt, swapping positions with Chris McCann or Martin Paterson, or towards his full back to take possession and swing sweeping passes to the opposite flank. And even when he is well shackled by the attentions of a couple of opponents, he works back, supporting his full back or anyone else for the team cause.

One wonders how far he might have travelled in the game had he discovered when he was younger what he might achieve as a nominal winger. But no matter. The one thing which has been missing from his game this calendar year is goals from open play, and that wrong was finally righted on Saturday with a dipping half volley which flew unerringly to the bottom corner of the goal.

You sense that he knows his job is not yet done. There is still work for him and Graham Alexander to do in guiding this team into the play-offs, and that is when the real work begins. But for now he remains an inspiration, comfortable in his role and at the very peak of his form. If it can be sustained, then Burnley have a player in their ranks of a type which no other contender can claim.

In a squad not short on leaders, Blake and Alexander have taken their team mates by the scruff of their neck and led by example since that crushing Carling Cup disappointment. It is Blake whose deeds will live longest in the memory, but both the old lags are enjoying an Indian summer. A memorable season is entering its final straight, and those deeds may yet result in the most deserved reward.