Time to move though the gears

Last updated : 06 August 2007 By Richard Oldroyd
Paul Gascoigne - his free kick saved by Magnus Hedman
This is despite the fact I have the date imprinted on my mind and watch the intervening days dwindle to zero. Despite too the fact I always keep an eye on pre-season, looking forward to the day it actually matters. Despite everything, it always comes round before I'm ready for it, in the midst of high summer - especially in a year such as this, where summer is apparently only one week old.

But as usual next Saturday will dawn and we will all be ready for another trip through the mill. Eight and a half months of torment await us, and once the ball moves, it will be as though the game has never been away.

I have more reason than most to anticipate this particular campaign. After five years spent studying, working and living down South, I will shortly be relocating to Manchester, allowing me to get to a good deal more than the 10 or so home games which I have usually managed since I moved away after the 2001/02 season. It has, inevitably, passed in the blink of an eye: Magnus Hedman clawing away Gazza's free kick to signal an unhappy end to that season seems a second ago. Yet they are years into which, for all their speed of passage, so much is packed. By contrast, as a period during which to put Burnley on the backburner, it was a good one to choose.

All of us, no doubt, have a host of points of reference to recall from this last half decade. Family, friends, places and the rest. But a good cup run, maybe two, aside, Burnley Football Club has produced virtually none. When the published history of the Club is brought up to date - as it is to be, ironically, this very year - it is a period which will deserve only passing mention, as barren, mediocre years of nothing. An era in which high ambitions of long-term achievement were sacrificed in favour of the disruptive, sort-term necessity of hand-to-mouth survival.

It has been akin, for me, to travelling as a passenger in a car which has hit a queue of traffic, getting out for several hours of diversion, and rejoining the machine barely a couple of hundred yards down the road. And it is this sense being unable to get anywhere fast which has provided the legitimate excuses for the three non-descript seasons of Steve Cotterill's tenure - excuses which, perhaps, those of us lent the perspective of distance and absence from too many matches have accepted more readily than those who have watched every home game.

But regardless, the traffic is beginning to clear now and momentum is beginning to gather once more. As a result, the goalposts of expectation have been shifted for the manager. The bar has been raised: same again will not be good enough.

Not only has Brendan Flood's money allowed an increased budget - although it remains modest by the spiralling standards of this league - but he has also been granted the rare and invaluable commodity of time. He has had three years at Burnley, and now 18 months of teambuilding unimpeded by the need to sell first team players. Few managers are afforded such luxury. Even amongst the more impressive squads in the division, the majority have the sense of being thrown together with undue haste. Meanwhile, for the first time since Stan Ternent's finest days, we now have a squad worthy of the name, and a top half finish should be the minimum requirement this time around - although limitations remain.

Stephen Jordan - an alternative at left back
Certainly the squad has more depth than a year ago and it certainly possesses more quality at the back, thanks to the recruitment of Steven Caldwell to command and to replace the slowing John McGreal, and thanks also to the capture of Stephen Jordan to provide a more stable alternative to Jon Harley at left back. The current quartet of strikers offer more than last years trio, with Lafferty now a year older and capable of greater impact, Blake a neat foil and creative for Andy Gray, and Akinbiyi, for all the various doubts, a decent and different understudy. Gifton Noel-Williams shouldn't be missed.

But at right back, Frank Sinclair was just about a capable incumbent a year ago before the legs went, and now we must revert to a square peg in a round hole in the shape of Michael Duff - defensively reliable but uninspired and (along with the rest of the defence) somewhat pedestrian. More critically, the central midfield lacks the playmaker capable of dominating Championship opposition, and who can bring the best out of the touch and speed of thought of Robbie Blake. Joey Gudjonsson might be robust and neat, but a ringmaster he is not. Chris McCann and James O'Connor certainly do not fall into that bracket, although McCann has the promise to suggest his time will come.

If those two flaws in particular can be addressed and perhaps if a hardman were to arrive at Turf Moor to compliment that playmaker, and if Besart Berisha lives up to expectations ahead of his understandably patient timescale, then greater optimism might be justified. But at the time of writing they remain big ifs. I see Eric Djemba-Djemba is now a free agent. If a coup could be pulled off, his signature could be the one which drags us through the image barrier Flood talked of repeatedly earlier this summer.

And realistically, replacing that image as a stodgy, midtable outfit with a perception of upward mobility has to be this season's prime target. There are no teams in this league to be scared of. But there are too many who are better than us for the top-two or even a Wembley play-off to be realistically entertained.

Much better to expect genuinely decent football and a few more occasions to commit to memory, even if we ultimately come up a touch short. And, all the while, to give next summer's targets the idea that, after five years idling in first gear, the Clarets are up and running once again.