When Wolves and Burnley met each other at Molineux back in September and the new Premier League season was in its infancy, the Clarets were torn apart by vibrant and vigorous opponents newly introduced to the joys of the English Premier League.
The match provided a grim precursor to the sort of season that lay in wait for Burnley and their supporters. To say that the 1-0 score-line that day flattered the Clarets would be a massive understatement.
Post match, I remarked that as the season developed Wolves would face sterner tests and offered the hope that one such test would come in the return fixture at Turf Moor; happily, I was right.
“Bodies in the oven and heads in the fridge” was a quote first attributed to the former British Lions coach Ian McGeechan, and Burnley yesterday exemplified his philosophy perfectly.
The Clarets were presented with a gift before the game was even two minutes old and some fans were still settling into their seats. A free kick just inside the Wolves half was deftly floated beyond a dopey Wolves back line by Dwight McNeill into the path of an alert Chris Wood who stroked the ball goalward.
Wood's deft touch struck the post and rebounded against the body of the desperately scrambling Conner Coady and into the Wolves goal.
The early goal gave Burnley a visible lift as well as something precious to protect. The Clarets were definitely up for the contest; hands were clapped in exhortations to still greater efforts; players exchanged fist-bumps and back slaps at every interception, every clearing header and every tackle they won, it was refreshing and uplifting to see.
Wolves regrouped from their early setback and began to dominate possession. It is not unusual for visiting teams to do this at Turf Moor; few teams are happier without the ball than Burnley, but this does nothing for the nerves of the supporters and as the game progressed the chants of “Come on Burnley” cascaded down from the stands with increasing levels of anxiety.
But attack after attack from the visitors was repelled by a compact and resilient Burnley back line, superbly marshalled by Ben Mee and James Tarkowski and in truth, Wolves never seriously threatened Tom Heaton’s goal.
Nevertheless, at 1-0 the points are never secure and so it was with a great venting of relief that the crowd witnessed Burnley’s second goal; scored after Dwight McNeill had received the ball from a headed clearance by Tarkowski.
The new English Premier League starlet dribbled the ball to the edge of the Wolves penalty area; feinted to switch to his right foot unbalancing the covering defender sufficiently to afford the youngster enough room to drill a quite magificent left foot shot into the bottom corner of the net.
McNeill’s emergence has been a shaft of bright light in an otherwise dismal season for Burnley. There is a languid grace to his movement around the field; deceptive to defend against and deceptive to some of my fellow supporters who mistake his ease of movement for a lack of industry when in reality it is the hallmark of genuine class.
It must be remembered that despite the maturity he displays, McNeill, at nineteen, remains “nowt but a lad”. When I was his age, my life was consumed by exams, punk rock and trying to get myself a girlfriend.
McNeill is by contrast a Premier League footballer with all the wealth, adulation and challenges that such a status entails. It would be wrong to expect too much of him so early in his career, but there is no doubt that he is blessed with the sublime footballing skills required for greatness.
Yesterday’s match marked the 300th game of Sean Dyche’s tenure as Burnley manager; his first was a 2-0 home win over Wolves. There was therefore a pleasing symmetry that yesterday’s match yielded an identical outcome. But this is not a time for reflection, this is a time for stiffened sinews and renewed focus.
Burnley still have huge amounts of work to do if they are to remain in the English Premier League. Such an outcome is by no means a certainty, but at least with yesterday’s victory they have given themselves a fighting chance.
This post match appraisal was written by a slightly more optimistic than usual Dave Thornley, who contributes regularly for Clarets Mad. (TEC.)