Burnley Football Club have acquired themselves a bad habit of suffering embarrassing cup defeats in recent seasons to the likes of Accrington Stanley, Burton Albion and Lincoln City. Clarets fans could therefore be forgiven for anticipating yesterday’s third round FA Cup tie at home to League One MK Dons with all the rosy optimism and joyful anticipation of a Professor Chris Whitty press briefing.
All the ingredients of a cup giant killing were in place, plucky underdogs visiting a struggling and injury-hit Premier League team with a poor recent cup record. Add to the mix, the chance for lower league players to be given a rare glimpse of the limelight and with it the chance to make a name for themselves, plus horrible weather conditions to help level up the playing field chucked in for good measure.
For most of the game, that script did indeed play out; the Dons taking the lead on the half hour when they worked a crossing position, the delivery was flicked on at the near post for the much-travelled veteran striker Cameron Jerome to add the finish.
Thereafter, they defended purposefully with their young goalkeeper, Lee Nicholls having the game of his young career and in the process stirring up traumatic memories of Dickie Guy back the seventies when they used to be called Wimbledon.
Although Burnley never really laid siege to the Milton Keynes goal, there were nonetheless enough chances created by the Clarets to have put the game to bed before half time, including Chris Wood missing his now customary close-range header.
The second half introduction from the bench of Matej Vydra and debutant Joel Mumbongo in Burnley’s attack marked a change of emphasis, and between them they posed different puzzles and asked tougher questions of the Don’s defence.
Nevertheless, with time almost up and the Dons still clinging onto the lead it looked as though this would be another addition to the list of inglorious Burnley cup exits. There was one last set-piece, one last opportunity to hoist the ball into the MK Dons’ penalty area.
Robbie Brady slung the ball in from a free kick and Mumbongo did well to win a header under pressure, allowing Vydra to stretch out a leg and turn the ball into the goal.
It was all too much for MK Dons’ manager Russell Martin, who complained with rather too much vitriol to referee Jonathan Moss about what he considered to be lax timekeeping by the official and was promptly shown a red card and thus obliged to watch the ensuing extra time from a seat in the stands.
Extra time yielded no further goals and so, in a break with FA Cup tradition, a third-round tie would be settled by a penalty shoot-out without the risk of a corona infected reply. We are all living in trying times of that there is no doubt.
When Vydra’s first spot kick was saved by Nicholls, Burnley once again looked to be heading out of the cup. But another Burnley debutant, goalkeeper Will Norris, would in true FA Cup fashion step up to the plate and make a name for himself.
At 27, Norris is no spring chicken, but goalkeepers mature at a more leisurely pace than outfield players, and he is time-served in the muck and bullets of non-league football.
He saved two of MK Dons’ five penalties and it was left up to veteran defender Phil Bardsley to calmly stroke in Burnley’s fifth and decisive penalty to send the Clarets into the next round where (in deference to another recent FA Cup tradition) they will no doubt be drawn against Manchester City.
Dave Thornley breathes a sigh of relief reflecting on an almost calamitous early FA Cup exit for Sean Dyche’s Clarets. (TEC).