It is important to emphasise that real heroes are the key workers in health care and emergency services who continue to place their health at risk to keep the rest of us safe; or the men and women of the armed forces who place themselves in harm’s way in defence of the nation.
But within the confines of a ball game, the players of Burnley Football Club have, during the last week, performed heroically.
With season-ending injuries to key players, contract holdouts leaving the club and a bench staffed largely by (as yet) unknown youngsters, Burnley’s playing resources are stretched to their very limit, whilst having to navigate an extremely hectic fixture schedule.
Against this backdrop, the team have, during the past week, garnered four points from away games at West Ham and the Champions, Liverpool.
With the club safely lodged in mid-table, who could have forgiven the players for seeing through the season as unobtrusively as possible?
Not Sean Dyche, who insists upon nothing less than maximum effort being the minimum requirement. Not James Tarkowski, handed the captaincy due to Ben Mee’s injury and leading by his own colossal example. Not Nick Pope, surely the best shot stopping goalkeeper in the Premier League? There are no beaches nor deck chairs in Burnley for the players to rest upon. No laurels either, according to the gospel of the Royal Dyche.
At West Ham in mid-week Pope was superb in denying early West Ham chances, before Jay Rodriguez’s brilliant far post header gave Burnley a lead which they stubbornly refused to yield for the remainder of the match.
Yesterday at Anfield, Pope was if anything even better; especially when factoring in the quality of the opposition. A clutch of first half saves from Mo Salah were breath-taking in their athleticism, but equally eye-catching was Pope’s steadfastness and decisiveness under crosses. His ability to deal with constant aerial bombardments must fill his defensive partners with massive confidence.
For Gareth Southgate when contemplating his options between the posts, his choice is clear; if he wants his goalkeeper to play prissy passes around his own penalty area, in the flawed modern fashion, then he should pick Jordan Pickford.
On the other hand, if he wants a goalkeeper who will do what all top class goalkeepers do, and keep the ball out of the England net, then Pope is clearly the man for the job.
Andrew Robertson’s skilfully headed goal just after the first half hour finally breached Burnley’s and Pope’s defences; but the flood gates did not open. Burnley maintained their shape, their composure, and their commitment and when an addition to Robertson’s goal failed to materialise, Klopp’s troops visibly faded.
A free kick of admittedly slightly dubious origin after the ludicrous adjournment for drinks, allowed Burnley to build an attack down the left-hand side. The incoming cross was met forcibly by the awesome Tarkowski and Jay Rodriguez pounced on the loose ball, swivelling, and shooting in one movement to cleverly find the bottom corner of the Liverpool net.
Johann Berg Gudmundsson was perhaps lucky to get away with a challenge in which he clearly played the ball, but in these fickle, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, days of VAR scrutiny it cannot be taken as read that playing the ball will be enough to prevent the concession of a penalty.
Gudmundsson got a brief and welcome return to first team action, which was almost crowned with a late winning goal, but his shot smacked against the top of the Liverpool crossbar. Six inches lower and Burnley would have nicked all three points.
Perhaps he should have scored, but a draw nonetheless was an excellent result, especially when Liverpool’s formidable home form is brought into the equation. Yesterday was the first Premier League game at Anfield in eighteen months which Liverpool have not won. That is some record, and some achievement for Burnley to have ended it.
As a footnote, it was sad indeed to learn of the death of Jack Charlton; one of the game’s most enduring, likeable, and charismatic characters. A World Cup winner of course and it is a sobering reflection on the passage of time that over half of that legendary eleven have now died.
When he was Middlesbrough manager in the seventies, he brought his team to Turf Moor to play out a particularly dour and physical goalless draw. On leaving the ground after the game, I vividly recall a little old lady called after him; “Jack! … Jack!” Charlton turned to her and smiled perhaps anticipating a request for an autograph. “Yes, love?”
“You’re a bunch of dirty buggers!” she said in admonishment. Jack grinned again; he probably took it as a compliment. Rest in Peace Big Fella.
Dave Thornley reflects on another week in the trials and tribulations of a depleted Burnley squad. Four points on the road from a possible six represents a pretty fair return I would say. (TEC).