Three matches in the space of one hectic week, all three won, it looks as though Burnley’s 2019 has begun in the best possible way.
Last Wednesday evening’s 2-1 win over Huddersfield was by far the most important. Three precious points lifted from the home of fellow Premier League strugglers had the effect of hoisting Burnley out of the relegation zone.
There was additional satisfaction to be gleaned from the manner of the victory, coming back to win after falling behind is not something that Clarets have specialised in during the season to date. To do so in a match of such huge significance was doubly satisfying.
There is an awful lot of work for Burnley to do in the weeks and months ahead if Premier League survival is to be achieved, but a victory such as that which was achieved at the John Smith Stadium can only inspire confidence that the task is not too overwhelming or too onerous as to be beyond the capabilities of the players.
The match itself was a full-blooded affair befitting of the high stakes at play. Whilst some amongst the game’s intelligencia might be sniffy and dismissive of such encounters, there is something viscerally satisfying about the sight of two teams going at each other hammer and tongue in a match that really matters.
When the football did flow, it tended to be Burnley who turned on the tap. Dwight McNeil, in the most important game of his fledgling career, once again displayed ingenuity beyond his tender years. His recent emergence and the aplomb with which he accepted his opportunity, indicates that Burnley might just have a potential star on their hands.
The introduction of McNeil also seems to have had an invigorating effect on those around him; the defence looks more alert, the midfield – especially Ashley Westwood, who at times resembled Glen Hoddle – looks more purposeful and the strikers look more threatening.
Chris Wood has re-located his touch in front of goal and it was his effort which equalised Huddersfield’s early goal. Shortly after Wood’s goal, the Terriers had Christopher Schindler dismissed after receiving two yellow cards, one of which seemed to have escaped his attention.
The contest turned in those minutes and thereafter Burnley established control, but the Clarets’ form this season still offered no comfort that victory would ensue; so it was with some relief that a neat move culminated in Ashley Barnes settling the contest in Burnley’s favour.
One more event of note was the dismissal of Robbie Brady, a lunging challenge yielding an instant red card. Brady having only just returned to action following injury now faces a suspension, followed by a battle to regain his place from McNeil.
And so to yesterday and the third round FA Cup tie against Barnsley at Turf Moor.
An illogical lunch time kick off distilled some of the lure of this game, but a sizable and rowdy following from Barnsley and a sensibly low admission price at least combined to generate some atmosphere, and whilst the match was by no means comparable to some of the epic FA Cup ties of one’s youth, it remained watchable.
It was also gratifying to welcome the return of Steven Defour, Stephen Ward and especially Nick Pope to Burnley’s starting line-up.
Pope in truth had little to do other than claim a few crosses amidst jostling bodies and when a glancing header did evade his grasp, the linesman’s flag had already been raised.
It was another linesman’s flag which caused the game’s major point of discussion; a precisely aimed angled cross from Defour was gathered by Matej Vydra who homed in on Barnsley’s goal, only to be fouled. The referee pointed to the penalty spot.
But as Vydra lined up to take the penalty, the referee drew a square in the air indicating that VAR had intervened and decreed that Vydra was indeed offside when Defour’s pass was played.
Without disputing the accuracy of the decision, what was confusing for fans in the stadium was that the ball was placed on the spot and preparations for the penalty were made whilst the video footage was being examined. Surely, it would have been preferable for the referee to keep hold of the ball during the review process?
The irony was not lost on Clarets fans of the number of penalty kicks that they have had turned down, when the intervention of VAR would have seen a fair number awarded – the push on Kevin Long at Arsenal being the most recent example.
But Burnley’s long wait for a penalty would not be extended for too much longer. As the stoppage time board was being raised and a reply was beckoning, Vydra was once again felled in the box. This time there would be no dispute, and Chris Wood calmly despatched the spot kick to send Burnley into the fourth round.
Whilst acknowledging that Premier League survival should and must take priority, a decent cup run would be a welcome experience. Burnley have not enjoyed a cup run for way too long.
But of more pressing concern is another huge clash next Saturday at Turf Moor against Fulham. The Cottagers are another team hovering in and around the drop zone, and another three points of immense value will be the ultimate reward for the winners.
An opinion written by Dave Thornley, who contributes regularly on behalf of Clarets Mad. (TEC).