However, with the Merit League due to start on February 22nd, the Football League had already decreed that this coming Saturday’s fixtures (the 15th) would be the last in the Conferences, thus denying the Rovers any possibility of clinching the title. (Anyone like to hazard a guess as to where their one unfulfilled fixture should have taken place?)
Tranmere would still have been in the hunt for the title this weekend had it not been for the most remarkable result of the season earlier last week. Having disposed of Stockport 4-1 with two more goals from Chris Dagnall, they then travelled to bottom club Blackpool in the knowledge that a win would put them within a point of Preston. But the Squires Gate outfit, with only one win all season, pulled of a sensational 3-2 win, despite two more for the phenomenal Dagnall. Thus Preston’s victory at Oldham the next day confirmed the title was on its way to Deepdale.
Last weekend’s results only served to compound Tranmere’s frustration. They won 5-1 at Bury (including a Dagnall hat trick), only to see Preston crash 4-0 at Wigan!
The other two games involved teams chasing the third qualifying place for the Merit League. The Clarets maintained their recent fine away form with that 2-1 win at Carlisle, both goals coming from Damien Hindle who now joins the Conference’s leading scorers. Stockport were held to a 1-1 draw by lowly Rochdale, in another impressive performance by a struggling team.
Yesterday, Oldham thrashed Carlisle 6-1 to move into fourth place.
So where does all this leave the young Clarets? Well, currently we lie seventh, but with only three points separating five clubs we go into the last weekend still with something to play for. The Football League today confirmed to us that the top three will qualify for the First Division of the Merit League, playing the top teams from the other northern conferences, but that "possibly a fourth place" could be available, depending on results.
To finish third we would have to: a) play a game at Gawthorpe; b) beat Saturday’s opponents there Wigan by 8-0 or better; and c) hope that Bury beat Stockport, Tranmere beat Carlisle and Preston beat Oldham. A long shot, perhaps, particularly given condition a).
To finish fourth we would still need to beat Wigan and keep our fingers crossed, but it is definitely a possibility. One would then hope that the Football League would look favourably on the Clarets, who after all would have played fewer games than everyone else.
All this speculation of course would be rendered meaningless if we could achieve what would seem to be the fairly straightforward task of completing our home games. Of the youth team’s nine postponements this season, eight have been due to Gawthorpe’s inability to stage a game. Of course games will occasionally have to be called off during any season at all clubs, but eight postponements (which also suggests that the first team squad would have had problems training properly at those times) is a damning statistic.
For the youth team it means that even before a season starts they know that that it is highly likely that they will be later denied the possibility of playing against the top teams (outside the academies) from other regions.
As Terry Pashley has said, on our day we are a match for any team at this level in what is possibly the strongest conference in the country. The squad has been devastated this season by injury and yet has still produced some notable performances. For the first time in years we have a crop of highly-promising youngsters both at Youth and Centre of Excellence level. To develop further, and thus ensure a bright future for Burnley Football Club, they need to train in first class facilities, and play regular, competitive games against top teams.
Gawthorpe can no longer provide the footballing environment that is needed. Delightful though it is, it has to go. It won’t bring in any money due to understandable planning restrictions, but that should not be a consideration. We are all aware of Stan’s views on youth development, but as was stressed at the recent Meet the Board session, these are his own personal opinions and not club policy.
The situation needs to be addressed urgently. Of course there are financial restraints at the club. But if the board is working towards securing the long-term future of the club (which we believe is the case) then a major investment in youth is essential.
We have to bring youngsters through, if only to sell on. We need to produce players such as Chris Dagnall at Tranmere (by the way scorer of yet another hat trick yesterday in the 3-1 cup win at holders Walsall). Like Koumas and others before him, he will soon guarantee Tranmere stay in business for a few more years, no matter what else may happen.
Yesterday’s news that four of our Centre of Excellence lads have been called up for an England National Development Course at Lilleshall is tremendous. I would hope that in four or five years time the names of Jack Overson, Jay Rodrigues, Stephen Hall, and Chris Smalley, along with several of the current youth squad, would be as well-known to Clarets fans as any current first team player.
Within the club we have Premier League potential; what a crying shame it is that we do not have the facilities to fulfil that potential.
Final North West Conference fixtures (Saturday, February 15th):
Burnley v Wigan
Bury v Stockport
Carlisle v Tranmere
Preston v Oldham
Leading reported league goalscorers:
20 Chris Dagnall (Tranmere)
15 Paul Robinson (Tranmere)
9 Kelvin Langmead (Preston)
7 Damien Hindle (Burnley)
7 Michael Kewley (Preston)
7 Fola Onibuje (Preston)
6 Sean Patterson (Blackpool)
6 Matthew Blinkhorn (Blackpool)
6 Michael Brown (Preston)
Youth Alliance League Table