Stan Ternent was forced to make a number of alterations to the side which had so limply surrendered to Reading seven days previously. With Marlon’s missus going into labour, Nik The Greek was recalled between the sticks. At the back, Mark McGregor made way (surprise, surprise) as Graham Branch returned to the fold having missed the Reading game through suspension. Stan tried out his eighth central defensive partnership this season as Driss Diallo teamed up with Ian Cox who stood in for the temporarily Paris-bound Arthur Gnohere. Dean West continued at right back. Grant and captain Cook were unchanged in central midfield whilst Moores A and I patrolled the left and right flanks respectively. Blake and Taylor was the preferred option up front, as the Clarets lined up 4-4-2.
On a bumpy and rutted pitch, the opening exchanges could be best described as scrappy. And really that was no more than you might expect form two teams who had yet to win a league game in 2003. Neither team wanted to give anything away as both struggled for a foothold in the opening period. In fact it took until the seventeenth minute for any action worthy of the name Gary McSheffrey forced NTG to turn his shot away for a corner. A couple of minutes later, Mo Konjic headed wide from player-manager Gary McAllister’s centre.
Burnley started to come out of their shell in the 21st minute when Graham Branch picked up the ball on the left side of central midfield. As he advanced the Coventry defenders backed off and backed off, inviting him to shoot. Branch smashed a right-footed effort goalwards from 25 yards which only just sailed over Hyldgaard’s crossbar. Ten minutes later, Burnley were awarded a free-kick from a similar distance. The season before the Clarets had scored one of the goals of the season thanks to Paul Cook’s quick-thinking. This time out the midfielder’s alertness was not rewarded with a goal, as his hastily taken effort shot wide of Hyldgaard’s goal.
The home side responded immediately. On 37 minutes, the impressive debutant, Andrew Whing cracked a shot towards goal, but NTG saved well. In the ensuing melee, Gary McAllister had a penalty appeal turned down as Burnley’s defenders crowded out his attempted shot.
On the stroke of half-time, the visitors had an opportunity to double their money as Alan Moore released namesake, Ian whose thumping drive was saved by Hyldgaard. The interval was somewhat enlivened by the PA announcer who read the results out in tones more readily associated with a Hammer House of Horror flick. Brighton 2 Wolves 0 had never sounded more doom-laden and packed with menace.
Whatever Gary McAllister had said at half-time had no effect whatsoever. Well, not unless he had told his players to wander about the pitch as though going through the motions. Burnley were doing a good job of containing a dull and uninspired Coventry side without really threatening to add to their one-goal lead. But as long as the Sky Blues continued to lack dynamism and urgency, it scarcely mattered.
Meanwhile, Dr. Death had climbed back into the PA announcer’s box to tell us in chilling tones that there would be 4 minutes of added time. Suddenly Coventry came to life. First, Gary Caldwell, on loan from Newcastle took a free-kick which was headed onto the bar by substitute Callum Davenport. Moments later, NTG made the most important save of the afternoon, getting down low to deny McAllister’s low, fizzing drive. The four minutes were well and truly up by now, but still referee George Cain played on. It very nearly cost the Clarets, as McSheffrey’s cross from a tight angle ricocheted against a post before being scrambled away to safety. Finally, after 6 minutes of added time, referee Cain signalled the end and the travelling contingent was able to celebrate the first away win in the league since our 1-0 victory at Leicester the previous October.
This was a hard-fought victory by Burnley, and it was thoroughly deserved. At times the battling, combative style was reminiscent of so many games in the 1999/2000 promotion season. Having been hammered out of sight the week before, and with an important cup tie on the horizon, it was important for the Clarets to put in a good display to boost morale and self-belief. And that’s just what they did.