A Mill Town tale

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For some years now, our envious eyes have stared over the Pennines at a club built on spirit, togetherness and bloody minded grit under the guidance of a tough, honest manager and without the need to spend obscene amounts of money.

Burnley’s wholly admirable rise, which included a relegation which strengthened rather than weakened them, gave hope to smaller clubs and while Town’s path has been stylistically different, the core elements have been identical.

For several decades, a top flight clash between the Clarets and the Terriers was laughably fanciful. Both have spent time in the bottom division – Burnley nearly went further down than that – and the stench of failure hung around clubs built on distant glories.

The carefully packaged and sanitised Premier League and the global following it seduces may have shivered at the very thought of such a fixture, and the largely rudimentary contest which ensued will only increase their disdain, but people who understand and appreciate the history of the English game will applaud the gatecrashing it represents. If nothing else, football fans are iconoclastic in nature.

A tough, uncompromising battle was hugely predictable. Since the unusual opening day results for both teams, scoring has become more difficult and commendable and identical points tallies have been built principally on defence.

At Turf Moor, Burnley have coped with the loss of Keane to Everton relatively easily while in Christopher Schindler, Town have a central defender for whom hyperbole is becoming increasingly redundant.

With both sides keenly aware that the fixture represented an opportunity to gain advantage in a likely scrap towards the bottom of the division (even if this proves not to be the case, it would be ridiculous to ignore the strong possibility), free flowing football was necessarily at a premium and, too often, both sides resorted to inelegant clearing of danger and too many simple errors were made for a classic to ensue.

Two early bookings for Sabiri and Cork set the tone of the game, with no quarter asked or given. With Town hungry to wrestle the title of pluckiest team in the League from their Lancastrian neighbours and the home side jealously guarding it, the first quarter passed with little incident. Setting a standard which would be maintained throughout, Burnley were caught offside from the delivery of a free kick and both sides were awarded corners from which no danger was created.

On Town’s right, however, Wood was winning every duel with Zanka and the home side were targeting the weakness relentlessly without developing the play further. However, it was the right side of Town’s defence which was bypassed too easily by Scott Arfield combining with Ward to supply a great cross for Wood. Fortunately, the Kiwi – playing the useful role of pantomime villain for obvious reasons – mistimed his header when in front of goal. He really should have scored.

Without threatening the goal further, Burnley were on top in the first half and Town were grateful for a magnificent clearance from the imperious Schindler following another dismantling of Town’s right sided defenders.

Much of Burnley’s other offensive efforts floundered when confronted by the omnipresent Schindler. If there has been a finer central defensive performance by a Town centre half (going all the way back to Cherry) it is very difficult to recall. Magnificent both in the air and on the floor, Zanka could afford to have an indifferent 45 minutes – he was much better after the break – and the €1.8M paid to 1860 Munich has to be the most ridiculous under valuation in Town’s history.

A long range shot from Kachunga was all Town had to show for a first half when promising play invariably dissolved in the final third. Sabiri shows a lot of promise but his probing came to nought as Burnley defended threats with some comfort.

The intensity of the midfield battle muted Mooy and Ince made too many simple mistakes to exert any influence, though both were defensively sound, along with Kachunga.

Devoid of artistry or inspiration, the contest was nevertheless reasonably absorbing if only to see if the home side could lay a glove on the outstanding Schindler. They couldn’t.

A much better second half saw Burnley regress and Town find their attacking feet. Wood was largely anonymous, poor passing increased and they began to wobble a little defensively as Ince exerted more influence and Mooy found more space and time.

An early corner saw Smith shoot over before an excellent and penetrating run at the heart of Burnley’s defence saw Ince releasing Depoitre to his left only for the Belgian to hit a side footed shot too close to Pope who saved easily. Last week’s scorer could have taken another stride or two in to the box but, at least, the visitors had recorded the first attempt on target by either side.

Town took a stranglehold on proceedings for sustained periods but still struggled to trouble the home defence often enough. Burnley, hardly irresistibly progressive in the first half, mustered a couple of weak efforts towards the under employed Lössl, and a goal seemed as far away as ever.

On the hour, Town replaced Sabiri with Van La Parra who brought an extra dimension to the attack, particularly for Mooy who used him both directly and as a decoy. Feigning to progress an attack down the left, Mooy switched inside to find the increasingly influential Ince, who had been moved to the number 10 role, and his shot went narrowly wide having beaten Pope.

Minutes later, Van La Parra broke in to the area, skipped past Lowton and inexplicably and unforgivably fell over when barely touched, to provide the pundits with a talking point for the post match deliberations (and in the absence of much else).

Having righteously poured down opprobrium on Forestieri over the years for his antics, it was enormously disheartening for Town fans to be confronted with the cheating by one of their own. It was impossible to disagree with Sean Dyche’s angry assessment of the act (as opposed to the player himself) after the game and it was far from lost on the visiting fans that Van La Parra could easily have set up a goal had he stayed on his feet with both Depoitre and Kachunga in the box.

That an act of dishonesty sullied an otherwise hard but fair contest between two teams who make a virtue of their humble status was sadly ironic. Wagner is a man of transparent values and will deal with the situation internally. Hopefully, we will not see a repeat.

Van La Parra made the last meaningful contribution to the game with a run and shot – inevitably, he was supplied by a great cross field ball by Mooy – which Pope made a meal of and nearly spilled to Kachunga.

With Burnley shut down by Schindler and his defensive colleagues – in the second half, we also saw the quiet, strong efficiency of Hogg mopping up all over the back line which augurs well for when he gets back to full fitness – Town should have made more of the opportunities they created and the lack of goals is a worry in light of the formidable opposition lying in wait.

However, and for all the mockery the game will attract, there were moments to admire in and amongst a dour battle even if the dive left a sour taste.

But most of all, the game will be remembered for the sublime Schindler. Rarely hurried, the German tackled and blocked with effortless efficiency, snuffed out Burnley’s aerial threat and commanded the back four with supreme authority. Add his intelligence on the ball and the fear that predators may well be watching starts to grow – ridiculous prices have been paid for centre halves in recent times (Stones, Keane and the aborted bids for Van Dirk) – and for a newly promoted club to keep clean sheets in two thirds of their games will increase curiosity and scrutiny.

With Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester United on the horizon, Town face a daunting task to maintain their elevated position in the League but a point at Turf Moor could prove vital in the longer run and the so called “purists” can sod off.

 

 

 

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