By Matt Rowson
This evening I picked Tsega up from the station. Like every evening. She rang from Harlington, a fifteen minute warning. I need five minutes to get to the station, but on this occasion, sitting staring into space trying to generate something to say about Burnley that didn't plunge straight into obscenity, I was a little late.
I pulled into Bedford Station Car Park at the end of the 8.30 news bulletin on 5 Live. I just caught the half-time report from a very cold Deepdale, where Preston were losing 1-0 to Barnsley. Behind the slightly incredulous first-half report, the tannoy was playing Pink Floyd's "Money". I've never heard Pink Floyd at a football stadium.
On the way into the station I'm still humming "...blue car, caviar...". I remember listening to Dark Side of the Moon at a sixth form party. Lying on my back on someone's kitchen floor sharing a fourpack of Kestrel Lager with my mate Simon. "Money... It's a drag...". Kestrel was bloody dreadful stuff.
Simon's in the States now. He emigrated three years ago to work in Computers in San Francisco. I wonder how he's getting on. I've just sent him an email.
Will my email will cause any minor perturbations in Simon's life? If it does, it'll be down to not being able to think of anything inoffensive to say about Burnley. Had I not dawdled over planning this preview I would have been inside the railway station before the halftime report from Deepdale. I wouldn't have heard the random offering from the Preston tannoy or proceeded along this train of thought.
In fact, to be fair to Burnley, this wasn't their doing, rather whatever it was that prompted Tsega to catch that particular train. And whatever it was that provoked that. In fact, it must be theoretically possible to trace everything ever back to one, single event some time in the past. Allan Smart's goal at Wembley, probably. But that's another preview, perhaps.
Burnley is a god-awful, puss-filled hole of a place. It has no redeeming features whatsoever. It is as much home to all the grossly generalised stereotypes of the North held by Southerners as Essex is to the North's equally blinkered picture of the South. Narrow-minded, coarse and hostile are three descriptions that come to mind. Snakebite is another, but that's the sixth-form party again, I think.
A trip to Turf Moor is amongst the least pleasant of the football calendar. Last season's pilgrimage to Graham Taylor's last game in charge was an intensely emotional trip, but the memories will always be soured by pictures of the witless gurning going on behind him as he bade his final farewell. And that was on top of the hostility outside the ground that is par for the course in this part of Lancashire.
Having finished implausibly high in last season's table on the back of a rock-solid defence, the Clarets are seeking to emulate the achievement this time round in a more expansive style. With an ever-older squad - there can't be many in the country with half-a-dozen outfield players in their mid-to-late thirties - experience isn't short, but Stan Ternent's apparent reluctance to blood Burnley's crop of youngsters is causing some frustration.
In goal will be Nik "The Greek" Michopoulos, who never seems to have a bad game. His cover was also recruited from Greece, former Olympiakos reserve Luigi Cennamo, who was dismissed in the reserves this week.
At the back, a three-man backline has in the past protected the side from the lack of pace of ex-Luton old-guard Steve Davis and Mitchell Thomas. With Thomas missing from the first team, however, a traditional 4-4-2 has been employed in recent games. Davis, too, missed the win over Sheffield United with a cartilage problem; in his absence the starting places are taken by the composed Ian Cox and summer signing Arthur Gnohere. Another defensive option is another veteran Gordon Armstrong, who played in midfield for Sunderland in the 1992 Cup Final whilst Kevin Ball, now a midfielder, played at the back.
Full-backs for the Clarets are likely to be former Bury stalwart Dean West and the attacking ex-Wednesday man Lee Briscoe. Mark McGregor, whose late goal once lost us two points in a December trip to Wrexham, could also feature. Graham Branch, also an occasional fullback, is returning from injury.
In midfield Burnley have the makings of a very good unit. Star of the show is undoubtedly Glen Little on the right-hand side; quick-footed and quick-witted, he once invited a £1million bid from Port Vale of all places. Paul Weller is another strong player, traditionally down the other flank but more successfully as a competitive operator in the centre.
Tony Grant, 27, was signed from Man.City to bring some youth and guile to the side. He has been partnered by another veteran Paul Cook, although the gnarled self-styled "hard man" of the side, Kevin Ball, returns from suspension for Burnley's tie with Pompey on Saturday. Alan Moore is also a name to look for; having spent nearly a decade not quite making it on Teeside, Moore has impressed enough this season to earn a three year contract before getting injured again.
Other options include the competitive Lenny Johnrose, returning from a long lay-off, and quick young winger Brad Maylett.
Up front is where the Clarets seem least secure. Ian Moore works hard but seems to crumble in front of goal, whereas Gareth Taylor, despite his superior goals-per-game ratio, has attracted the boo-boys that have pursued him at previous clubs. Greek U21 striker Dimitris Papadopoulos, who reputedly spends a lot of time jetting back to his homeland, and starlet Anthony Shandran are young alternatives; local hero Andy Payton and the much-travelled Tony Ellis are not.
Five years ago at a restaurant in Kettering I chose a most-excellent roast duck that put me in a good mood for the rest of the evening. A long but not implausible chain of events later, I am unable to attend Tuesday's confrontation at Turf Moor. I'm not entirely sorry; four trips to Burnley should be enough for anybody.
But on the other hand Tuesday's game looks like the toughest League fixture we'll have this month, and as such is surely the most interesting. Rest assured, though, that any potential for provoking Watford goals in Burnley by buying pints in Chester will be thoroughly investigated.