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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 12/04/04, 3.00pm
Glasses of Milk
By Matt Rowson

My wife's brief enfatuation with Arsenal and Thierry Henry appears to be over.

"It's just ridiculous", she protested as Michael Owen put Liverpool two-one up at Highbury earlier today, a match whose progress was being followed on Radio 5. "I don't know why I follow sports, why not just not support any football team and save yourself the stress!".

Why indeed. The question becomes all the more acute when considered in the context of the boggy mess at the bottom of Division One. What pleasure is there to be gained from contests like our Easter Monday trip to Lancashire, tense and nervy affairs characterised by a distinct lack of quality? Less the irresistible force against the immovable object than, well, two glasses of three day old milk gazing at each other quizzically, wondering which will turn first.

Both Burnley and Watford could conceivably escape relegation this season, of course, but one has to wonder about the two sides' longer-term prospects. The ramifications of the ITV Digital disgrace aren't about to go away in a hurry even if the affair is ancient history as far as the media are concerned... and the sides at the foot of Division One are, arguably, the most severely wounded victims. Looking at the Division One table of five years ago, only three of the sides that finished in the bottom half are still playing at this level or higher (Pompey, Palace and Crewe). You can't help but wonder if any of this season's twelve will be at this level in five years' time.

If either side is going to claw its way up the ladder it's going to be as a result of wise management rather than fruits borne of investment in the playing staff, one would imagine, and to this end I'd fancy our chances over those of the Clarets. Stan Ternent's coaching credentials are proven but he's not a young man and his growing tendency to bitterly dish out blame as Burnley's season has struggled on doesn't suggest a man with stomach for the fight.

Ternent will be in the stands on Monday, a game which is almost as vital to Burnley as Saturday's game against Crewe is to Watford - he serves the second of a four game touchline ban. This close to the wire the landscape will change dramatically with each set of fixtures, but prior to Saturday's games it's difficult to envisage Monday's tie being anything but critical. The Clarets go into the Easter programme on the back of one win in eight - a slightly flattering two-one victory at Bradford a fortnight ago.

The erratic and indecisive Dane Brian Jensen will be in goal... he has the odd decent game, but didn't have the best of times against Norwich last weekend and was criticised by his manager afterwards. Jensen has for much of the season been the only senior keeper at Turf Moor, although the much-travelled Nathan Abbey arrived as cover in January.

I enquired on a Burnley messageboard this week whether David May's two-match ban, excluding him from both of this weekend's games, was likely to knacker the Clarets' defence - bearing in mind the experienced centre-back's commanding performance at Vicarage Road earlier in the season. The response was unanimous... any suggestion that Burnley have a defence worth speaking of should be treated with a pinch of salt. The Clarets have conceded four or more on five occasions already this season and, the Franchise aside, have the worst defensive record in the division.

Lee Roche should play at right-back in the absence of groin injury victim Dean West. He arrived from Manchester United in the summer but has looked lightweight at times... he was fried by Darren Huckerby at the weekend, although he's hardly alone in this division on that score. On the left, former Wolves man Mo Camara is quick but defensively suspect.

The biggest problem for the Clarets is at centre half. Burnley's most successful partnership of the season consisted of May (suspended) and Andy Todd, who returned to nearby Blackburn Rovers in October but is still spoken of ruefully. Monday should see Graeme Branch, more typically a left-sided midfielder, partnered with Mark McGregor, who started out as a right-back at Wrexham and was particularly culpable during the freakish game here last season.

In midfield, Tony Grant has been putting in his best performances since arriving from Manchester City two and a half years ago... which is fortunate for Burnley as several of his colleagues have been well below the standard of which they are capable. Glen Little has been an indolent disappointment on the right following loan spells away from Turf Moor in 2003, Paul Weller has had a poor season all round by his own standards and Luke Chadwick, having started his loan brightly, has lost form altogether.

More encouraging has been the emergence England U21 teenager Richard Chaplow, another to impress at Vicarage Road, although he is a slight doubt for Monday with a calf injury. Neil Wood on the left of midfield, another on loan from Old Trafford, has started to pick up his performances also and provides a threat from free kicks on the right hand side, but Alan Moore's form when playing for a contract last season has vanished and his career is heading back up the blind alley it was in at Middlesbrough.

One of the more surprising transfers concluded before the March deadline was Burnley's re-signing of warhorse Lenny Johnrose from Swansea, eighteen months after being released, but he has yet to feature since his return. Johnrose's boss at Swansea, Brian Flynn, recently left his post and as a former Claret still living in the area has been linked to the Burnley job should Ternent depart at the end of the season.

Burnley's shining light is undoubtedly the mercurial Robbie Blake, whose 18 league goals have been vital. He has been playing behind the thoughtlessly energetic Ian Moore, although Dele Adebola could come into the equation if he recovers from a stomach muscle problem... he's made just one appearance as a sub since arriving on loan from Coventry.

Tsega greeted Thierry Henry's hat-trick with some token fist-waving, but in truth this was just a crush, not the sort of thoughtless commitment most of us make to our clubs, a commitment which has moved beyond conscious choice. A win for either side on Monday might remind some of those in the stadium why they bother...