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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 02/04/05, 3.00pm
Learning curve
By Matt Rowson

Whatever your view of the rights and wrongs of recent events, there's no denying that change is an unsettling thing. A burdensome sense of disquiet has been eating at me since Ray Lewington's sacking nearly a fortnight ago, and wasn't calmed any by the unprecedented sunshine that welcomed us into this most secluded corner of Lancashire, or by the pleasantness of the pub that we chanced upon when searching for lunchtime accommodation. Such things aren't what we've come to expect from Burnley, and in times of turmoil you need solid, dependable stuff to cling onto.

Fortunately, when we reached the ground we were greeted by the boorish cabaret act that was such a feature of last season's encounter, and an accompanying oral assault that featured an air-punching, irony-free rendition of "Amarillo". In front of us, the ongoing distraction of a crack team of stewards arbitrarily shoo-ing the small number of travelling Hornets into congested and oddly distributed blocks of seats whilst vast expanses of the stand lay empty. Idiocy on several levels, but reassuringly so.

Focus, inevitably, was on the new man at the helm and on any tactical revolution that may have been implemented in the couple of days' training that Betty has so far hosted. A convincing fist waved in the direction of the encouragement from the top of the stand as he exited the tunnel below us constituted a reasonable start.

Unfortunately, it kinda went downhill from there for the first forty-five minutes. The tone was set when Micah Hyde, who danced around the midfield with a swagger that had my brother sighing ruefully next to me, dinked a clever through ball to an already overlapping Frank Sinclair, an offside flag preventing a first Burnley assault on Richard Lee's goal. Moments later, James Chambers' slightly desperate and aggressive block halted Akinbiyi's progress; the striker's strop at the referee's tolerance provided brief entertainment, but we were already on the back foot.

Unreasonable as it is to have expected dramatic changes in under a week, it was only natural to scrutinise our play for evidence of the new man's influence; two features were immediately evident. Every Burnley throw-in anywhere on the pitch saw the throw-in taker confronted with either Bruce Dyer or Hameur Bouazza, toe to toe on the touchline to questionable effect and increasing (and not unreasonable) volumes of derision from the home stands. Secondly, whenever we regained possession in our own half a quick, often hurried long ball in search of the strikers was launched. The thinking may have been that a lack of pace was a weakness in Burnley's formidable rearguard, but these counter-attacks were only rarely executed with sufficient accuracy to make any impression. On these occasions, such as when Lee comfortably fielded Oster's wayward cross and found Dyer with a quick delivery, the attack dwindled to nothing.

Our defence, deprived of what could prove to be a significant new signing in the injured Danny Cullip and still missing Sean Dyche, increasingly looked like a disaster waiting to happen. Ade Akinbiyi was afforded the space to spin and belt in a high shot from a tight angle on the left, Lee's instinctive two-handed block sending the ball spinning upwards, dropping across the face of goal and only a comfortable take in the end by virtue of the lack of a Burnley follow-up. Shortly afterwards, a left-wing Burnley corner fell to Hyde outside the box, his low drive deflected kindly (for the Hornets) just out of Gary Cahill's range. On the touchline, Betty paces anxiously and scribbles frequently into a notepad.

Jack Smith is the one member of the defensive line-up to emerge with any credit during this spell, occasionally emulating Robbo's most dominant moments by finding time to patrol his own flank and also to charge across to sweep up after his central colleagues. One piece of single-mindedness however, typical of what actually appeared to be a more aggressive tone set by the Hornets overall than we've been used to, saw a clearance executed at the expense of a collision with Richard Lee that left the young fullback dazed and confused, a reasonable metaphor for our defence as a whole by this point.

Having avoided conceding, however, we began to attack with a little more belief; Ashley Young and Chris Eagles both looked more sprightly than of late, and switched wings frequently as the pace of our attacks began to suggest a threat for the first time.

At which point, Burnley scored. Helpfully. It was a shocker too, from a defensive point of view; either of the centrebacks or the goalkeeper could have dealt with a ball that dropped between them but Demerit and Cox deferred to each other, Lee came for the ball then changed his mind and Dean Bowditch nipped in to accept the gift, just over a year after his hat-trick against us at Portman Road.

The home side sensed that we were there for the kill, and came at us again; John Oster should have scored when a good build up down the left found him with the goal gaping in front of him on the right. He trod on the ball, then dallied in possession as the space closed in front of him before finding the offside Camara. Moments later, Dean Bowditch had another sight of goal, but shot over excitedly from the edge of the area.

Ten minutes before half-time, our first attempt of any sort as Hameur Bouazza found space for a bouncing volley that shaved the outside of the keeper's left-hand post. We began to exercise some pressure, and as Burnley attempted to break Gavin Mahon and James Chambers threw their backs into a couple of challenges - quite literally, conventional approaches having failed, both tackles saw the Hornets player crashing in horizontally at their opponents' feet. Chris Eagles picked up possession and hared at the Burnley goal down the middle with the home side in disarray for the first time... unfortunately, Dyer was caught offside by a late through-ball.

And Burnley scored again. A culmination of pressure but just as weak defensively as the first, as Chambers' tame header from the goalline to the right of the goal fell to O'Connor just inside the area, and he had time to place a shot past the goalkeeper. There was time for Ashley Young's left-wing cross to find Bruce Dyer, who used his strength to force a prodded effort to register our first attempt on target before the half drew to a close. In the away end, glum silence.

Sean Dyche followed the team out after the break, smart in a blue shirt and tie, and afforded us a traditionally minimalist nod in response to his greeting, Alec Chamberlain a chummier thumbs-up shortly afterwards. On the pitch, Burnley appeared to have made a conscious decision to calm it all down a bit opting for an economical route to three points that would surely have been unperturbed had our largely insipid first-half performance been repeated.

However, it's not overstating the case to suggest that something of a transformation in the Watford side occurred at the break. Gone were the fruitless long punts over the top, and instead we kept the ball down, stretched the play as wide as possible and ripped into our surprised and increasingly rattled opponents.

Jack Smith sounded the clarion call, bullishly digging out space for a cross on his right foot which somehow bypassed Burnley's defenders; only surprise can explain and excuse Bouazza's failure to get his head to the inviting cross which seemed to pass inches in front of his forehead.

Chris Eagles gained possession in midfield and again roared down the centre of the pitch, the attack's momentum slightly lost by a pass to Young spinning away on the left, but he fed it back to Smith who cut inside and flung a shot across the face of goal and over, but not by a lot.

The tide had turned. A deep, Eagles crossfield pass from the right caused more panic than it ought have done as Sinclair nervously scrambled the ball away. At the other end, when Burnley did venture forward they found a more resolute rearguard, Cox snarling into a tackle to demolish a bedraggled-looking Akinbiyi.

Another decent break down the right resulted in Ashley Young's shot being blocked by Camara. Dyer surged down the centre, shaped his run to draw attention to Bouazza on the left then switched the play to the unattended Young galloping down the right, his ambitious shot on target but comfortable for Jensen. Not enough, but an awful lot more convincing... increasingly Burnley relied upon their outstanding central defensive pairing of McGreal and Cahill, never more so than when a Young right-wing cross caused panic in the Burnley defence, McGreal tidying up by heading behind.

Chris Eagles went on a wandering run on the left, finishing with a tame shot which Jensen fielded easily; this was the on-loan youngster's final contribution as he was replaced by McNamee in a triple-change which also saw Gunnarsson depart for Blizzard and Darlington on for the unfortunate Smith.

Within five minutes, the changes paid a dividend. The sprightly McNamee took a corner on the Watford right, and dipped in a clever, curling ball to the near post where Blizzard's angled run saw him stoop at pace to angle a header between the keeper and the near post. A quite excellent goal, Jensen almost assaulting the goalpost in frustration.

After which... it was all a little disappointing. Certainly, an alarmed Burnley side stepped up to the mark again giving us far more to think about, and certainly the turn of events wasn't rewarded with a merited surge in support from the away end where silence was punctuated only by tiresome and pointless baiting of ex-Luton winger Jean-Louis Valois, a late substitute for the home side. But it was more than that - the apprehension that the Hornets had jettisoned at the break seemed to re-enter the fray and whilst we still made chances, an equaliser would have been a surprise.

Burnley made the next openings... Hyde burst through on the right only to be battered off the ball by Mahon. Shortly afterwards, a fierce Hyde shot from the right brought a decent save from Lee, palming over. In front of us, McNamee was involved in what remained of Watford's attack... turning in the area to fire wide, then shimmying free of attention and squaring to Chambers who also shot wide.

Had Burnley's third proved critical it would have left a nasty taste... Akinbiyi charged down Darlington's panicky clearance with arms aloft, clubbing the ball down with his arm in a manner reminiscent of John Fashanu during the Plough Lane Quarter-Final in 1988. The block opened up Watford's defence, and Akinbiyi squared for Valois, inevitably, to tap in.

Another McNamee corner found Demerit at the far side of the box, he clipped a shot across the face and wide with the outside of his right foot, turning with his head down before it flew past the post, beaten before the final whistle.

Burnley's late goal flattered their second half in which we were the better side; however, on the balance of the game and given the chronic first-half imbalance which should have seen the home side out of sight, there's no disputing the scoreline.

Betty's bullish assertion before the game that we weren't going down may, will hopefully, prove well-founded; the second-half vigour at least offers hope. However, whilst the board's vanity in appointing Boothroyd, hand-picked rather than interviewed on receipt of application if his press-conference comments are to be believed, will not necessarily prove to have fuelled a bad appointment, we need him to succeed quickly. His post-match comments featured the first use of the phrase "learning curve". We have six games left and need to win two of them. That curve had better have a steep slope.