Merry Sodding Christmas
By Matt Rowson
I need to confess, before we start, that my lucky chocolate was consumed roughly five minutes into the first half rather than, as is traditional, at the interval. Whilst acknowledging the gravity of this action, in mitigation I need to cite a four and a half hour drive (with just one, brief, stop at Watford Gap) and plunging blood sugar. I would, indeed, do the same again in similar circumstances. Nonetheless, it's perhaps no coincidence that defensive tomfoolery of the sort that has largely been absent from this season's repertoire materialised on the same afternoon...
I don't enjoy arriving at a football match with anything less than twenty minutes to spare; as such, scrambling in with the sides already out on the pitch in the crisp winter's sunshine was a disorientating experience, the need to assimilate the players in yellow shirts into a comprehensible formation not helping the settling process. It transpired that we'd returned to the 4-5-1 formation employed at Preston, but with Gavin Mahon in Al Bangura's holding position, Toumani Diagouraga alongside Matthew Spring in the more offensive central roles and James Chambers wide on the left with Anthony McNamee and Jay Demerit relegated to the bench.
Much as the scoreline might suggest a walloping of the sort that our recent uninspiring performances have been heralding, the game itself followed a very different pattern. Indeed, we had the upper hand for the first twenty minutes, at which point a comment in my notes reads "encouragingly boisterous".
Toumani Diagouraga is the first to break ranks and disrupt the early midfield sparring, thrusting onto a loose ball and past a flailing challenge before feeding Marlon King, whose control unusually lets him down. Moments later, the positive nature of our start is demonstrated by Lloyd Doyley's galloping appearance on the edge of the box having been fed by neat control from Devlin. Momentarily the goal celebration to end all goal celebrations suggests itself, but the Claret shirts block out the light and Doyley, Carlisle and King's combined efforts can only fashion a low effort from King from outside the area which Jensen fields comfortably.
This sums up much of our problem, in fact. Well, half of it; we'll come to the other half later. Because for all of the positive movement and neat passing in our midfield, our attacks flounder on the unfair battle between Burnley's solid rearguard, marshalled by the outstanding John McGreal, and Marlon King, whose relentless scrapping and chasing give us mere possibilities rather than real options. In short, we work extremely hard for very little return up front whereas Burnley... but as I said, we'll get to that.
James Chambers has surely never been employed in as advanced a position, and whereas I'd still describe our formation as 4-5-1 rather than 4-3-3, Chambers is still more of a winger than a fullback. A winger, critically, playing on his weaker side, a flaw which Burnley cotton onto when Chambers cuts inside Duff and clouts a shot over on ten minutes. From then on Chambers isn't allowed a look in on his right foot, and much as his industry is unrelenting until his half-time replacement, his only option from the byline is to lay back to the supporting Stewart.
Our impressive opening nonetheless carries portents of what is to come; a mistake by Stewart lets in Akinbiyi and only some attentive bullying by Malky Mackay gets us off the hook. Nonetheless, this opening spell is ours on points, and also features an unlikely contender for pass of the season... Akinbiyi is caught offside (not for the first or last time) and Carlisle tees up the ball for the already trundling Ben Foster who drops a breathtaking pass half the length of the field over Harley's head and onto the foot of Devlin on the right flank. Devlin's cross attacks the far post, but Duff beats both Spring and King to the header.
A flick from Clarke Carlisle, supporting the attack, causes rare disorder in the Burnley back line and a defensive header clears the bar. Spring's corner is weak, however, and he nearly compounds his error by chasing the break and lunging in on Dyer, a tackle that would surely have cut him in half had it made contact. Perhaps still fired up, Spring's next contribution is more positive, robbing Micah Hyde in Burnley's half, twisting past Sinclair on the edge of the box and really wasting a fine opening by curling a left-footed shot into Jensen's arms.
As engrossing as King's duel with McGreal is at one end of the pitch, it threatens to be eclipsed by the rejoining of arms of Malky Mackay and Ade Akinbiyi at the other. Handbags are first drawn on twenty minutes when Akinbiyi appears to raise his hand to Mackay's face, and with all of Burnley's attacking threat channelling through the striker I suggest to my brother that the outcome of this duel would decide the game. Which shows how much I know, since Mackay kept Akinbiyi in his pocket for the duration, whilst...
Our upper hand doesn't last, obviously. I've mentioned that we are working very hard for very little up front... but there's a seasonal analogy that adequately describes how hard we make the home side work for their openings that's just so painfully obvious that it doesn't merit explicit definition. On thirty-one minutes, Clarke Carlisle, inexplicably, offers cheap possession to Graham Branch on the halfway line. The Burnley wide man charges down the flank where Lloyd Doyley just isn't... and in the absence of any reason to do any different just keeps going. Carlisle's presence in his wake, albeit never quite close enough to make a challenge, probably dissuades Foster from venturing from his line, and Branch finishes neatly. This would have been bad enough if the goalscorer had been a proper footballer, but Graham Branch, for f***'s sake...
Initially, we appear in danger of folding completely as Burnley sense blood and commit numbers forward for the first time. We're grateful for Lloyd Doyley's reappearance on the right flank to smother one dangerous looking breakaway... but then gradually dig in again. Marlon King wins a free kick on the right flank (you'll have spotted an obvious drawback to having Marlon foraging on the right flank, but we'll leave that for now); Spring sends in a fine cross that Jensen tries to punch but misses and the ball hits Mackay who, with eyes closed in anticipation of a clout from Jensen, sends the ball narrowly wide.
Ade Akinbiyi is booked for attempting a flick-on with his hand, which is quite funny. "He's five minutes from getting sent off," suggests my brother, which may have proved an accurate assessment of the situation with Akinbiyi clearly not enjoying his lack of freedom, had Burnley not been gifted another goal.
This comes from absolutely nothing. Foster's drop kick is greeted by murmurs of indignation from the crowd at the opposite end and the linesman's flag goes up in reflex. We are in no position to judge the veracity of this assessment, and are merely grateful that the referee doesn't go to his pocket... punishment in such situations seems increasingly random. TV pictures later confirmed, however, that Foster wasn't anywhere near the edge of the area when he released the ball... he'd merely lobbed it forward to put his foot through it, a quite incredible decision from the linesman with the benefit of hindsight and a significant one. Nonetheless, the lineman's only crime was to make a poor judgment. The failure to adequately defend the free kick, from whose distance a smack at goal or a lay off were the only likely outcomes, is all our own. Harley hits it firm and true past any attempted blocks and into the bottom corner.
The half ends, as if to emphasise the point, with us passing the ball around the edge of Burnley's area looking for an opening before a Clarke Carlisle header from too far out to be of any threat is plucked away from the top corner by Jensen.
As seems essential, Betty makes two changes at the break with the apparently half-fit McNamee replacing Chambers and Demerit entering the fray for Diagouraga, whose contributions had been positive but too infrequent. Demerit lines up alongside Mackay at the back, with Clarke Carlisle having a go at pretending to be a striker.
We flurry unconvincingly at the start of the half. Clarke Carlisle flicks on Doyley's enormous throw, Spring dives onto the loose ball and Jensen holds the header with King closing in. Five minutes later, another Carlisle flick finds King, who twists around McGreal and cracks in a shot that is deflected wide, the corner again coming to nothing.
Increasingly, however, there is little conviction in our forays forward, and our general play looks forlorn. Mahon is caught in possession in midfield and right back Duff is released down the flank with McNamee nowhere to be seen. Foster blocks Duff's clouted shot well, and then tips the spinning deflection over under attention from Akinbiyi. Micah Hyde crackles in a fierce shot that warms Foster's palms again from distance. This is looking increasingly easy for the home side.
And then, as incongruously as Burnley's opening goal, we get ourselves back in it. Or, to be more accurate, the incomparable Marlon decides that he's had enough of all this and from an apparently unthreatening position shrugs off a challenge to win a loose ball and releases his frustration through it from twenty-five yards. Half a second later, it's past Jensen's dive and in the bottom corner.
Flame on again. Matthew Spring soars through the midfield and spreads wide to Devlin with Burnley's defence stumbling over themselves. Devlin drops a cross into the near post, Spring has kept running and sprawls at it; Jensen does extremely well to block his well-directed header and hold it as Carlisle follows up.
Burnley are attacking on the break, and we're grateful to a dubious looking offside flag that inflames Akinbiyi to boiling point. Burnley bring Gifton on for Spicer, and his is a colossal cameo... he spreads the ball wide to Branch down the left, his cross headed off of Akinbiyi's forehead by Mackay. From the subsequent corner, Gifton crashes a header in at the far post that Devlin just about gets off the line.
But this is an open game now, and could really go either way. Betty removes the increasingly incidental Devlin for Joel Grant, who rather unusually fails to sparkle. Mackay twice leaves Akinbiyi looking stupid in tidying up increasingly optimistic through-balls, which would be an awful lot more entertaining if we weren't still a goal down but raises cheers nonetheless.
And then Burnley score again. And again they have to do absolutely nothing beyond the basic to earn it, leaving the 450-odd Hornets slouched in the away end really wondering why they've bothered. A nothing ball is rolling comfortably beyond any attention, Lloyd Doyley is shepherding it back towards the goal line as it trundles along the side-edge of the area. Graham Branch is tracking him, more in hope than expectation, but as it turns out Doyley stops, apparently unaware of Branch's presence, and suddenly Branch is past him and onto the loose ball. Foster comes out, Branch goes down, and the ref points to the spot.
Momentarily I'm transported to Edgeley Park in November 1998. The same player has swallow-dived over Alec Chamberlain's challenge and again I'm screaming blue murder at the referee. Now as then, however, the referee is unmoved... indeed, Eddie Ilderton has displayed a reluctance either to venture too far from the halfway line or to make any halfway brave decisions and so doesn't indulge me. The fact that Branch has, on this occasion, been completely taken out may also have been a factor.
Harley sends the ball to Foster's right. Foster dives to his left. Game over. There's still time for Malky Mackay, the one defender in yellow to come away from the afternoon in credit, to blot his copybook by standing with his arm in the air as James O'Connor gallops past him with Jordan Stewart trailing in his wake before finishing proficiently. Only one team looks like scoring in the last ten minutes. It isn't us. Nathan Dyer is announced as the man of the match, which seems a bit odd - his has been a Nordin Wooter masterclass of scampering around in an eye-catching way without achieving very much - but I guess such luxuries can be indulged when you're winning comfortably. The whistle goes with Gifton playing silly buggers in the corner, and it suddenly feels really really cold.
Much as we leave the game feeling perplexed - this was in many respects an improvement on recent performances - there's really no great mystery to what happened here. Without any support - proper support - Marlon is always going to struggle against a halfway competent defence, and you can't go giving away goals, several of them, against a solid side like Burnley. The disappointment is that the home team didn't need to be any better than competent to win this at a canter - no reflection on them, they just did what they had to do.
With results conspiring to again leave us in third place despite not winning in five, the return of Henderson and a resumption of the accustomed defensive reliability might see us getting away with this run of form in the wider context of the league season. But it's no coincidence that we've taken the vast majority of points from games where we've had two senior strikers available, and precious little from those where we haven't. If Henderson doesn't return imminently, fully fit, then we'll find ourselves following Luton's slide down the table.