Can anyone play left-back?
By Matt Rowson
For teams below the Premiership (not Premier, not a ship) this summer's most significant development in terms of rule-tinkering has been the enforcement for the first time of a transfer window, bringing the rest of the professional game in this country in line with the top flight and elsewhere.
Without having particularly strong feelings about it, I have to confess to a certain degree of suspicion as regards this whole idea... purportedly introduced to prevent media- and agent-inspired unsettling of players at critical times of the season (presumably, in principle, by bigger clubs with financial clout) I can't see how anybody bar bigger clubs with bigger squads more capable of absorbing injuries actually benefits. Hassan Kachloul's employment as a "consultant" at Livingston at the end of last season, conveniently coinciding with his signing as a player outside the transfer window on amateur terms, received precious little admonishment (Livingston stayed up on the final day) and suggested that loopholes in these rules will be sought in any case.
But in any event, my expectation over the summer was that clubs would, to a greater extent than normal, be hoarding players much as a squirrel hoardes nuts for the winter - if only on short contracts or loans given the dramatic relaxation in the relevant restrictions. Not a bit of it as yet (except at Bramall Lane where Colin's hoarding of strikers is an annual pursuit); Either a massive game of wink murder is going down and things will go completely mental within the next fortnight, or a large number of clubs are going to go into the autumn with pitifully small squads. This would appear to head us towards the situation where unsigned wasters like Ashley Ward and Nathan Blake get to auction their fat arses off to the most desperate bidder in October, surely not what the instigators of the ruling had in mind.
We're painfully aware of the thinness of our own squad, of course... splendid as Friday's win at Ninian Park was, I can't have been the only Hornet to catch a breath when first Marlon King and then Gavin Mahon took their time to get up from heavy challenges.
But the paucity of Burnley's squad - in terms of numbers if not necessarily quality - is a whole different ball game. Of the sixteen players named in the squad last Saturday, two had only a couple of sub appearances between them whilst a third, thirty-five year old player-coach Mark Yates, hasn't played a competitive game since finishing a loan spell at Kidderminster fifteen months ago. And it's not as if Burnley are already burdened by an injury list - only American fullback Danny Karbassiyoon, released by Arsenal over the summer, was unavailable prior to Saturday's game... although Frank Sinclair was nursing a hamstring strain on the bench, and winger Wade Elliott limped off after twelve minutes.
None of which alters the fact that the Clarets comprehensively beat a poor Coventry City 4-0, even if two goals came late against a side that had been a man down since before half-time... Stephen Hughes having been sent off for foul and abusive language. Insert your own punchline here. Burnley's first team looks strong enough for mid-table, on paper... there just isn't a second team at the moment.
One area where there is genuine competition is in goal, where Brian Jensen's more intimidating presence has been preferred to Welshman Danny Coyne since the opening day defeat at Crewe. Jensen's tendency to punch and general nerviness make this selection a far from foregone conclusion, despite Saturday's win.
At the back, there's plenty of experience... John McGreal and Wayne Thomas are a brutal looking pairing in the centre who should give Darius a physical confrontation, although I'd have said the same about Darren Purse. Frank Sinclair is likely to resume at right back if he's over his hamstring problem, with Graham Branch covering Karbassiyoon at left back. Those who witnessed our win at Turf Moor late in the 2003/04 season will understand why Branch's defensive days were thought to be behind him, but as mentioned alternatives are thin on the ground although the Clarets have been linked with the tubby Ian Harte, released by Spanish side Levante, this week. Versatile Mickey Duff is likely to be the defensive cover on the bench.
In midfield, Burnley's star turn at the weekend was the mercurial Micah Hyde, who needs no introduction. He was partnered in the centre by James O'Connor, a scorer on our visit to Turf Moor in Betty's first fixture in charge, who tends to do the scrapping, fetching and carrying. Wide positions were taken by summer recruits from Bournemouth Wade Elliott and Gareth O'Connor, but Elliott's injury saw a debut awarded to Chris McCann, reportedly a centre-back or central midfielder, who by all accounts did a solid enough job on the left side of midfield. No prognosis on Elliott's ankle injury was evident at the time of writing.
Midfield is one area where Steve Cotterill seems particularly keen to recruit; a work permit for flaky Macedonian international Artim Sakiri was refused on appeal last week, whilst the Clarets have this week been linked with a season-long loan for Steve Lomas, a midfielder as unlike Sakiri in style as is possible to imagine.
Up front, Ade Akinbiyi and another familiar face Gifton Noel-Williams, reprise a partnership first formed at Cotterill's former club Stoke City, although neither were at the Britannia Stadium in time to coincide with their current manager's brief tenure in 2002. As one might imagine the two tend to compliment each other, even if Gifton doesn't seem to have gotten any more mobile since leaving Vicarage Road. Behind these two though... very little, only seventeen year old Ulsterman Kyle Lafferty and another youngster Cayne Hanley, yet to feature in the first team. Jamaican teenager Luton Shelton was due to have a run out for Burnley's reserves on Wednesday evening - if signed, he could probably do without making his debut on Saturday.
Saturday looks a tough one to call, with both sides coming off the back of impressive wins after tentative starts to the season. The ominous spectre of the Family Day and the traditional poor performance that accompanies it is a little disconcerting... but not as disconcerting as the prospect of a typically robust encounter with the Clarets, which might see both sides struggling to get a side together for the League Cup on Tuesday evening.