A Beauty and The Beast
'THEY might as well take down the Claret and Blue bunting and put up the white flags' quipped the News of the World on Sunday.
Such sentiments in the national media were rife after Burnley's opening day defeat at Stoke.
Sir Alex Ferguson even had the temerity to 'fear' for Owen Coyle's Turf Moor future in the wake of this most difficult start to our first Premier League season. Thanks for that Fergie, but don't you have your own team to worry about?
If ever the football world needed reminding that football is played on grass, and not on paper, then this impassioned night at Turf Moor was it.
For many of us, the palpable feeling of optimism that consumed the town and its environs ahead of this fixture meant it was one we could go into completely without fear. All day at work, hurriedly through a fish and chip tea, in the car on the way to Burnley, in the walk up Yorkshire Street, past the 200 ticketless United 'boys', I just could not stop grinning inside.
If Stoke had been an underwhelming introduction to the Premier League, this balmy Burnley night had the makings of being something truly befitting of our return to the top flight. The Champions were in town, on a level Turf Moor playing field.
Stepping inside a new stadium is always a special moment. And that is how it felt clambering up the Bob Lord Stand steps for the several hundredth time with a fire burning in the belly. Never had I seen the ground enriched with such vivid colour and raucous energy. This was Turf Moor in High Definition. Home fans in the Cricket Field. Even the much maligned Public Address System had undergone a makeover. This was a whirr of a Claret and Blue kaleidoscope I'd only ever dared to dream about.
Within about 10 yards of my seat sat a curious onlooker. Fabio Capello was here. Had he come to watch Robbie Blake?
Owen Coyle chose just to make the one change, bringing in new signing Andre Bikey for Stephen Jordan at centre-back with Jordan moving to the left-back berth vacated by Christian Kalevenes. So we got our headline writers dream with Andre and Jordan stiffening up the rearguard.
The early exchanges were tentative at best for Burnley. United seemed to create room just by their very presence and early glimpses of Rooney's effortless drifts deep, the speed of Park and guile of Giggs set the tone.
Michael Owen was a surprise starter and he had the ball in the net after four minutes but only after the flag had gone up for a marginal off-side. Some enterprising forward play from the visitors caused plenty of panickly early moments for Burnley but Bikey's presence was reassuring. He asserted a calmness from the outset, pleasingly as far removed from the hot-headedness he displayed as a Reading player on his last visit to the Turf as we could have hoped for.
Having resisted United's early probings, Steve Fletcher, operating in the left midfield role with Martin Paterson the lone front-man, was in receipt of a half-chance from Wade Elliott, but his twice attempted effort ended in the stand.
No matter. The Clarets were beginning to get a foothold and enjoying promising possession. Fletcher was a handful on the left and Paterson was doing what he does best and pressuring Wes Brown and Jonny Evans whenever there was a whiff of opportunity.
Then in the 19th minute, an unforgettable moment of Turf Moor history was made. From Graham Alexander's quickly taken free-kick, Elliott fed Paterson down the inside right channel. Foster rushed out of this goal to thwart the Northern Ireland international as he tried to round him but Burnley kept the ball alive. Jordan, who had a busy first half at both ends, looped in a cross from the left only for Patrice Evra to defend a little too anxiously. His header fell kindly for Blake who met the ball with an imperious right-foot rocket volley from 15 yards. The roof of United's net bulged to spark one of the most delirious of Turf Moor goal celebrations many of us will have ever enjoyed.
It felt more than merely a goal. This was a statement. It was relief. Sheer joy. Excitement. Ectasy.
Fitting too, that it was Blake, here for his third attempt at establishing himself as a Premier League player.
United's crisp passing, with the incomparable Giggs seemingly at the heart of every forward thrust, threatened to tie us in knots at times but the hard working central midfield three of McCann, Alexander and Elliott, stuck to the task of harrying and hassling well. However, none of them had particularly good first half performances with the ball. It was hard to believe that we were leading the champions with our central three a tad off colour but in Fletcher and Bikey, we were starting to see the early fruits of our boutique purchases. Both looked very at home here.
The visitors ought to have levelled matters twice before half-time. Owen was guilty of failing to convert a free header from a Giggs free-kick despite leaping adequately for the ball then, on the cusp of the interval whistle, Blake turned pantomime villian with an attempted slide tackle on Evra that he needn't have made. Television pictures later showed Evra making the most of it but nine Premier League referees out of 10 would have given it. Seeing Michael Carrick step up, and not Ronaldo, gave us a hint of hope. Jensen flung himself to his right and parried the ball away, Mears coped admirably with the rebound.
If the stroke of half-time isn't a good time to concede a goal, then neither is it a good time to miss a penalty. The Beast's heroics sent us into a Cloud Nine half-time and the dreaming continued.
Our approach to the start of the second half was encouraging. McCann, after an ordinary first half, looked more the part with a barnstorming run only curtailed with a foul by Evans. Blake sent the resulting 20 yard free-kick whistling past the wrong side of the post.
Jensen's goalkeeping mastery of one-on-ones continues to amaze. From Anderson's best contribution of the match - a superbly weighted through-ball to Rooney - the Dane rushed out and tackled the England striker with a crunching right-foot tackle. Unorthodox but supremely effective.
On the hour, Antonio Valencia, a player who cost practically three times that of Burnley's entire summer spending, entered the action for Anderson. On paper, we should have been worried, but on the grass we were two thirds through the mission.
Burnley might have made the situation more comfortable for themselves when, after O'Shea had bundled over Paterson, Blake swung in a teasing centre only for Bikey to miss the ball by inches.
United responded by bringing on Dimitar Berbatov, a player worth more than four times our summer spending! For the departing Owen, it had been a forlorn night in front of the watching England manager.
Paterson did a fine impression of Blake with a slalom into the penalty area but did not quite pull the ball back with the exquisite touch of his colleague and the chance passed.
Park's energy was often accompanied with a goal threat and his shot from the edge of the box attracted a fine save from Jensen but it still needed some alert defending from Jordan to deter Valencia from reaching the rebound.
Half chances still fell to Burnley though. From one of them Elliott drove on target from 25 yards but a routine save from Foster denied him.
Into the last 20 and a marvellous chance for the increasingly frustrated visitors. Rooney and Giggs combined for an exquisite one-two that sent the veteran storming into the Burnley box. Again Jensen burst out of his goal, this time repelling the United advance with a save by his face.
It was the bravest save of the night and one of the most crucial of his career.
Quite what Sir Alex had in his mind when he sent Gary Neville on for the last 15 minutes only he knows, but the aftermatch comments from Ferguson - generally magnimous in his acceptance speech - seemed to appreciate that this was 'Burnley's night.
The spectre of Tottenham's late late show last January will always haunt us when we're hanging on for dear life but as the heroes of the night cleared up the last remnants of danger, it was time to purr over the endeavour this team had once again delivered before our eyes.
There was still time for Rooney to get away with a yellow card for what was clearly a stamp on Mears as the visitors grew in frustration. It was all getting too much for Rio Ferdinand and Bobby Charlton who were spotted rushing off to beat the traffic.
Owen Coyle had, once again, masterminded a remarkable turn of events. I had hoped Chris Eagles might have started after Paterson's off-colour display at Stoke. But Paterson was awesome here as the first line of defence. His constant running got right up the backs of O'Shea and Evans. It enabled Fletcher to relish between inside and outside left. His close control, willing running and inventive passing a joy to behold. Blake offered similar on the right but his defensive work was not on a par with our record signing. The middle three did everything asked of them bar pass the ball better at times while the central defensive pair of Carlisle and Bikey shackled the threat of Rooney and Owen impressively. Whatever was lacked in judgment was more than made up with determination.
Mears continued from where he left off at Stoke and looks a fine full-back. Jordan also deserves much credit for his display after a tough opening day. The Beast was utterly phenomenal.
As the Burnley fans floated into the night, via pints of ale, random texts and aghast radio journalists, it was a wonderful feeling to have humbled the Champions at our humble home.
On August 19, 2009 Burnley really and truly entered the Premier League"
Burnley: Jensen 10, Mears 9, Carlisle 8, Bikey 9, Jordan 8; McCann 7, Eliiott 7, Alexander 7 (Gudjonsson 7), Blake 7, Fletcher 9 (Thompson na), Paterson 8 (Eagles 7).
Man United: Foster 6, O'Shea 6, Evans 6 (Neville na), Brown 6, Evra 7; Anderson 5 (Valencia 5), Giggs 9, Carrick 6, Park 7, Rooney 6, Owen 4 (Berbatov 7).Written by Cuban Claret