Burnley's Bluster Blow Blues Away
THE power of Burnley's 'bouncebackability',a term coined by Ian Dowie when manager of Crystal Palace is so far the defining feature of the Clarets' debut season in the Premier League.
The more resounding the defeat on the road, the harder the team fights to put it right at home, with thrilling results to the 20,000 plus supporters crammed into Turf Moor.
Yesterday's encounter with fellow promotion achievers Birmingham was another case in point. One of Owen Coyle's oft-used sentiments, again expressed in his programme notes, urged supporters that 'we cannot affect what's now behind us and so can only look forward to the next game' and by now, we can trust the manager implicitly to ensure - whoever he chooses to start - goes into that game in the right frame of mind.
The Burnley boss sprang something of a surprise ahead of kick-off. Not so much in bringing back club captain Steven Caldwell to marshal a much maligned central defence after conceding five at Tottenham, but in retaining Andre Bikey for a central midfield role alongside Graham Alexander. This gave the Clarets a 4-2-3-1 formation, more associated with Manchester United, with Steven Fletcher, Wade Elliott and Robbie Blake the attacking midfield three supporting the ever-willing David Nugent.
It gave us good shape and, crucially, where it counted, a presence in the central midfield unit, an area of the pitch Alex McLeish packs his resources with Lee Bowyer, Barry Ferguson and Teemo Tainio.
A wretched wet and windy morning gave way to a brighter afternoon but the conditions were still blustery in the extreme. This contributed to some scrappy early exchanges as we got used to our customised formation. From the outset, we looked compact, partly down to the significant bulk of defensive midfielder Bikey. When needed early on, he looked prepared to join the centre halves, allowing Clarke Carlisle or Caldwell to drop back into a sweeping role. Up front, Fletcher was keen to form a front two with Nugent where possible, so a certain fluidity prevailed and the players looked comfortable.
Such a formation would need the central running of Elliott to be effective. He showed his prowess early in the piece before threading a through ball to Fletcher cutting in from the right. His fierce drive was deflected off for a corner. Moments later a move in the same part of the pitch saw Nugent feed the marauding Mears but he fluffed his shot on the run and the danger passed.
Birmingham struggled to make much headway as Burnley's usual level of harrying and hustling disabled the Blues from building any momentum. When we had the ball, our passing was often crisp and the movement was inventive. Alexander was excellent early on and it certainly helps our game when his passing is on song.
A pedantic refereeing display from Kevin Friend did not help the flow in the first half. He blew for everything and, as the players realised this, they were keen to exploit his weakness. Blake's quick feet and 'experience' won us a dodgy free-kick on the edge of the box, the result saw Alexander attempt a shot from 20 yards, which was charged down.
Then Mears, his usual neat and tidy self, attracted a foul from Scott Dann which led to a slightly harsh yellow card.
The visitors, backed by a truly pitiful travelling support, the level of which I didn't think we would witness in the Premier League, continued to offer little. Their wide men Fahey and McFadden really struggled to get into the game against our committed full-backs.
Burnley's best move of the first half came when a typical driving run from Elliott ended with a neat pass inside to Nugent. He struck a hard low shot from 20 yards which brought a decent save from Joe Hart, diving to his right.
As we approached half-time, Birmingham almost took a sneaky lead after a period of pressure instigated by Carr and McFadden on the right flank.
We repelled them with some brave defending but Roger Johnson found himself in space in the box and he drove in a low cross which evaded everyone apart from Lee Bowyer six yards out. Thankfully, it came of the midfielder's heel and rebounded to safety, but a striker might have easily scored.
Jensen finally had a save to make moments before half time when Gary O'Connor went on a mazy run and shot harmlessly from 25 yards.
The first half belonged to us and bar one or two sloppy moments, which a better side than Birmingham might well have capitalised on, we had few concerns.
I still felt we had another gear to get into - the one we found in the second half against Sunderland - and so it transpired as we quickly raised the bar after the interval.
The Blues made two substitutions at half-time; Seb Larsson for the ineffective Fahey and Liam Ridgewell for Frank Queudrue at left-back. It raised the spectre of Chris Eagles coming on against a centre-half playing at left-back should the need arise later on.
A Bikey error led to a promising Brum break early on but, when the ball broke to Larsson, he skied his effort wastefully from 12 yards out.
From a Birmingham free-kick, we won possession and Mears was quick to reveal the advantage of a pacey full-back in setting up a swift counter-attack. He quickly gobbled up 20 yards before releasing Fletcher with a perfectly weighted pass. With the home supporters baying for the ball to be squared to Nugent, Fletcher drove the ball at goal himself and by doing so, caught Hart in two minds, with his shot bouncing under the goalkeeper's body and into the roof of the net.
It was great to see the young Scot score his first Premier League goal - his efforts have earned it - and moments later he might have had his second.
This time it was a clever lobbed pass from Blake that set him up beyond the last Birmingham defender, but despite controlling the ball wonderfully on his chest, he pivoted just a little too acutely and his shot struck the outside rather than inside of the post.
Rampant Burnley were now swarming all over Birmingham like flies round a blue turd. Following some clever interplay between Jordan and Blake on the left, the ball was worked to Alexander who fed a hungry Fletcher, only for him this time to bring an excellent save from Hart low to his right.
But this only delayed the inevitable. The second goal duly arrived in the 62nd minute.
It all began in innocuous circumstances as Bikey appeared to lose his balance 40 yards from goal after a pass from Elliot. In an instant he got back to his feet and wriggled free of the attentions of two Birmingham players before the space opened for him. Nugent did brilliantly in peeling free of his marker to receive a pass from Bikey and returned the ball to complete a clever one-two which set Bikey up for a composed finish into the bottom left hand corner of the net. Sublime stuff with somersault celebrations to follow.
Nugent was denied by a crude lunge by Stephen Carr right on the edge of the Birmingham penalty box after another super Burnley break ended with Elliott's excellent through-ball. Mears wrapped his right foot around the ball and Hart acrobatically tipped the ball over the top with his left paw.
It might have got worse for Birmingham and better for Bikey, when the Cameroon man rose unchallenged to meet Blake's corner, but he thundered his header over the top.
Glowing in the comfort of a 2-0 lead, the attention started to turn to Ewood 'Bring on the B******s' roared the Longside.
Annoyingly, Larsson converted a late free-kick to give the score line a flattering look for Birmingham but at the final whistle Burnley supporters wallowed in the glow of a ninth successive home league win.
We can now focus on our first top flight visit to Blackburn since 1966 with renewed optimism. For a start, the players will relish an away trip against a team they will see as beatable. The importance of the fixture to supporters is not lost on Owen Coyle and his remarkable record in cup-ties comes into play here. It's a one-off fixture and being ahead of Blackburn in the league, no matter what the outcome, really takes the pressure off us.
More importantly of all, the manager has landed upon a formation that has more solidity about it. There will no doubt be some genuine aerial bombardment from Blackburn next week and with Bikey joining Caldwell and Carlisle as a possible third central defender, when required, we should not be so porous when under pressure.
Whatever happens, it's going to be a two long weeks ahead of our next Premier League action.
Burnley: Jensen 7, Mears 8, Caldwell 8, Carlisle 7, Jordan 7; Alexander 8, Bikey 7; Blake 7 (Kalvenes 89), Elliott 9*, Fletcher 8 (Eagles 73, 7); Nugent 7 (Thompson 89).
Birmingham: Hart 5, Carr 6, Dann 6, Queudrue 6 (Ridgewell 45, 5), Johnson 6; Bowyer 5, Ferguson 5, Fahey 4 (Larsson 45, 6) Tainio 4 (Phillips 67, 6), McFadden 5, O'Connor 5.
Bookings: Carr Dann, Ferguson (Birmingham)
Referee: K Friend (Leics) 5CUBAN CLARET