What a Difference a Year Makes!
A DISAPPOINTING return of one point from two festive fixtures should not detract from what has been a remarkable 12 months in the life of Burnley FC.
For many of us, it's been the standout year of our lifetime supporting the Clarets and one that nobody could have predicted when 2008 bowed out with a 2-0 Championship defeat at Doncaster Rovers.
That performance at the Keepmoat Stadium had similarities with this week's encounter at Goodison. Both matches turned on a soft, though correct, sending off decision, revealing the vulnerability of our defenders when faced with pace. However, Burnley's gutsy display at Everton, a team that finished fifth in the Premier League last season, was vastly superior to the one that ended 2008, and that in itself speaks volumes of how far the club has come in just 12 months time.
Indeed, there's not a club in the land who can lay claim to such a steep learning curve through 2009.
In fact, following a fairy-tale promotion via the play-offs, it's been dangerously quick. So much so that fans have struggled at times to keep their expectations in check. For the players and the staff, it must feel like a whirlwind at times, and with all the quality they've been up against, they have been extremely gallant and a complete credit to the club.
Having performed so admirably over the first half of the season, there's no reason why we can't at least replicate the form that sees us sit in lower mid-table. And that could be enough to secure our Premier League status for another year.
While we are not in the best period of form results-wise, I believe our performances have actually been more consistent than results have suggested. Our frustration of losing at Everton was exacerbated by the lingering bewilderment that we somehow failed to kill off Bolton on Boxing Day after surely the most one-sided half of football Turf Moor has witnessed all season. Certainly, if we had 22 points now instead of 20, the reactions of the fans post Everton would have been Que Sera Sera.
We now have a valuable break from the league programme (I admit to lacking interest in Milton Keynes) to refocus on the task ahead and an opportunity in the January transfer window to strengthen certain positions of the team where consistency has eluded us.
The pre-occupation of Premier League survival is, of course, a natural desire for supporters.
Over recent weeks, our beyond-all-expectations start to the season has given way to the much harder-to-accept reality of contesting against clubs who dwarf us in terms of resources. The wins have turned to draws at home and a depressing constant of negative results on our travels.
All this is counter-pointed by the unyielding effervescence of our manager Owen Coyle and his steadfast conviction that his team play passing football. It means there's never a dull moment and in the long term, as supporters, we must believe that fortune will favour the brave.
Not only has the manager's philosophy seen us play a tempo of football rarely before witnessed at Turf Moor, it has been the basis of our success in winning five matches and earning a further five draws. This in itself should be viewed as an excellent return given the disparity in resources between Burnley and the clubs we are in competition with.
We finish the year just one point behind our historic rivals Blackburn Rovers (the gap IS closing), just two points behind Stoke City, and two ahead of turgid Bolton Wanderers (albeit having played two games more).
These are teams that continue to infuriate their supporters with football from the manual of the Opta Actim Index. Bolton's fans even went to the lengths of trying to woo the affection of our manager (their former player) continuously during our Boxing Day clash. Could our rematch at the Reebok in a few short weeks be Burnley's first away win and Megson's last stand? (Editor's Note:Well we now know Megson has gone so hands-off Coyle)
Quite naturally though, alarm is being raised by the fact our home victories have turned into 1-1 draws (four on the spin!) while away results continue to be consistently two-goal deficits.
For good omens, try Stoke City, our next opponents at Turf Moor. This time last year, the newly promoted Potters sat with 20 points from 20 games. Exactly the same record as we have now. It got worse before it got better with just 26 points from 27 games, but then a purple patch saw them register six wins in their last 11 games and a twelfth-placed finish. Their first away victory of the season did not arrive until April 4th.
Crucial to their upbeat second half of the season was the procurement of James Beattie and Matthew Etherington in the transfer window. It is at the other end of the pitch where Burnley should be seeking reinforcements over the coming weeks.
To borrow a phrase from our manager, we cannot continue to be: 'architects of our own downfall', as we have been in recent away matches, if we hope to extend our top flight status.
The Clarets boss has always maintained he'd spend money if it were made available and surely the loyal board members, who are watching the drama unfold week by week with us, can see the need to bolster the squad for the ultimately important second half of the season.
When we won promotion I so hoped the players who got us there would be given a chance to play in the top flight and all who have figured this season have largely done themselves and the club proud. Their efforts have provided the platform for a genuine attempt of attaining top flight survival against all the odds.
Few managers in football have the ability to raise the performances of those around them quite like the Burnley manager. But now he needs help to ensure we don't place burdensome expectations on the shoulders of too few. That can become a pressure situation for players not experienced in dealing with such demands. Tired players make tired decisions, hallmarks of the goals conceded at Wolves and Everton.
One or two are feeling the strain. After three or four exemplary displays in leading the line from Steven Fletcher, he now appears to be snatching at the chances that comes his way, Robbie Blake's early season cunning has latterly been laced with too much hesitance. Wade Elliott looks like he'd benefit from the occasional rest. On the contrary, those who have emerged from the sidelines like Kevin McDonald, Chris Eagles and David Nugent are having excellent spells. There are always positives.
The pending return of Chris McCann, Martin Paterson and Jay Rodriguez cannot come soon enough. McCann has been missed mostly for his consistency, Pato for his charging about the place like a crazed psychopath and occasional ability to conjure up something from nothing. Jay Rod for his fearlessness as a substitute.
McCann's return will enable Andre Bikey to return to central defence once he returns from the African Cup of Nations. This will be a most welcome development, if only for the extra strength and quality in distribution the big man gives us, but with injury concerns enveloping Steve Caldwell and Clarke Carlisle and David Edgar apparently not being regarded good enough, it might be necessary to bring in another centre half as a matter of urgency. Sean St Ledger anyone?
Coyle might be well advised to lean on his own good standing in the game. He's perhaps too modest to see it, but surely any manager at a top club would be satisfied seeing their promising young talent developing under the Scot at Burnley. There has been the suggestion regarding Arsenal's Jack Wilshere but I suspect Arsene Wenger will look dimly on our use of Mark Randall when he came to us in the Championship. We could more readily find a place for someone like Kyle Naughton, superbly consistent last term for Sheffield United and with all the attributes to go on and be a Premier League full-back (left or right).
Killing games off, finishing chances and avoiding defensive lapses are attributes we need to improve upon. If we can keep Nugent for at least the season, which seems likely, and welcome back our long term absentees in January, then it just leaves the defensive part of the equation to work on.
As for the refereeing inconsistency, incorrect offside flags and bad luck that evens itself out over a season, the tide will surely turn again...and this time next year we'll be looking back on another historic 12 months at Turf Moor.