WITH no new additions to the Clarets squad it was just a case of assessing fitness levels and the application of Burnley’s young guns for boss Eddie Howe against minnows Altrincham at the weekend.
Six youngsters, each a product of Turf Moor’s blossoming youth development system, were included in the squad for the first pre-season encounter of the 2011/12 campaign though only three graced the playing surface at Moss Lane.
And each of Burnley’s starlets warranted praise following their contributions, though it was the performances of Alex Ray-Harvey and striker Alex MacDonald that typified the maturity, eagerness and excellence among the youth ranks.
Dominic Knowles, Mehdi Lazaar and Joe McKee were unused throughout the afternoon though their inclusion must surely inspire confidence. Wes Fletcher, who recently committed his future to the Clarets by signing a two-year deal, has been prolific at youth and reserve level since joining in 2007 but struggled to make a second-half impact from a wide position on the left; though his tenacity to cut inside often forced Altrincham’s defensive line on the back foot.
Ray-Harvey proved to be industrious and inventive in a central role alongside Chris McCann, displaying an uncanny resemblence to former loanee Jack Cork. The young midfielder was economical in possession, constantly working space to retrieve a pass, his work-rate was admirable, and his approach was simple but effective.
Meanwhile it took MacDonald just nine minutes to make his mark. Picking the ball up on the left, he found strike partner Martin Paterson inside the area before his instinct drove him towards the penalty spot where he slotted Paterson’s return pass low past Stuart Coburn.
“All the young lads have come back and done well,” said Howe. “Macca especially; I thought he was lively in the first half and showed a terrific appetite for the game, a really good attitude and I thought he was very bright.
“I’m pleased for him. He had a loan spell in Scotland last season and he didn’t play as much as we all wanted him to really. I know he got frustrated at times but the first time I saw him I liked him. He’s got something. There are positive signs from him so far.”
The first half was all Burnley’s. Just after the quarter-of-an-hour mark Chris Eagles flashed a shot just wide of the far post from the edge of the area and then in the next attack the Clarets doubled their advantage. Ross Wallace, who demonstrated a certain suave and conviction in his display, freed Paterson down the right and his low-driven centre was converted by Eagles inside the six-yard box.
The Clarets’ momentum expectedly continued against their Blue Square North opponents and Eagles went close again as he profited from Paterson’s resilience in charging down Coburn’s clearance; however, his lofted effort lacked the height to beat the retreating keeper.
And then Paterson’s performance was rewarded with a place on the scoresheet in the 33rd minute as he latched on to MacDonald’s clever through ball and kept his composure to round Coburn before slotting the ball in to an empty net, making it 3-0.
But with just 10 minutes of the half remaining, after Eagles had forced Coburn to turn his effort over the bar, Lee Sinnott’s side had their first opportunity. Nicky Clee glided away from his marker to retrieve a short corner and his cross was headed on to the post by Nick Chadwick.
Wallace had the final chance of the opening 45 minutes as he cut inside from the right and stung the palms of Coburn with a left-footed drive but just moments earlier he almost added number four with a sensational volleyed effort from ther left angle of the penalty area following Brian Easton’s measured, diagonal pass.
“It was a good work-out, Howe said. “We scored some good goals in the first half and looked very lively. “Ross has come back very fit and has trained really well. He’s been another one of the really good performers so far.
“There was a setback at the beginning of the second half but we responded well and the lads came through it unscathed, which is the main thing at this stage.”
That setback started with returning defender Leon Cort’s inability to deal with a hopeful high ball in the opening seconds of the restart and Chadwick coasted in to head over a stranded Brian Jensen. The former Plymouth Argyle marksmen then made a mockery of the Clarets overhaul, with 11 half-time substitutions, as he stooped low to guide a right wing cross past Jensen and in to the far corner. Altrincham had scored twice in the opening five minutes of the second half.
Last season’s joint leading goalscorer Jay Rodriguez went close midway through the half as his fierce shot flashed past the near post, but Chris Iwelumo made the cushion more comfortable as he nodded Wade Elliott’s cross home. Elliott then saw an opportunity tipped over the bar while Kevin Long was denied as his bullet header from point blank range, courtesy of Elliott’s precise corner, was saved.
It finished 4-2 and Howe was optimistic following the fixture: “It’s early days. We’ve only been back just over a week and the lads have put a lot of hard work in.
“I’ve been delighted with everything we’ve done so far. We’ve got a lot of work to do but this is all part of the training exercise. The main thing at this stage is not picking up any injuries and so far we haven’t.”
It was apparent from the performance that Howe has influenced his players to be more ruthless but careful in possession, with an emphasis on defenders working the ball from the backline. However, at this moment in time it’s fitness that is the prevalent factor.
“Obviously we’re trying to build a style of play,” said Howe. “Our philosophy is trying to get that across to the lads.
“Most of our work so far has been small-sided games and fitness work. We haven’t done too much in terms of team shape. That will now start to happen.
“We’re still very early stages. He added: “It will build up through pre-season and more and more towards the team emphasis on how we’re going to play and all the little things that you need to do right - set plays for and against - but that’s all for the future.
“I’m pleased with the fitness levels, the lads are looking sharp, but there’s more to come.”
Meanwhile, Clarets full-back Brian Easton is ready to battle for his place in Howe’s starting XI after a positive start to pre-season. Easton added a central defensive roll to his repetoire after replacing the injured Andre Bikey in the 1-1 stalemate with Cardiff City on the final game of last season, though he’s determined to make the left full-back spot his own.
“The first game of pre-season it’s all about getting the fitness in and the manager was just looking for everyone to be working hard and showing a good attitude,” he said. “He got that for most of the time but there are obviously things we can improve on as well.
“We’ve had about six or seven weeks off, which is a long time. Everyone’s delighted to be back and we’ve all been working really hard in the last week. Pre-season’s been good so far. All the football we’ve played is the way the gaffer likes it.”
Easton added: “I’m sure the manager’s got his own ideas. There haven’t been any new signings yet but the gaffer obviously knows what he wants and how he thinks we can strengthen the team.
“Right now the boys are concentrating on getting their fitness because there’s going to be good competition for every single position this year, which is healthy and keeps a lot of the boys on their toes.
“Come the start of the season the boys know if they get a position they’re going to have to do well to keep hold of it.”