SIMILAR to the Grand National, Burnley’s season has been a long, unpredictable haul.
A competitive race filled with false starts, hurdles, temporary hope, tricky grounds, and the disappointment of missing out on a prestigious placed finish despite tailgaiting the chasing pack for the majority.
Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears fell before the first fence, while full-back Danny Fox dismounted before the second and those losses translated on to the field, with the Clarets having to wait until late September, against Nottingham Forest, to record a victory on home soil. And that was only the second success of the season.
As the campaign reached the Championship’s version of The Chair, the halfway point, Eddie Howe’s side moved within three points of the top six, recording a fifth win in six outings against Doncaster Rovers, who have since fallen to England’s third tier, on home soil. That rejuvenation, which stretched to a further triumph against Hull City, began with a 12-minute turnaround at the KC Stadium versus the same opposition.
But at Becher’s Brook, on the second leg, two-thirds of the way through, the Clarets hit another snag with Reading inflicting the start of a seven-game winless streak.
Burnley kicked on at Valentine’s Brook, cementing the fightback with three wins in four, but the latest fixture with relegation-threatened Coventry City saw the Clarets lose ground on the division’s elite. Howe conceded: “I’d imagine it’s pretty much all over now. We needed to win all of our games and we haven’t done that, so it’s pretty remote.
“I thought we had, a very difficult summer as everyone knows, we were very late in recruiting our players and it was incredibly frustrating, and I think that probably made for a slow start to the season.”
Regardless of whether Burnley beat the Sky Blues weekend, overturning a six-point gulf with three games remaining was always going to be a demanding feat. However, it was the manner of the stalemate that disappointed most.
Andy Thorn’s side are four points adrift of safety, and they scrapped for their lives at Turf Moor in a bid for survival. City proved to be the thoroughbred, pinning the Clarets back with their agility, speed and spirit. Thorn had opted to embellish his struggling starting XI with bountiful attacking options.
And it paid off early on; City’s aggression ousting Burnley’s uncharacteristically timorous behaviour. Alex Nimely fired the first warning shot, averting the attentions of Dean Marney before slicing his ambitious effort high and wide. Marney briefly interrupted the visitor’s momentum, dragging his shot wide of Joe Murphy’s post from Charlie Austin’s knock down.
Burnley-born Oliver Norwood, a Clarets season ticket holder, drilled an effort in to the arms of Lee Grant once Sammy Clingan’s set-piece was cleared and, when it seemed City had breached Burnley’s resolve, Kieran Trippier was on hand to hook Richard Keogh’s header off the line.
It wasn’t the start anybody had anticipated, but Coventry continued to restrict the Clarets space, allowing limited room for manouvre or invention, and forcing error. Nimely almost broke the deadlock after dancing in and out of three defenders, after Chris Hussey and Gary McSheffrey penetrated the left flank, but Grant palmed the ball to safety low to his right.
Then, to mark City’s dominance in the opening quarter-of-an-hour, Grant instinctively denied the Manchester City loan striker at his near post, as he was allowed time to turn and shoot inside the area.
“It was never going to be an easy game, a side fighting for their lives and they really needed to win the game so it made it quite open,” said Howe.
“But from our point of view we never got to grips with it, we never bossed it like we felt we should. We didn’t put enough balls into their box, all the things you need to do to win games. Today I don’t think we really got going.”
But it only takes that one moment of quality for things to change. Marney and Junior Stanislas orchestrated the move, working space in midfield, and as play swept across to Wallace on the left the makeshift full-back, with the aid of Marney’s decoy run, cut inside Jordon Clarke and whipped in a precise, inswinging centre for Austin, who craned his neck, to head in to the top corner.
One almost became two with the aid of a well-worked, and practised, training ground corner routine; David Edgar obliged with the step-over, Danny Ings struck right-footed but Martin Cranie blocked the effort. Moments later Murphy denied the teenager a spectacular solo goal after the striker crept in-between Richard Keogh and Norwood on the edge of the box and skipped by Clarke to manipulate the opening.
Then in a final flurry to the half, Murphy thwarted Austin from an awkward angle as the striker’s creativity and craft found a route past Cranie and Hussey.
The Clarets continued to make inroads after the interval, though they lacked the necessary bite. Stanislas profited from Murphy’s erratic clearance, but flashed his angled drive inches wide of the far post.
Thorne had seen enough, and in search of a response the Ricoh Arena boss made a triple change; David Bell, Nimely and Clarke replaced by Gael Bigirimana, Clive Platt and Cyrus Christie respectively. Within minutes the tactical transformation was rewarded; Norwood’s whipped cross was met by Platt who headed beyond Grant to level proceedings.
That equaliser would prove to be the 13th point that the Clarets had surrendered from a winning position at Turf Moor, a total that would have bolstered their ambitions for a top six finish. Howe’s men continued to push, though they lacked the industry to get in behind the full-backs until the closing stages.
The visitors were reduced to 10 men when Christie limped off injured, Coventry having used all three substitutes, and it proved difficult to find holes in their rearguard as they piled men behind the ball.
City proved too stubborn to break down, desperate for a point to help their survival hopes, though Ings deserved better when his clipped volley from Josh McQuoid’s centre, after demonstarting the desire to get goal side of his marker, floated just over the bar.
And when Murphy saved Austin’s header on the line in injury time the away side had earned their point.
“It was a scrappy game, we never had control of the game like we wanted,” said Howe. “We didn’t play as well as we have done in recent weeks so that is a disappointment to us. We scored a great goal, probably against the run of play at that stage, a great finish from Charlie, a great ball in by Ross.
“We felt that would give us the platform to kick on but it didn’t really happen.
“We could always do with that second goal. It was a really good time to score because we hadn’t really started in the game, so that was a bit of a bonus for us.
“But we needed to kick on and we didn’t.”
Howe added: “It was only until the last phase of the game when they were down to 10 men when we really kicked on and created a number of chances.
“They put their bodies behind the ball. We had some good chances at the end.
“I think if you reflect back on the game we had the best chances bar the first 10 minutes.”