PHOTOS: Leeds United 1, Burnley FC 0
BURNLEY were the last footballing visitors to Elland Road this season – with Rod Stewart the next attraction in June as part of his European tour.
And, like one of his hits, he may well perform on the night, for the Clarets It’s All Over Now.
Any play-off ambitions were finally extinguished in the penultimate game of the season by Leeds, who were more aggressive and hungry.
Ross McCormack administered the last rites on a frustrating campaign, and at the whistle, thoughts immediately turned to next season, and what has to be done to turn the squad into one capable of challenging for promotion.
Chairman Barry Kilby said in December that not making the play-offs this season would represent failure, and within a month he decided to part company with Brian Laws.
Burnley dropped out of the top six in November after defeat at Coventry, and they would not return, despite some encouraging signs under new boss Eddie Howe.
Howe would finally inspire back-to-back wins for the first time since August 2009, and vastly improve a miserable away record – while the recent performances against Middlesbrough and Derby proved what this group of players are capable of.
However, that sort of showing has been few and far between, and it is clear surgery is necessary to elevate the Clarets into contenders.
Howe will welcome back Charlie Austin – who started only two games after his £1.2m move from Swindon before dislocating his shoulder, while Martin Paterson and Chris McCann, although fit again now, will be stronger still.
But it is clear there will have to be some wheeling and dealing to do if Howe is to improve the squad, with the vast majority of players still under contract, and the parachute payments dropping by £3m.
Howe said: “I don’t think there’s a massive overhaul needed, but I think we need to tweak things and I’m quite prepared to do that.
“I think we need some fresh blood as well, some new players, so we’ll hopefully make the right decisions and come back a better team.”
Howe will have his ideas on the path forward, but defeat at Elland Road underlined what is required.
Burnley struggled to cope with Leeds’ tempo and workrate, as they gave the Clarets no time in possession and forced errors – time and again the hosts won the ball in Burnley’s half and penned them in. Leeds’ physical threat also caused problems, unsettling Howe’s men.
They created a couple of early half-chances, with McCormack’s attempted chip easily saved by Brian Jensen, before Billy Paynter dragged his shot wide after the elusive Max Gradel drove at the Clarets’ defence. Burnley’s forays forward were rare, and on the break at pace, usually inspired by Chris Eagles.
There was a moment of controversy as Chris Iwelumo was denied what looked a blatant penalty after being shoved over in the box from Tyrone Mears’ free-kick, and while the ball ran to Michael Duff, there was minimal advantage as Kasper Schmeichel was right on top of the centre-back and made a great save.
But the pressure continued to build at the other end, and just after the half-hour, Bradley Johnson threaded a pass down the side of Duff, and McCormack, played onside by Andre Bikey, raced through and finished inside the near post.
You hoped for a response from Burnley in the second half after a disappointing showing, but, if anything, Leeds were more dominant in the second half, and but for Jensen would have won more handsomely.
Paynter headed tamely at Jensen from a Johnson cross, before, after a clear foul on McCann wasn’t given, Paynter rounded Jensen, but shot into the side netting.
Burnley’s frustration told on the hour as both Danny Fox and McCann tried to halt Gradel, with McCann’s high boot catching the wide man on the shoulder, sparking a mass brawl. You feared Leeds would tempt the referee into dismissing McCann, but thankfully he received only a yellow, while Eric Lichaj and Neil Kilkenny – who seemed to spend the entire game within earshot of the referee – were also booked. Kilkenny, in particular, was a lucky boy – twice raising his hands at McCann.
From the resulting free-kick, Jensen made a great save from Paynter’s header, before denying McCormack at full stretch as the ball arrowed towards the corner.
The chances kept coming for Leeds, however, as Jensen saved from Jonny Howson, before Gradel sliced the rebound. Jensen then beat away a Kilkenny free-kick, and McCormack fired wide.
At the death, substitute Ross Wallace’s free-kick was superbly tipped over by Schmeichel, but from the corner, Leeds broke as Cork, now playing at centre-back after Michael Duff suffered a hamstring injury, was robbed by Sanchez Watt, who cut inside and fired over the angle.
The final whistle put Burnley out of their misery, and while there will be a welcome break for the players after Saturday’s final game, for some next season can’t come quickly enough.