BURNLEY 0 MANCHESTER UNITED 2
Manchester United hadn’t lost for months in a run of more than 20 unbeaten games. Mourhino’s tactics had stifled Chelsea and seen them off 2-0 so that Chelsea were no longer runaway leaders. The biggest club in the world were in Burnley; their home at Old Trafford a mecca for foreign fans on package tours; all the skips, staff and equipment they brought, enough to fill two dressing rooms. Yep, the circus and Mourhino was back in town.
Meanwhile: Mother Theresa had called a snap general election. It was the welfare cruelty and heartlessness of the Tories versus the economic and internal chaos of Labour. It was Theresa May (a sort of genteel Erdogan) and Boris, versus Jeremy Corbyn (a sort of quiet version of Jerry Lewis) and Diane Abbott. Corbyn and Abbott had a nice ring to it, like Morecambe and Wise, Cannon and Ball or Flanagan and Allen. We’d chuckled at the choice the Americans faced with Trump versus Clinton. But now it was our turn to choose between the lesser of two evils, May versus Corbyn. And that was even before you factored Brexit into the equation. Plenty of folk were wondering if the world would actually get to June 8. And: if Burnley had survived for another season in the Prem it would be just their luck if Trump did indeed press the destruct button.
In two previous Premier visits Man U hadn’t managed to score at Turf Moor, the first occasion in 2009 being a night to remember that none of us there will ever forget thanks to Robbie Blake’s thunderbolt volley. The second game was a bit of a let-down, a not particularly thrilling 0-0 draw, with the one memorable incident when Angel di Maria was given a touchline clattering that lifted him three feet in the air and turned the clock back to the 50s, when wingers were kicked out of the game as a matter of course by the likes of Harold Matther and Arthur Woodruff.
The game at Old Trafford this season was another 0-0 thanks to a superhuman display by Tom Heaton where he pulled off what must surely have been the save of the season. It was disappointing to see that he was not a nomination for the players’ player of the season having made more saves than any other keeper, well into three figures. Of Burnley’s 36 points at the start of the Sunday game, you could argue that a significant percentage of those points were solely down to him. His value was therefore undisputed but goalkeepers rarely become galacticos.
There used to be a story about an overseas goalkeeper called Fokine. By all accounts he was not very good at all and after one game there was the inevitable headline: ‘More Fokine rubbish.’
One of the greatest goalkeepers of all time was Bert Trautmann who signed for Manchester City in 1949. Formerly a German prisoner of war, a paratrooper in the Luftwaffe, served in Russia, and then staying in England on his release as a prisoner, played for St Helens Town. Burnley had expected to sign him but City got there first when they went to his lodgings one evening, stealing a march on Burnley who had arranged to see him in Burnley on the following Saturday. Trautmann’s ‘adviser’ and friend Jack Friar was not there. In the heaps of old 1950s football books down in the cellar I found a tiny, battered paperback that had the story.
Burnley had even arranged for Ministry of Labour representatives to be present at the interview that was planned as Trautmann as an ‘alien’ would need a job as well. Burnley did everything possible for him and fully expected to sign him. Burnley’s vice chairman, George Tate wrote to him afterwards, hugely disappointed, but these were courteous times and the letter sent to him was restrained and polite, a far cry from what might have been said angrily via the press in today’s climate.
I feel you would have been highly satisfied with all we had done and the good prospects for yourself. I had also arranged for the financial aspect for the St Helens club, yourself and all concerned, in the best possible terms. In addition, if so desired, I had arranged to provide a goalkeeper for St Helens. Whatever City have done for you, we could have done better if you had given us a chance, and I honestly feel that had you come on Saturday you would have been very pleased and satisfied. And there would not have been any unpleasant publicity. I was relying on the assurance that you would not do anything except through Mr Friar, or believe me I should have come over again last night.
However, we’ve ‘had it’ as they say but the invitation to come over here on Saturday, or at any future date, is still extended to you. With best wishes for the future etc etc…
The reference to ‘unpleasant publicity’ was based on possible reactions to the club signing an ex-Nazi paratrooper. This was still only 1949 and the evidence of war was still visible and tangible. Bitterness and hatred of Germany was still intense. As politely as possible, Tate suggested that it was not too late for Trautmann to change his mind, Tate probably mindful that subterfuge had already taken place. Trautmann’s guide, Jack Friar, had been decoyed to a meeting at the Kingsway Hotel in Manchester to meet City officials but no-one turned up. Friar sat there waiting until nearly 9 o’ clock but meanwhile the City manager and a director arrived at Trautmann’s home and literally wore him down so that he eventually signed for them a little before midnight. Skulduggery in football is nothing new.
Man U along with Everton and Chelsea had all been linked with Michael Keane with Everton currently making the loudest noises. Sean Dyche seemed none too pleased with all the public statements being made about Burnley players and after the Everton game it was apparent that the Keane/Mee partnership and its dependability and strength had been well noticed. Keane might have been the focus of attention, but it was Mee that took the honours, colossus one description of him.
But Dyche, clearly referring to Koemans and Everton, made his feelings clear that when other managers complimented his players or made it clear they were looking at them, it was almost recruitment by stealth, and this was yet more pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable. Yes, it was a compliment but it was the bigger, more financially powerful clubs that were the ones that were involved.
Manchester United had played just days before, a Europa League game against Anderlecht. The ideal scenario for Burnley was the game going into extra time and a few injuries that knocked their players out of the Burnley game. The game indeed went into extra time producing a United win and Ibrahimovic and Roja went off injured. Mourhino had been long faced before the game moaning that it was not possible to play his best players in all the games coming up but that as long as they were in the Europa competition and fighting for a top four place he could not play weakened teams. One could almost have felt sorry for him but then you remembered this was the sourest man in football speaking. Within days they had a Thursday game against City in the Manchester derby.
Meanwhile if it was good news for Burnley that Ibrahimovic was out, it was not particularly good to hear that Marcus Rashford was back in top form having scored in three of his last four games after a barren spell that began in September. Mourhino had been recently critical of him (most Man U players had been singled out by him at one stage or another). Much as we wished for a few Man U injuries none of us, however, wanted the bad news that Ibrahimovic suffered cruciate ligament damage and would be out for months. There were stories that he might even decide to retire.
Meanwhile, the day before the game there were only four Premier games but they involved Hull, Swansea, Middlesbrough and Bournemouth. If we thought and hoped that Burnley’s favourable position might be cemented, how wrong could we be? Middlesbrough were clattered 4-0 but they were so far behind anyway it was an almost inconsequential result; but Hull and Swansea both won to take 10-man Hull within three points of Burnley and Swansea within five. However, no need yet to panic Captain Mainwaring. The Swansea result could so easily have been 1-1 but Stoke missed a penalty. This was not Burnley’s day.
Mourhino was still whining about losing players and other players being tired, but Dyche, unfooled, quickly put it in perspective; they have so many good ones anyway and several who can step in and play in various parts of the field. The night before the game the team checked in at the Lowry Hotel in Salford with increased security, extra police and sniffer dogs checking for explosives. The blurb says it’s where things happen for the ‘modern, indulgence generation’ and this is where luxury meets style and vibrancy along with seductive northern fun. The latter in Burnley is a pie and a pint in the Miners. The whole image of the Lowry is elegance and class. Pogba sauntered in, in a hoodie, although no doubt it was top of the range, definitely not from George at Asda. For the Burnley game he elected to go with a sort of mute gingerbread hair tint.
April 23: St George’s Day and thought to be the birthday of William Shakespeare. The heart said a George Boyd winner on his name day, the head said more likely to be a Man U win. Unfortunately it was a game where George had left his sword at home. It was re-union time with United for Keane, Heaton and Robbie Brady. Ben Mee’s family was littered with City fans desperate for Burnley to win, but some of his cousins would be in the United end. Sadly for Ben (and for us) it was a comfortable United win and he was withdrawn at half-time injured.
They could have been two up in the first ten minutes following a weak Rooney shot that possibly Mee got in the way of and a Fellaini rocket header from a corner. They settled for being two up at half-time, both giveaway goals that could have been prevented, the first when Martial burst through from his own half, shrugged off a despairing Barton; should have brought him down and taken the yellow said one of the Nevilles in the pundit role, a view spoken simultaneously by the normally virtuous Mrs T who in her other life as a football expert knows exactly what should be done in situations like this when a player is breaking away. If you were a betting man you’d have backed Martial. Time and age was visibly catching up with Joey as Martial duly won the sprint.
‘We have to make a foul on that one,’ said Dyche. In other words bring the buggar down.
The second was sort of scored by Rooney, sort of because it seemed to be a shot that bobbled between Keane’s legs after involving a half-save from Martial somewhere along the route. We sighed, shrugged, moaned and groaned. It was as good as game over. From that point United kindly allowed Burnley to come into the game in the second half as they strolled around at an almost leisurely pace, whereupon Burnley huffed and puffed but were unable to blow the Man U house down, such was the ease with which they were swatted away. Too often the ball was hoofed up front from the back four, particularly Keane, or whacked up by Heaton, Barnes grappled manfully but little came from this tactic. Only when the ball was played to Gray’s feet or in a way that he could latch onto it, was there any real threat. Meanwhile, United passed and stroked the ball around neatly with technical skill, great first touch and tactical superiority.
‘Huff and puff,’ were in fact Dyche’s description of Burnley’s attempts to compete against this.
And yet, there, sat on the Burnley bench was the most technically gifted player the club has, scorer of two of the best goals seen at Turf Moor, possessing the vision to see an instant pass, create an opening, ping a ball long or short, but not seemingly in the Dyche mould. It cried out for him to be brought on at half-time to provide that bit of class, to provide that bit of the unexpected and flash of creativity. Where we sat, the talk was of what was there to lose, and if you’re not going to use him, why have him on the bench in the first place?
In truth, Burnley were outplayed, out passed, outskilled, outclassed in fact by a side that never really had to get into second gear with Fellaini dominant and Bailly outstanding. It was a game where Burnley failed to get one single shot on target. Many folks were hugely critical coming down the stairs afterwards or on the websites.
But should they be?
‘You can’t always get above where you are,’ Dyche explained as if anticipating criticism. In other words we are what we are, have got as far as we can, and have reached a level, the irony of course being that Burnley were now sliding down from where they were.
‘The current crisis club, slowly sliding down the division’, one website described Burnley with just one win in 11 now and teams below slowly getting them within range. Four games remained after this one. Swansea only needed to win two of them to put Burnley in the bottom three if this poor run were to continue. On the other hand just one win or a couple more draws would see Burnley home. A point or more from the Man U game would have been a bonus. Probably nobody really expected a win.
36 points at one stage was seen as a probable survival total; maybe now it was 38. But survival was still in Burnley’s own hands with winnable points in the final four.