By Dave Thomas
March 6 2017
SWANSEA 3 BURNLEY 2 Coast to coast and back again, criss crossing the UK, the first of the four away games successfully out of the way, Burnley having gained another inch on the way to safety;
East to Hull, back West to Swansea, up the coast to Liverpool and then east again to Sunderland. None of them strictly speaking bucket and spade seaside places; all of them remnants of Britain’s industrial might and sea-going prosperity but now re-invented, and little Burnley (though some would say not little any more) knocking on their doors.
Swansea: where both Leighton James and Brian Flynn once plied their trade, two of Burnley’s greatest players. I can still see Brian Flynn’s debut game, hazy about when and who it was against, but the images of what he did in that game imprinted vividly. It was a stunning debut from a pint-sized kid who sprayed passes around, long and short, ran the midfield, scurried here and there, and slotted into the team as if he’d been there years. A few of us were there together; Mrs T of course, Joe McNamara was another, Terry Kershaw and Brian Hughes. We kept looking at each open mouthed as this precociously talented, pint-sized kid showed no nerves, hesitancy or shyness. He served Burnley well: former director Derek Gill in his diaries describes him as a joy to deal with when it came to contract time when he returned to Burnley, and groundsman Roy Oldfield had a nice little tale.
In his early days when Brian had no money and players weren’t showered with free boots by the bucket load by the manufacturers as they are now, Brian was keen to get a pair of Adidas boots, the ones with the three stripes. Roy took it upon himself to solve this situation and took a pair of small, old black boots and painted three stripes down the side of each boot and then presented the boots to Brian. Roy still chuckles about it and when working on Roy’s book of the old groundsman days, Brian came down and met up with him again. And yes they laughed about the home-made Adidas boots as we photographed them both on the old brown bench that Paul Bradshaw found, the one that we feel sure is the very same one that Roy sat on all those years ago, just to the side of the player’s tunnel.
Paul Fletcher tells the tale of a sea cruise aboard the QE2. Bob Lord had needed an operation on his ears and was told he must not fly again. On the boat, Brian was a big part in a typical Fletcher prank. Brian was shoved into a big laundry basket, one of those that were wheeled from room to room to collect the bedding, and Brian was festooned in a white sheet. In went Brian and he was told that they’d leave the basket outside Jim Thomson’s room. They’d knock on the door, Jim would open it; Brian would leap out in the white sheet making a hullabaloo and scare the living daylights out of Thommo.
Except, deliberately, without telling Brian, they didn’t leave it outside Jim Thomson’s room, they chose a room at random without telling Brian, knocked on the door, and hid where they could see the result. The door opened, Brian leapt out with a huge BOOOO as loud as he could, worthy of an Oscar, but was then horrified to learn that it was an elderly couple that came to the door to see who it was. Fletch insists that the woman shrieked, her teeth fell out and the husband’s toupee lifted up 6 inches above his head.
‘They were both white as Brian’s sheet,’ said Fletcher. ‘And we thought they were both about to have a heart attack. It was not a stunt we ever repeated.’
If we thought Liverpool would win at Leicester and leave them in the bottom three we were sadly frustrated. Leicester put on a performance to rival anything they had produced under Ranieri. Probably all of football was disappointed after the weekend events and the sacking of Ranieri. The conspiracy tales were rampant that the players were the instigators of the sacking having had talks with the owners and their representatives. The leading and most trusted reporters were adamant that this was in fact what had happened with certainly four Leicester players involved immediately after the game in Spain. True or not, their performances for him in the weeks preceding had been abysmal. Of course they distanced themselves from the accusations and then went on to produce a master-show against Liverpool using the predictable footballism, ‘we needed to produce a performance.’
The word ‘stink’ was used by some of the media, Carragher, Lineker were scathing. Be that as it may, the upshot was Leicester caught up three points on Burnley and we were now beginning to get out our calculators and slide rules to try and figure out all the possible combinations and results that would ensure Burnley’s safety.
But: ‘Who needs Ranieri’ was one headline, illustrating with crass insensitivity the heartlessness and immediacy of football; one result and Ranners was yesterday’s man. The King is dead; long live the king, and all that stuff; the acting manager a guy called Shakespeare. The irony of that you couldn’t make up. Nobody wrote finer stuff about plots, murder and intrigue.
Back on Planet Burnley, two wins or three we wondered, or maybe just six draws. Would 36 points be enough or perhaps a couple more? 40 would be the definite magic safety line. Nine points from 12 games; that seemed achievable. Plus: we could rightly assume that all the bottom eight teams would take points off each other and after the Swansea game Burnley still had four games to play against teams below them. Déjà vu: we’d done this a year earlier when the last ten games of the season approached, except then it was to work out how many points were needed for promotion. Back then, counsellors and Samaritans were working overtime. Sales of tranquillisers had doubled. Sleep wasn’t easy. Visits to the doctor for prescriptions had increased.
We could only assume that the Swansea game would be Joey Barton’s final game in a Burnley shirt this season. With 12 games remaining, even a ten game ban would leave him only two games, but the enormity of his betting activities made even a life ban possible. Hull was his 50th appearance in all competitions including sub appearances. Astonishingly he had only been on the losing side just four times. Since his book was published you could add a huge new chapter on his time at Rangers and the return to Burnley. I still wonder if he realised very early that he had made a mistake going up there. In the pre-season friendly against Burnley at Ibrox, he seemed quite disinterested and lethargic in that game. Anything less than a ten-game ban would probably astonish us all.
Immediately after the Leicester win, the Swansea press were lauding the game against Burnley and labelling it a ‘must win’ game. Leicester had leapfrogged Swansea in the table. A Swansea home defeat to Burnley would land them right back in it. The Swansea manager was urging the crowd to be the twelfth man. The South Wales media were relishing pointing out that recent stats made this a home banker. Leighton James who played for both sides, expressed surprise that it was Burnley with so many points above Swansea, and not the other way round.
Most Burnley fans would simply settle for a point and see it as another vital step towards the end of May. For Burnley, Hendrick was available again following his three-game absence. Barnes was of course suspended but coming up on the rails was 19-year old Daniel Agyei currently impressing everyone at the club with his pace and power. It was at this age that Jay Rodriguez was already seeing first-team action.
‘Hammering down with rain and high winds,’ was the gist of messages that were appearing on twitter and Facebook as people drove down to Swansea. ‘Skies are grey, it smells of sheep and even the trees are depressed. ‘
And so were most Burnley fans on the way home, especially those whose coach broke down before they even set off home. This by all accounts was a poor performance all-round, the only positives being Keane and Mee, plus Andre Gray’s two goals. Heaton was missing with an illness so that Robinson deputised.
‘Managed to make Swansea look like Bayern Munich,’ was one comment. ‘Being Welsh, their fans moan at everything but sing beautifully.’ ‘About as pleasant to watch as chewing nettles,’ was another.
In short, Burnley were outplayed and outpaced with cross after cross coming over and little done to stop them. Yet somehow Burnley had managed to take a 2-1 lead thanks to a fine Andre Gray bit of skill just inside the box and for a while there was the improbable hope that this might be the first elusive away win. But it was not to be, Swansea were just too good leaving us all wondering just how did they manage to spend so long in the bottom three, the previous duff manager being the only possible answer. The new one, Clements had re-vitalised them.
The two main talking points centred round two of the goals. Burnley had equalised via a bizarre referee’s decision when he awarded a penalty thinking that it was a Swansea player that had handled when in fact it was Vokes. With the benefit of replays it was clear as day but if the referee was unsighted then it was the only explanation. There was some thought at first that it was the player behind Vokes mauling him as they both went up, but the eventual consensus was it was awarded for the handball.
‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth,’ the old saying goes. Apparently it harks back to the olde days when the gift of a horse was a fine token of friendship. It was therefore thoroughly rude and ill-mannered to look in its mouth to examine its teeth, not just to see if it needed the dentist, but to gauge the horses age. In Greece it was the humble donkey not the horse. Gray duly accepted the gift, smacked the penalty home resisting the temptation to check the goalkeeper’s teeth. 1-1 then, Swansea glum and Burnley well thrilled; even more so when in they took the lead, the first time this season that this had happened, taking the lead in an away game.
The pundits in the TV studies were stunned, so were we, could this be happening, was this the game to break the mould? Alas no, the inevitable equaliser came. But 2-2 and the game neared its conclusion. At home, hiding behind the settee counting the minutes, it looked as though another point was heading Burnley’s way but Llorente – and the referee - had other ideas. How close it was to 3-1 for Burnley however, when Gray put a great low ball across the box and Vokes was just a big toe away from poking it home. A fraction quicker and it would have been slotted home. Alas, for all his attributes, pace is not one of them.
Into injury time, yet another deep cross, up went Mee and Llorente, Mee went flying, both Llorente’s hands and arms in his back. Such was the force of the shove that Mee almost came out the TV screen and landed on my lap. No shove will ever be so clear but Llorente buried the ball in the back of the net with just two minutes remaining. Cruel does not do it justice.
‘Two wrongs make a right,’ or ‘two wrongs do not make a right.’ Philosophers have pondered for centuries over which is right. All it left us wondering was did the referee grab the opportunity to make right his wrong decision to award the penalty. No-one could argue that overall Swansea deserved the win, and that had Burnley taken a point home the word ‘nicked’ would have been well accurate. Nicked or not, it would have been gratefully accepted. As it turned out, referee Anthony Taylor, made sure that two wrongs did indeed make a right. But, was he still a bit fuzzy-headed, following his three-day stag bash in Marbella?
Now it was no wins in five since January and the defeat of Leicester. Burnley still nine points clear and Middlesbrough in the bottom three along with Sunderland, and two away games to come against the both of them. But: there was good news. Someone had done the maths and calculated that the current bottom three, if they accumulated points at their current rate, would not reach 31 points. Ipso facto, according to the boffins, Burnley were already safe. It was a comforting thought.
Still no away win and Liverpool next, we grimaced, rampant when they feel like it, but shreddable on bad days as they were at Leicester. Would the first away win come at Anfield then? Why not; if Lincoln could win at Turf Moor, then anything might happen in this sometimes weird and whacky game. Who would ever have thought that you could be awarded a penalty for handling the ball yourself; or score a goal by pushing an opponent half way to outer space?
Jimmy Greaves was right. It is indeed a funny old game.