By Dave Thomas
March 20 2017
SUNDERLAND 0 BURNLEY 0 The run of away games had seen just one point so far. The very healthy gap between Burnley and the bottom three had been closed to 7 points with Hull enjoying a definite renaissance.
Burnley hadn’t won since the end of January and the 1-0 win over Leicester City. The texts had been arriving from slightly worried chums. The glass half full was ever so slightly tipping to glass half empty.
‘Yes we’ll be alright,’ we assured ourselves, ‘surely we won’t mess this up – will we?’ But this little bit of uncertainty was just starting to niggle.
It is the lot of being a football supporter. There is no cure for anxiety. If you are a player you can be in the training ground all week, working, building up confidence, knowing you have a say and direct input into your own fate, through your own effort and sweat. Uncertainty is a banned word, doubt is forbidden, the sports psychologists tell you to believe. You go out on the field for the next game, shoulders back, chest puffed out, filled with confidence. But: the supporter can only wonder, fret, he has absolutely no input other than trying to be that mythical twelfth man on matchday. He can only keep his fingers crossed, hope for the best or that little bit of luck and good fortune that can decide a result.
Sunderland was next up, a game that could make a massive difference with an elusive first away win.
One of the most memorable Burnley games at Sunderland was in November of ’65. Harry Potts had fashioned another great team with the likes of Willie Morgan, Ralph Coates, Brian O’ Neil, Gordon Harris, and of course up front were Lochhead and Irvine. By the end of September they were top of Division One. Some of the football was outstanding. Their play was fast, frenetic, constantly moving, O’ Neil was like a genie let out of the bottle. They mixed football with power and had players who could mix it as well as play against any team that wanted a bit of the rough stuff. Lochhead and Irvine were like good cop bad cop with the former one of the hardest players ever to tread a football field.
‘Set to go places,’ was Frank Clough’s prediction in the Sun.
In early November they had regained the top position with Irvine and Lochhead having claimed 23 of the 36 goals scored. And then came one of the performances of the season at Sunderland that had every reporter dipping into their stock of superlatives. It was a performance that ranks up there with Burnley’s greatest on a day when they were just untouchable; a game that Ralph Coates never forgot. After the game he was taken to the Sunderland boardroom and the Sunderland chairman demanded to know, ‘Why did we never sign this player. How did we miss him?’
Sports writers predicted that Burnley could well win the title that season as brilliant passing and movement plus individual virtuoso performances had Sunderland bewitched, bothered and bewildered. The greatest compliment was that this was a side equal to, if not better than the McIlroy Adamson side. The side at Sunderland had cost just £110 in signing on fees and was described as a team without weakness. There was constant press coverage as Burnley hit the limelight and Potts was asked over and again, ‘what was the secret.’
‘There isn’t one,’ he answered. ‘We have players of outstanding ability. They have come through together, they know what is wanted of them and they give it.’
The wins piled up but it was not to last. A run of six games early in ’66 was a turning point as other teams caught them. In the final 11 games there were 8 wins but it was too late with too much ground to catch up. One of those defeats was in a turbulent game against Don Revie’s Leeds United in a period when Leeds were establishing their unpalatable reputation. All these years later and they are still called ‘dirty Leeds’ thanks to their antics of the 60s and 70s.
Their strategy was to win at all costs and to adopt any tactic. They took bullying, intimidation and gamesmanship to new depths of cynicism. Pitch that against a team like Burnley with players like Angus, Lochhead, Harris, O’ Neil and Blacklaw, players that could be as physical as the next man when they needed to; and it was a recipe for disaster. At one point all the players were brought to the centre of the field for a dressing-down by the referee. It was a game watched by Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of El Alamein, Bob Lord’s special guest. He must have thought he was back again in the middle of a WW2 battle. The word ‘brutal’ was inadequate and Leeds won with a most bizarre own-goal. Alex Elder cleared and sliced the ball from somewhere near his own corner flag and it somehow sailed over Blacklaw’s head. A chunk of luck like that, but going our way, would be welcome, we thought, up at Sunderland.
Things began well in the following season, ‘66/67 but then this
‘Instead of building up our lead we proceeded to put the brakes on our commanding enterprise. In the light of what we had done earlier and could so easily have continued, the result from our point of view was ridiculous. It was a punishing reminder of our own folly and must not be ignored in future.’ It was an expression of his simple philosophy. If you score three then keep going and score four and don’t sit back and shut up shop. There were many who took it as a veiled criticism of Adamson as much as the team. Maybe it was in this that the seeds of their eventual estrangement began. Perhaps it was reading that Adamson first decided there isn’t room for both of us here.
The home game against Leeds United was yet another fracas, a brutal encounter reported the next day under the headline ‘Soccer Shame.’ Players’ legs were the targets rather than the ball and by all accounts it was a game even worse than that of the previous season.
‘Why must it always happen when we play Leeds?’ Potts asked and challenged Don Revie to a television debate about the game. ‘They should put their own house in order first,’ Revie retaliated.
‘We can’t be blamed,’ said Potts, ‘We try to play the game constructively. Revie responded by telling Potts he had a team of ‘fairies,’ which seemed an odd thing to say about a team with the likes of Lochhead, O’ Neil and Harris.
Those who headed to the north-east left a town behind that had suffered yet more heavy rain with some areas flooded, as if they hadn’t had enough. Sunderland fans were of the unanimous view that this was a must win game to stand any chance of survival. Burnley fans were thinking surely this must be the best chance of the first away win. A draw was of little use to Sunderland. To Burnley it would be another priceless point and keep their heads well above water. Surely Hull would lose at Everton. Surely Middlesbrough would lose at home to Man United. Alas football often doesn’t quite work that way. Boro had just dispensed with Karanka; there might well be a positive reaction.
Stop Defoe and you stop Sunderland was one topic. If he doesn’t score then who does up there. The worry was that he would be on fire, raring to go, now that he had just been chosen for the England squad at the ripe old age of 34. There’s an argument that there is no such thing as a must-win game, until that is you get to the last game of the season. For this fixture we might have begged to differ or at least have said we must not lose. An unwelcome stat had begun to surface; that Burnley hadn’t won a game since the end of January.
Sunderland where folks drink a beer called Wey Aye: Rupert Booth and assorted London Clarets were drinking ale at the Bridge Hotel, Newcastle. Hugh Burkinshaw messaged he’d just had the best pie ever. Joey Barton had previously won there with QPR, Newcastle and Man City. For the press there were 151 steps to climb to their perch. Mark Lawrenson was predicting a Burnley win. Most pundits were taking Burnley to win. We, meanwhile, were silently wishing they’d keep their predictions to themselves with one stat that was telling. Burnley had a horrible league record on Wearside and hadn’t won since 1972/73.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. What do you get when you have a side that is bottom and can’t score or win, versus a side that doesn’t score many and can’t win away from home? You get 0-0 at full-time and this I suppose was so obvious (after the event of course) that you wonder why you didn’t hot foot it to the nearest bookies and put a couple of grand on the 0-0 result. Maybe a few people did have a smaller wager on that score.
Well: a clean sheet and another golden point it was. Another small step on the painful journey to the end of the season that left Burnley 8 points clear of the bottom three but leaving another necessary result – Middlesbrough to lose, which the following day they duly did. Hull were given a clattering at Everton.
But good point though it was, and there were certainly many folks that were well pleased with that; there were muttered mumblings about the second-half performance.
We won’t have many better chances to win away from home, pretty underwhelming…This wasn’t Liverpool this was Sunderland, disappointing…That second half was pitiful barring minutes 85-90…Shocking away from home… Worst team in the league there for the taking and we nearly lost it…We won’t win away all season but hopefully we won’t need to…Approach play so one-dimensional…We bottled it today no closer to winning away than we were in August…Lack of creativity and it showed…We have one quality playmaker Defour, and he’s sitting on the bench…Saved only by Sunderland’s poor finishing and terrific goalkeeping from Heaton… Are we incapable of a simple through ball to Gray… That was awful against a dire side… feel like I’ve found a quid but lost a fiver…
But there were other positive views: That’s a good point today…We only need not to lose…Clean sheet away from home will do…Point gained…Not unhappy with that… A point on the road is alright…before the game you’d have been happy with a point… A point closer to safety…56% possession and 17 shots… 8 points clear of the bottom three, I’ll take a point there… All I want is to get there, I don’t care if we only finish 17th… We played so well how did we not win that…Only 4 points from 9 games needed and we are twelfth in the Prem… not a great spectacle but I’ll take the point… people are whinging but I’m good with a point…The London Clarets were slowly drinking their way back home…And Hugh Burkinshaw was still drooling over his Chicken Balti with suet pastry pie…
But most people were agreed on one thing, and also puzzled by it; and that was the non-use of Defour who was on the bench but unused. If he was in fact fit to play, surely he was the man to bring on in the second half to capitalise on his touch, skill and his ability to see a pass? If he was unused because he was deemed not fully fit, what was the point of having Defour there?
17 shots but only 3 on target was a telling stat. Total dominance of the first 30 minutes but nothing to show for it was another. By the sounds of things Burnley could easily have scored three but for woeful finishing. Boyd fluffed a golden chance. Barnes inexplicably poked wide from 6 yards. Vokes forced a save from Pickford. Barnes missed the chance to lob Pickford successfully. Hendrick missed a chance that had Phil Thompson on SKY wailing in bewilderment. But the two missed chances that summed up the game were the ones by Jones for Sunderland who with the goal at his mercy headed yards wide; then before that was the Barnes miss early on.
And then the second half was so different. Now it was Burnley off the boil, Sunderland missing chances as torrential rain cascaded down and sea mist crept in. Januzaj was causing problems and only Heaton saved the day in the final minute with another rescue save. It was Moyes’ last chance. The faces of the two managers told their own stories at the final whistle, Dyche smiling, Moyes sombre-faced. For Moyes, anti-climax and disappointment at two points lost and the doors about to swing shut in the Last Chance Saloon; for Dyche the satisfaction of a point gained, the daunting run of away games completed relatively undamaged, and still convinced that ‘the scratch of luck is coming.’ Of the 9 games remaining, 5 would be at home. Surely just one more win would do the job.
Ex-Sunderland manager Peter Reid was there watching. The Sunderland owner Ellis Short was there over from the USA. Hmmm said Sunderland fans and the media, sniffing a conspiracy, coincidence or what? Ellis Short was there with his wife. The wife was seen to be nodding off in the directors’ box. Who could blame her? ‘We’re not the real deal,’ said Dyche. What else could he say? The game was the last to be shown on MOTD. Nobody was surprised.