WHAT a year it’s been at Turf Moor.
Since Eddie Howe’s arrival in mid-January, 13 players have been moved on from Turf Moor, seven have joined, while others have come in and gone out on loan deals.
Players, including Martin Paterson, Charlie Austin, Danny Ings and Brian Jensen, fell to injury, Jay Rodriguez was capped for England Under-21s, and skipper Chris McCann returned from a lengthy absence.
The Clarets flirted with the play-offs in the culmination of last season, work started on improving their Gawthorpe training base in the summer, and a four-game losing streak in November saw Burnley become intimate with the Championship relegation zone. You can even throw in a new chief executive, with American Lee Hoos replacing the departing Paul Fletcher, for good measure.
It’s certainly been an action-packed 2011, but Howe and his side have signed off with a bang. Six wins in seven fixtures, taking in four clean sheets, has rocketed the Clarets to seventh in the table, just three points shy of the top six.
“It’s been a really enjoyable year, I’ve loved every minute of being manager of this football club,” said Howe. “I’m absolutely desperate to bring success here long term, for the supporters who’ve been absolutely brilliant with us since we walked through the door here, and the fantastic people who work for this club. Hopefully, we can carry on the really pleasing way we’ve finished the year.”
He added: “It’s so tight. You look at the league and it’s really congested. A couple of wins can make a world of difference, as it has for us, but a couple of defeats can drag you down again. We’re not getting carried away, but we’re certainly pleased with the run of form that we’re on, and we want to keep it going.”
It was a game of tactics against Hull on Saturday, with both managers testing each other’s mettle, but it was Howe who effectively won the battle of minds. Tigers boss Nick Barmby set his stall out to attack, with pacey wingers Cameron Stewart and Aaron McLean occupying the flanks, Matty Fryatt was the lone striker, while Slovenian playmaker Robert Koren played in the hole.
The visitors enjoyed the majority of possession in the Burnley half, but couldn’t make it count. Lee Grant was equal to Fryatt’s effort in the early stages, while the Clarets keeper fell low to his near post to cover Stewart’s right-footed effort from 20 yards, which whistled wide.
Rodriguez watched his ambitious half-volley loop over the angle in-between Hull’s notable attempts in what proved to be an encounter devoid of any sustained goalmouth action. Tigers keeper Peter Gulacsi even registered a shot on target with a long clearance carried by the wind; Grant having to be at full-stretch to prevent any embarassment.
The Clarets had the ball in the net before Martin Paterson’s 34th-minute opener, as top-scorer Rodriguez stabbed home, only for David Edgar’s flick-on to be judged to have come from an offside position. Soon after, the away side created a superb opening, when Koren slipped the ball inside for full-back Andy Dawson, who squared the ball to the unmarked Jack Hobbs. However, the Tigers captain passed the ball inches wide of the far post.
That prompted the change from Howe; Rodriguez dropping deeper to add further resilience to the midfield. And the goal came within a minute of the transformation. Grant’s clearance was allowed to bounce on the edge of the opposite box, Hobbs and Gulacsi failed to communicate and, as a result, the defender forced the ball over his team-mate’s head, allowing Paterson to sweep the ball in to an empty net.
“We had chances second half on the counter attack but we had to dig in today,” said Howe. “It was a great win. We started 4-4-2 because we really wanted to take the game to Hull, we knew how they’d set up. We wanted to try to be positive, but they controlled the early parts of the game, so we had to change the system. I felt we had to do that, because they were causing us a problem, with Koren in the hole. I thought once we changed it we got a grip of the game. We scored pretty soon after that change, and I felt from that moment we were a bit more solid.”
In the final stages of the half, Corry Evans showed great footwork to work some space in the centre of the park, before advancing towards the edge of the area, where he slotted the ball into the path of McLean, who fizzed an effort across the face of goal.
The second half started as the first had ended. Stewart’s reverse pass freed Dawson down the left, the full-back’s centre reached Koren, who side-footed an attempt wide of the post. Once again Howe was punctual with his change – Marvin Bartley replacing Keith Treacy.
The Clarets were now in control, though Hull were able to demonstrate their profligacy once more, when Koren lifted McLean’s centre into the Cricket Field Stand, when well-positioned at the back post.
It should have been game over when Ross Wallace played Paterson one-on-one with Adriano Basso, who replaced the injured Gulacsi at the end of the first half, but the substitute keeper did well to narrow the angle and save to his left.
And into time added on, Rodriguez swung at another pinpoint Wallace pass, when the 12-goal striker had time to take a touch and pick his spot. The home supporters’ nerves were frayed when David Edgar’s header almost floated into his own net, but the Clarets clung on to claim a third win and third clean sheet in four home games.
“It was a tough game, Hull are as good a side as we’ve played this year in both games,” Howe said. “I think they are a terrific side, and it was a real battle today. The lads really dug in, defended really well, even with a change in the back four (with Michael Duff’s injury), and I’m really pleased with that.”
He added: “It was a little bit nervy at the end. From my side we have had 1-0 scorelines previously this season at home and we’ve squandered them. This time at 1-0 we kept our nerve, and we saw the game out really well. That’s a huge positive, because if we can move forward like that we’ll grow in confidence and we’ll be a better side.
“The clean sheets please me more than anything. The whole team has worked incredibly hard to improve all that, because we knew that was our Achilles heel. We’re still progressing, and we’ve still got improvements to make, but I feel like we’re getting somewhere.”
At the end of the 1999/2000 promotion season, Stan Ternent guided the Clarets to seven wins from eight and seven victories from nine, stretching from October to December 2001. And Howe bettered that statistic at the start of the 2009/10 season at Bournemouth, setting a club record eight wins from nine encounters. With 10 minutes remaining at the KC Stadium just over a month ago, the odds would have been stacked against Howe repeating that feat. But he credits his settled side, and the continual evolution and growth in understanding between his squad for the recent success.
“I think we are seeing a more settled side,” he said. “I feel we’ve still got more improvement in us. I’m delighted with the squad that we have, and competition for places now with the bench looking very strong. There’s tough decisions to leave players out of the squad as well, which is what we’ve been crying out for all season. It is a more settled team, and that can only help.
“We look a more ruthless side now, defensively more than anything.
“We’ve still got very good attacking players, and at times today when we did get it right we did look like a really potent attacking threat. We do look more solid, and that’s the pleasing thing.”